Union

Union predictions — Biggest controversy; path to playoffs

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Union predictions — Biggest controversy; path to playoffs

Part 2 of our Union season predictions.

Part 1 can be found here.

Biggest controversy

DZ: Right back competition
The top battle in the preseason was between Ray Gaddis and Keegan Rosenberry for the starting right back spot, and as recently as Wednesday, Jim Curtin wasn't tipping his hand about who would get the opening-day start. The longest-tenured player on the squad, Gaddis is solid and well-liked. But Rosenberry has the kind of star potential Union fans crave. If Rosenberry spends much of the season on the bench again, as he did last year after his Rookie of the Year runner-up campaign in 2016, it could spell trouble — both for his development and fans' angst.

RB: Jim Curtin's job security
With the Union utilizing youth on defense and at depth positions, Curtin is going to feel every growing pain his club suffers through. Barring a hot start, the manager, who missed the playoffs last season and stumbled into them in 2016, will be on the hot seat throughout. It might not be fair, but it could be the biggest fan fight of 2018.

They'll make the playoffs if …

DZ: Young center backs Jack Elliott and Auston Trusty can avoid rookie mistakes and lean on the veterans in front of them, Borek Dockal gives them the same kind of value at the No. 10 spot as Tranquillo Barnetta did two years ago, and CJ Sapong remains one of the league's top goal-scoring threats.

RB: Dockal is the team MVP and Trusty can match Oguchi Oneywu's 2017 performance on the back line. If Dockal produces, the Union will be an offensive heavyweight in the conference. But that won't mean a thing if Trusty is overmatched and can't gel with Jack Elliott to form a playoff-caliber defensive line.

They'll miss the playoffs if …

DZ: The young backline implodes early to cause a freefall from which they can't recover, Accam and Dockal struggle to adapt to their new city and new team, and the Union continue to drop points on the road at an alarming rate.

RB: Things play out as you'd expect. Even if Trusty eases into his role and Dockal acclimates to his teammates, the Union are still facing a grueling Eastern Conference field. Surprises aside, the Union are doomed from the start.

Predicted finish

DZ: The Union have a better roster than they did last year and their patient build under Curtin and sporting director Earnie Stewart could soon pay big dividends. The biggest problem is that the Eastern Conference is loaded. Toronto FC, Atlanta and New York City FC arguably have more talent than anyone in the league, and Orlando and even Chicago may not be far behind. I think the Union make the playoffs but sneak in as the No. 5 or No. 6 seed, before losing their knockout-round game and having to wait at least one more year to finally win a postseason contest.

RB: As tough as it may be to watch, the Union season goes nowhere and they finish ninth in the East. But not all is lost. Stewart and Curtin finally rely on the kids, which gives fans hope for the future as well as a finish ahead of the New England Revolution and Montreal Impact in 2018.

Union stun Fire in 95th minute on David Occam's buzzer-beater

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Union stun Fire in 95th minute on David Occam's buzzer-beater

BOX SCORE

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- David Accam scored in the 95th minute, and Cory Burke had two goals to help the Philadelphia Union beat the Chicago Fire 4-3 on Wednesday night.

Accam dribbled through a pair of Chicago defenders and sent home a right-footed shot just inside the left post for his first goal of the season. His game-winner came a minute after the Fire appeared to have salvaged a draw with Bastian Schweinsteiger heading home Diego Campos' corner.

Burke scored on a rebound in the 73rd minute that made it 3-2 for the Union (7-9-3) and a header at the end of first-half stoppage time that made it 2-1.

Aleksandar Katai made it 2-all for the Fire (6-9-5) in the 69th minute with a low hard shot that skipped twice into the far corner.

Nemanja Nikolic tied it at 1 for Chicago in the 39th minute, powering a penalty kick past goalkeeper Andre Blake. Mark McKenzie brought Katai down at the left corner of the penalty area to send Nikolic to the spot.

Haris Medunjanin opened the scoring for Philadelphia in the 31st minute, pouncing on a defensive miscue and finishing with the outside of his foot.

Union staggered by inability to finish vs. Atlanta United

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Union staggered by inability to finish vs. Atlanta United

BOX SCORE

CHESTER, Pa. — With four losses in their last five games, the Union are reeling.

Their latest setback, a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Josef Martinez and Atlanta United on Saturday at Talen Energy Stadium, was a highlight show of recent problems for the club. 

“We kicked ourselves in the foot,” said Union attacker Fafa Picault. “Didn’t do our job.”

It was a common tale for the 2018 Union, that had less to do with the competition than the Union’s inability to produce. Generate chances? Check. Fail to finish? Check. The Union registered 18 shots, 16 crosses and five corners, but had nothing to show for it. 

“That’s our problem,” said Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin, whose club has lost to Atlanta twice, Toronto FC and LAFC in recent games. “If we don’t score the first goal then we will struggle. That’s what happened today.”

The second-lowest-scoring team in MLS and lowest scoring team in the Eastern Conference has struggled to get those early goals, shutout nine times in 18 games. It’s been a grind for the troubled Union, who were impressive at times against the best team in MLS on Saturday, but are now 6-9-3 on the season. 

“This is frustrating,” Medunjanin said. “It’s important to score the goal and win games. We didn’t do that. We need to stick together.” 

It hasn’t been a blameless struggle. Forward C.J. Sapong, who signed an extension through 2019 back in March, scored a career-high 16 goals last year but has just two in 16 games this season. As a consistent starter, he’s been the poster player for the team’s inability to score.

“I chose C.J. to start,” said Union manager Jim Curtin. “There was going to be fingers pointed at him after the game if we didn’t. We’re a team. We win as a team. We lose as a team. 

“He’s having a tough time scoring, that’s what he’s going to be judged on,” he said. “Fair or unfair, that’s the life of a striker. He’s still a guy I believe in.”

But fixing Sapong wouldn’t solve all of the Union’s woes. Left winger Picault only has three goals and right winger David Accam, who has been relegated to bench duty, has none in a combined 30 games. 

Even the Union's most productive player has struggled. Minutes into the second half, Alejandro Bedoya did the work to get around the Atlanta defenders and gain an edge on the right side. He placed a perfect pass into the seam for Borek Dockal, who saw his one-touch chip flew high over the net. 

Moments later, Atlanta took the lead. 

“When we arrive there in the box, we need to be sharper, all of us,” Medunjanin said. “We need to learn that because in soccer it’s about small things. If you score the first goal it would have been much easier for us, but we didn’t do it and we lost a game that we could have won.”