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Inside Doop: Lack of star power continues to doom Union

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Inside Doop: Lack of star power continues to doom Union

At long last, the Union’s season is coming to an end. Even better, they no longer have to play any games on the road this year.

In their final away match of a disappointing 2017 campaign, the Union let a lead slip away in a 3-2 loss to the Fire, finishing the year with a dismal 1-10-6 road record.

What went wrong? And what can we expect from next week’s regular-season finale at Talen Energy Stadium? Here’s a look in the final Inside Doop of 2017:

Three thoughts about Sunday’s game
1. The Union were once again reminded what star power can do for a team. On Sunday, the Fire’s Nemanja Nikolic put on a show with three goals — his 22nd, 23rd and 24th of the season — to all but wrap up a Golden Boot crown and put on his back a Fire team that was without fellow star Bastian Schweinsteiger. In Philly’s last road game, Atlanta also overcame the loss of star Miguel Almiron to ride Josef Martinez to a big win. That’s what happens when you spend a lot of money: you have a stable of difference-makers and their presence trickles down to the rest of the club. The Union, simply, don’t have anything close to that — one of the big reasons why they can’t play well for 90 minutes on the road and why they’ll be missing the playoffs for the sixth time in the franchise’s eight-year history.

2. The closest thing the Union do have to a true star, apart from goalie Andre Blake, is the midfield combo of Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. And both overcame their recent heartbreak of missing out on the World Cup (Bedoya with the U.S., Medunjnanin with Bosnia and Herzegovina) to put in strong shifts. Medunjanin’s pass to set up Bedoya’s second goal of the season was a thing of beauty — and marked his 11th assist of the season. Say what you want about the Union, but those two are consummate pros and locker room leaders who will do everything in their power to get this thing turned around in 2018.

3. Sadly for the Union, one of their best stories of the season — Jack Elliott — had a night to forget. The rookie center back, who went from fourth-round draft pick to Rookie of the Year contender, lost track of a long ball on the Fire’s first goal and then committed a penalty to set up Nikolic’s second goal. Elliott will still be an important piece heading into 2018, but it’s important to remember that he’s no sure thing, especially after seeing what happened to Keegan Rosenberry and Josh Yaro in their second seasons. Meanwhile, Richie Marquez continued his late-season revival with one of his better games of the year. Raise your hand if you have any kind of handle on the team’s center back situation right now.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. Home finales are usually special no matter how a season turns out but it’s hard to figure what kind of crowd and reception there will be when the Union take on Orlando next Sunday (4 p.m., 6ABC). This has been a trying season for Union fans who watched their team fail to build on any kind of momentum from last year’s playoff berth while lowly teams like Chicago or expansion teams like Atlanta (for the reasons listed above them) skyrocketed past them. At the same time, the Union have been mostly fun to watch at home, where they’ve set a franchise record with nine wins. The chance to go for a 10th victory and have C.J. Sapong break the single-season scoring record could be a couple reasons that people will flock to the stadium — that, and the realization that there will be no more soccer there until March.

2. Another big reason to come to Talen Energy Stadium is to see Kaka, the Brazilian legend who will play his last game in MLS. Who will play their last game for the Union? It’s hard to say for sure but Roland Alberg, Ilsinho, Chris Pontius and Brian Carroll are decent bets as an offseason potentially filled with turnover looms.

3. How will head coach Jim Curtin construct the lineup? He doesn’t like to switch things too much, but fans may be clamoring for young guys like Derrick Jones and Adam Najem while Curtin may want to give something of a send-off to Carroll or Charlie Davies, well-known veterans who have hardly played this year. And what about Maurice Edu? He hasn’t played in more than two years — but will a player who led the Union to back-to-back U.S. Open Cup finals in 2014 and 2015 get to say goodbye to fans in some way?

Stat of the week
Even after Bedoya’s goal Sunday, the Union’s four highest-paid players — Bedoya, Edu, Ilsinho and Jay Simpson — have combined for only seven goals this season.

Quote of the week
"It was definitely nostalgic to come back and play at Toyota Park. When I was younger in the U-16s and the U-18s, I played a lot here when I was with the academy. It was good to come back on the professional side and be able to play on the same field I play it on when I was younger." — Union rookie Marcus Epps

Player of the week
Bedoya scored a very nice goal, made a couple of perfectly timed tackles and generally looked sharp in his first game back from the USMNT’s World Cup qualifying failure. Maybe he should’ve played in Trinidad, huh?

Forgotten Marcus Epps makes most of rare opportunity in Union win

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Forgotten Marcus Epps makes most of rare opportunity in Union win

CHESTER, Pa. — He isn't the big-money, veteran scorer the Union expected to lead them out of their offensive rut, but 23-year-old Marcus Epps was exactly what the Union needed Saturday night.

"It's definitely a process," said Epps, who had a goal and two assists in the Union's 4-1 win over Real Salt Lake at Talen Energy Stadium. "You've just gotta keep your head down and keep working. And when you get moments like this, you've just gotta capitalize."

The second-year winger did just that. Epps buried the Union's opening goal off a Fafa Picault pass, then added a pair of secondary assists for good measure. For a team that managed only eight goals in the 10 matches leading up to Saturday, Epps was a difference-maker.

"We see quality, we see a good kid that wants to get better," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "We get excited when he gets on the ball. You can see how uncomfortable he can make it for defenders. We're incredibly proud of his persistence, his ability to keep going. He learned some big lessons and he's now getting the benefit of scoring big goals in front of a great crowd tonight."

Doubling his career production in one night, Epps, who had two goals and an assist in 22 games entering Saturday, started the season as low as fifth on the depth chart behind David Accam, Ilsinho, Picault and Fabian Herbers. 

Coming off a poor preseason, he didn't make the 18-man roster in the club's first seven games. 

"I knew it would come," Epps said, discussing this opportunity. "The coaching staff, they hold all the wingers in high regard. You can only just work on your game and believe in yourself and believe the chances are gonna come."

Picked 25th in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, Epps earned his first start of the season last week in the form of a 75-minute, 2-0 win over the Montreal Impact. It was a roster rotation move for the Union, who were at the tail end of a three-game road swing. But against RSL, the coaches put faith in the youngster, starting him over Accam. 

"We had a long debate whether to stick with him or go back to David or Ilsinho, more experienced players," Curtin said. "But we believed in the kid, gave him an opportunity and he stepped up." 

Between his secondary assist on Borek Dockal's first-half score or his hold-up play that allowed Ilsinho to tap-in a second-half insurance tally, Epps made an impact at the perfect time for the Union. His teammates took notice. 

"I loved what I saw from him today," Union captain Alejandro Bedoya said. "We talked all year about how we need to push everyone. No one is guaranteed a spot on this team, whether it's me as a captain or [Designated Player] or young guy. Everyone has to fight for a position. He's been knocking on the door all season and today he showed what he's capable of."

Union, Borek Dockal crush Real Salt Lake for 2nd straight win

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Union, Borek Dockal crush Real Salt Lake for 2nd straight win

BOX SCORE 

CHESTER, Pa. — Make it two for the Union. 

With production from Borek Dockal and Marcus Epps, the Union claimed back-to-back wins for the first time this season by easily taking down Real Salt Lake, 4-1, on a foggy Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium. 

Putting together one of their best efforts of the season, the Union move to 4-5-2, while Real Salt Lake falls to a paltry 4-6-1. 

It looked like one of those snakebitten games for the Union attack in the 20th, when they pressed furiously but were solved by Nick Rimando, who made a strong diving stop on Keegan Rosenberry and then an equally impressive save on Fafa Picault’s rebound volley. 

But despite the early heroics, Rimando wasn’t able to stop Epps just a minute later. The Union found a speed mismatch with Picault against Adam Henley on the left wing and took full advantage, as he gained the box and ripped a low cross that was cleanly finished by Epps for the 1-0 Union lead. 

Rimando was still the best player on the field for RSL despite giving up four goals. He finished with five stops, many of which were eye-popping. The mercy rule would have been enacted without him. 

The 21st minute goal was Epps’ first of the season and third of his MLS career. He made the start for struggling David Accam, who is still scoreless in 10 games this season. Epps captured two assists as well. 

Dockal kept the Union momentum rolling in the 34th, when, off the rush, he accepted a smooth lead pass from Alejandro Bedoya and gently lifted his top-of-the-box shot over Rimando to double the Union’s advantage. 

It was a deserved reward for Dockal, who was arguably the best Union player in the first half. It was his second goal in 10 games. He also added two assists for two goals and four helpers on the season. 

Despite being dominated early, RSL didn’t go home empty-handed. The visitors got one back in the 65th, when a scramble in the box allowed Sebastian Saucedo to find Damir Kreilach at the top of the box for the easy low-shot goal, to cut into the Union’s lead, 2-1.

But the Union didn’t panic. Off the rush in the 74th minute, Epps dropped a pass to Dockal that sprung the newcomer in alone with Rimando. Instead of ripping a shot, Dockal chipped a center pass to Ilsinho for the easy tap-in. It was his second of the season. 

Piling on, Rosenberry decided to show off in the 81st, when he fired off a golazo from way outside the box. The rocket shot slipped through defenders and beat Rimando clean for the 4-1 Union lead. It was Rosenberry’s first goal in his last 25 games.

While it was a convincing win, if the Union want three-in-a-row, it won’t come easy. The club hits the road once against on Saturday to take on the 6-3-0 New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena.