Union

Union predictions — Team MVP, surprises and disappointments

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Union predictions — Team MVP, surprises and disappointments

The Union accomplished what they set out to do this offseason.

After years of instability under former leadership, they wanted to remain consistent with their roster, system and decision-making — which they did.

They wanted to bolster the attack with two marquee playmakers, one on the wing and one in the attacking midfield — which they did with their draft-day trade for David Accam and Wednesday's acquisition of Czech playmaker Borek Dockal.

And they wanted to give opportunities to teenagers coming through their burgeoning youth academy — which they did with the signings of homegrown defenders Matt Real and Mark McKenzie followed by the preseason decision to give prominent roles to center back Auston Trusty and midfielder Anthony Fontana.

But is it enough to keep up with the rest of the Eastern Conference and make the MLS playoffs? Or win the first playoff game in the club's nine-year history? Will the newcomers be able to mesh with the returning core? Who will star? Who will disappoint?

Leading into Saturday's season opener vs. the New England Revolution (7 p.m., PHL17), it's prediction time. (Part 2 can be found here.)

Team MVP

DZ: Andre Blake
Try to argue that the Jamaican isn't the most talented goalie in the league. You won't get very far. And while Blake's gifts will likely get him to a top European league at some point, the 27-year-old showed commitment to Philly by signing a new multi-year contract in the offseason. Considering the Union have an inexperienced backline, locking down Blake was a good move — and he'll likely reward them with plenty of show-stopping saves.

RB: C.J. Sapong
With 16 goals in 30 games, Sapong had a career year that was so impressive, it opened opportunities with the U.S. national team. Now that the physical scorer has a legit playmaker feeding him passes, Sapong is set up for an even bigger and better 2018 season. He'll lead the team in goals and be an MLS All-Star. 

Top newcomer

DZ: David Accam
The Union shook up the draft by sending money to the Fire for the speedy winger. Accam was great in Chicago, scoring 33 goals over the last three seasons, but he has the opportunity to be even better in Philly, where head coach Jim Curtin's 4-2-3-1 system is designed to maximize the production of his wingers if they can get behind the defense or beat fullbacks one-on-one. Look for Accam to do both, early and often, and perhaps find the back of the net even more than he did in Chicago.

RB: Borek Dockal
He'll be the quarterback the Union desperately need. The offense will run through Dockal and he'll have no shortage of targets. With Fafa Picault on the right, Sapong in the middle and Accam on the left, Dockal will have every opportunity to get on the score sheet with that powerful trio.

Biggest surprise

DZ: Auston Trusty
Given how much exposure he's gotten this offseason, from starting and scoring goals in the preseason to reading the traffic report on the PHL17 morning news, the 19-year-old center back won't surprise anyone when he makes his MLS debut Saturday. What will surprise people is how well he grows into the role — and how much trust Curtin shows in him by keeping him in his starting spot even when he has a bad game or two. "Trusty the Process" indeed.

RB: Alejandro Bedoya
With expectations low, Bedoya will surprise by shining next to Dockal in the midfield. The Czech playmaker will be a safety valve for the US national team stalwart, who will feel less of a burden in possession and make more advantageous runs into the box. He'll have a good season.

Biggest disappointment

DZ: The strikers
Sapong is enjoying a nice moment in his career, coming off a terrific season and well-deserved appearances with the U.S. national team. But is it fair to think he'll be able to duplicate that production after he never hit double-digits in goals in his first six MLS seasons? If he has to miss any time, the dropoff to Jay Simpson or Cory Burke may be steep.

RB: Haris Medunjanin
With 12 assists last season, the well-traveled veteran helped hold a shaky Union team together with his poise on the ball. But the 32-year-old struggled to gain his footing in the preseason and could be primed for a slump in his second MLS season. While it may not be a bad campaign for Medunjanin, there's some reason to believe he won't match last year's success.

Union's U.S. Open Cup dominance continues against Red Bulls

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Union's U.S. Open Cup dominance continues against Red Bulls

CHESTER, Pa. — Alejandro Bedoya and Cory Burke led the way Saturday night, as the Union eliminated the New York Red Bulls from the U.S. Open Cup with a 2-1 win at Talen Energy Stadium in the Round of 16.

"It was a very good win against a very good team," said Union manager Jim Curtin. "Survive and advance mentality. We’re three wins away from a trophy, which is something to be proud of."

After taking down the Richmond Kickers to open the tournament, the Union’s victory Saturday sends them to the quarterfinals on July 18, where they will host either regional foes DC United or Orlando City.

• The win was a continuation of an eye-popping 12-match Open Cup unbeaten streak for the Union, who haven’t suffered a regulation loss since 2014. When it comes to the Open Cup, the Union are hard to beat, which they showed against the Red Bulls. 

• Despite it being an Open Cup game, the match had MLS regular-season flavor. The Red Bulls hit the field with a strong starting lineup that included Tyler Adams, Kaku and Luis Robles. In return, the Union dressed Bedoya, Haris Medunjanin, Andre Blake and Ilsinho.

• Those lineup decisions made for an exciting but fruitless opening half. Both teams worked to strike on the counter by using pressure to jar the ball loose. Led by Fafa Picault, the back-and-forth equalled 17 total shots, with the Union claiming eight of their 11 attempts from inside the box. 

• Eventually, the Union those attempts would begin going in. In the 52nd minute, the Union took the 1-0 lead, when working down the right side into Red Bulls territory, Bedoya cut to the middle and slid possession over to Medunjanin. The veteran faked out his defender and ripped a shot that appeared to deflect and beat Robles.

• The goal seemed to unlock something in the Union. Nearly 10-minutes later, Burke made it 2-0 when a Bedoya pass found him between two defenders. Burke, who had been on the doorstep of a goal all night, broke away and slipped his shot to the right. Bedoya finished with two assists. 

"He’s playing at his highest level for us," Curtin said. "He’s taken a bigger leadership role and tonight was an excellent game from him. Our team will go as our central midfield goes." 

• To catch up, the Red Bulls called on some heavy artillery. In the 60th minute, Bradley Wright-Phillips subbed in for Daniel Royer. He scored in the 77th minute, cutting the Union’s defense, then the lead, in half.

• The Union look to carry Open Cup momentum into the MLS regular season, when they face the Vancouver Whitecaps on June 23 at Talen Energy Stadium.

Union see U.S. winning 2026 World Cup bid as 'inflection point' of American soccer

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Union see U.S. winning 2026 World Cup bid as 'inflection point' of American soccer

CHESTER, Pa. — For Jim Curtin, Alejandro Bedoya and everyone else associated with American soccer, the pain of missing the World Cup remains fresh, especially as the tournament kicks off this week.

But Wednesday’s announcement that the United States, in a joint bid with North American neighbors Canada and Mexico, won the vote to host the 2026 World Cup not only eased a lot of that pain but also gave them a whole lot of hope for the future of the sport.

“Obviously this year everybody talks about the big setback and the generation of kids that can’t turn on the TV this go-round and watch the U.S.,” Curtin said during the Union coach’s weekly press conference. “It does hurt the game a bit, for sure, but to now have the World Cup in our home country is something that I think is incredible to grow the game. There’s nothing quite like seeing a World Cup match live. I think that will be a great experience for young kids, a great experience for our country.”

As for Bedoya, the Union captain will probably never get over the U.S. national team’s recent World Cup failure, especially since he played a prominent role at the 2014 World Cup and during this past qualifying cycle before watching from the bench in horror as the Americans were stunned by Trinidad and Tobago last October to miss out on Russia 2018. 

And given his age, the 31-year-old midfielder will be past his prime for the next World Cup in Qatar, and possibly retired when the World Cup comes to North America in eight years. Even still, it’s nice to think about what hosting the 2026 World Cup could mean for the growth of the sport he loves.

“Hopefully by that time, 2026, it’s like the inflection point of soccer in our country,” Bedoya said. “The sport keeps growing, the league keeps getting better. From my time in Europe, I know all of the European guys would love to play in this league, live in America and play here. It’s only a matter of time before soccer continues to take over, let’s say, hockey in the ratings and viewership and attendance. So it’s a big moment we officially got it for our country.”

Curtin agrees the sport has already grown a lot since the last time the United States hosted the World Cup in 1994, pointing to increased television coverage of MLS and the big European leagues as well as, more locally, the kids he spots in his Philadelphia neighborhood wearing Bedoya or Lionel Messi jerseys.

He can only imagine how much bigger it will get if Lincoln Financial Field is selected as one of the venues for the 2026 World Cup — and also what that would mean for Philly, a city that he says has a “lot of buzz” right now in a lot of different ways.

“Specifically to Philadelphia, this is a soccer town,” the Union coach said. “There’s a rich history here. It’s tough to predict what 2026 will look like, but to think a team could be using this campus down here [in Chester] as kind of their home base, whether it’s Argentina or Spain or who knows what country, that’s a really good thing to envision.

“It’s great for the game. There’s a lot of happy faces throughout soccer in our country right now.”