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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Union-Impact: Lineups and prematch observations

UNION (4-2-3-1) 
Bench: McGuire, Onyewu, Rosenberry, Jones, Picault, Herbers, Simpson

Impact (4-2-3-1) 
Bench: Crepeau, Fisher, Lovitz, Mallace, Jackson-Hamel, Arregui, Tabla 

- Jim Curtin makes a big defensive change – Keegan Rosenberry hits the bench for Ray Gaddis. It’s the first time Rosenberry has failed to start a game in his pro career, a string of 41 straight games. Gaddis’ last MLS game was July 23, 2016. The Union have struggled mightily on defense, and Gaddis is a defense-first guy.

- Montreal’s strength is as much in its dynamic wingers as the solidity up the middle that makes it work. Marco Donadel returns from suspension to pair with Hernan Bernardello, and Patrice Bernier in the No. 10 role makes for a triangle capable of adapting to a great deal of the looks the Union can throw at them. It also allows the Impact to sit deep, absorb pressure and spring those wingers.

- Among the many matchups to look for, it’s been a beleaguered few games for the Union fullbacks. Gaddis is in, and Fabinho has been uncharacteristically error prone. With the Union struggling to score, Curtin will want to see them leap into the attack more, but doing so could leave them vulnerable to the runs of Dominic Oduro and Ignacio Piatti. Perhaps pinning those two wingers back is a case of offense being the best defense.

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Friday, April 21, 2017

By the numbers: The Union's winless streak

Yeah, Andre Blake and Jack Elliott, there's been a lot of that lately
for the Union. (Times File)
There is, mathematically speaking, a possibility the Philadelphia Union could win Saturday against Montreal. Odd things happen in MLS all the time.

On the off chance that that occurs (and that’s the last bit of snark for this post), the Union would banish their winless streak that has covered the last 14 meaningful games. So without qualifiers or the mudslinging that seems to popular online, let’s lay out what exactly this streak of futility has entailed.

- The Union have lost 14 games in all competitions – the last seven of the 2016 regular season, the playoff game to Toronto and six straight to open 2017. In that stretch, they are 0-10-4. That’s a return of four points out of a possible 42 points or 0.29 points per game.

- Exclude the playoff game, and the Union have endured 13 straight regular-season games sans victory. Should that stretch to 14 (and 15 overall) with anything but three points against Montreal, they enter ignominious company in MLS history (from the league’s Facts and Record Book):

- The Union have allowed 28 goals, a tidy average of two per contest. They’ve scored just 11 goals.

- On the concession side, the Union have kept just one clean sheet. More worrying, they’ve allowed multiple goals in 11 outings. Yet they haven’t allowed more than three goals in a game, that one breakdown that skews the numbers, indicating a steady stream of goals each week.

- Home field has been no refuge. The Union are 0-4-2 in home games, having allowed 12 goals (again, right at two per game) and scored just four. A loss or tie this weekend ties the franchise record for the longest home winless streak at seven, set from March 15-July 12, 2014. That run involved five draws at least, though it spanned the firing of John Hackworth. 
Read more »

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

McCarthy healthy again after concussion struggle

John McCarthy is back in training after three-plus agonizing weeks
out with a concussion. (Times File)
CHESTER >> No one’s quite cornered the market on frustration around the Philadelphia Union these desperate days. But few have felt the sting of the early setbacks as acutely as John McCarthy.

He’s had the double dose of disappointment in recent weeks, confined to the sidelines with a concussion for three-plus weeks while his club plunged to the foot of the MLS standings.

But as McCarthy’s condition turns around, the backup goalkeeper is hopeful that so too can the fortunes of the club at-large.

“I’m just really happy I can play soccer again,” McCarthy said at training Wednesday. “It just sucks with all the symptoms you have.”

McCarthy sustained a concussion during training March 24, catching a shot from CJ Sapong in the side of his face during a session in the Union’s international bye week. He started experiencing symptoms the next two days and was held out of practice the following week. That part of the process was difficult but anticipated.

The twist came when he returned to training shortly after the D.C. United game, then suffered a recurrence of symptoms that required him to shut things down again.
Read more »

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Monday, April 17, 2017

The striking difference between MLS's top teams and the Union

With four of Orlando City's six goals this season,
Cyle Larin is showing just how big an impact a star striker can have.
We’re a month and a half into the MLS season, which is long enough to draw some conclusions. One parallel should seem obvious, both for its prevalence in the standings and its utter depravation around Philadelphia.

The Union are last in MLS with a scant two points from six matches. They are the only team remaining in the league without a victory. Those myriad struggles have elicited finger-pointing and rationalizing in recent weeks, with blame doled out to the players (some more than others), the coach and higher rungs of the organization.

One thing seems abundantly clear: The Union roster as currently constructed seems to be talented enough to only get wins when everything goes correctly. Its margin of error is so razor-thin that bad bounces or even average performances from a multitude of players can’t be surmounted.

A potential reason for that is revealed by a glimpse at how successful teams are getting things done. Stack up the list of MLS’s top scorers next to the standings, and you’ll see the immutable conclusion that a star goal scorer can paper over many, many cracks in a side.

Causality here is difficult to determine – are the teams winning because their top forward is scoring, or is the forward scoring because he’s a cog in a winning team? Shoring up weaknesses at the pointy end of the attacking spear with one lights-out scorer is not necessarily a panacea, but it’s certainly one of the easiest avenues toward getting a team back to sustained competitiveness.

The list of contenders for surprise of the early season is lengthy, and all are in position due in some part to explosive strikers.
Read more »

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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Timbers win makes for happy homecoming for Okugo

Former Union player Amobi Okugo, left, defending
Columbus Crew's Justin Meram two weeks ago,
has carved a niche as a valued reserve for the Portland Timbers. (AP)
CHESTER >> The last time Amobi Okugo stepped on the turf at Talen Energy Stadium, both player and arena were in much different situations.

At then PPL Park, Okugo went the full 90 against Sporting Kansas City Oct. 18, 2014, an event that didn’t qualify as news. He was 23, and while the question of his best position on the soccer field remained the subject of debate, he was still a young prospect, one who might soon test the European waters.

Fast forward two and a half years to Saturday night, when Okugo logged the final eight minutes of the Union’s 3-1 loss to the Portland Timbers, and things are much different. Now a veteran in his fourth MLS city, Okugo hasn’t always found the easiest of footing in his post-Union career. But in Portland, he’s established some of the stability that’s been lacking in the intervening years.

Okugo admitted that it’s taken a while – longer than expected, for sure – for his homecoming to materialize. But that individual occurrence is quickly shifted to the team perspective.

“It was a little surreal, but it felt good to get the win,” Okugo said, from the cramped and unfamiliar confines of the visiting locker room. “These points away from home are hard to get. Especially with this group last year, we didn’t get too many points on the road. So to get two wins on the road out of three this early in the season is really big for the group.”

Okugo spent five years in Philly, three as an unquestioned starter, after being picked No. 6 overall in the club’s inaugural SuperDraft. But with his contract due to expire, the Union dealt him to expansion side Orlando City in Dec. 2014, Okugo featuring in new manager Jim Curtin’s plans as neither a defender nor a midfielder.

Okugo lasted 15 games on a lousy Orlando team before being shipped to Sporting Kansas City, where he earned just three games (though a trip to Philadelphia for the 2015 Open Cup final, where the cup-tied Okugo was merely a spectator as his team won on penalty kicks).

After drifting without a club until May of last year and a rumored dalliance with European suitors, he signed with the Timbers and played just four games. This season, though, he’s carved a niche within the squad of the Western Conference leaders. He’s not starting, though he did spell a backline hit by international departures two weeks ago. But he’s played well enough to compete for minutes at the reserve center back and center midfield spot with the likes of Roy Miller and Ben Zemanski. His cameo Saturday came as a midfielder to help ice the game.

The Timbers have as clearly defined roles as any team in MLS, and Okugo seems to fit that scheme.

“I think it’s just a testament to the coaching staff and to the players that we have,” he said. “We know our roles. We know what strengths we bring as players. We’re not trying to do so much, be out of our element. We do what we’re good at, and if you do that more often than not, you’re going to get the wins.”

Okugo reserved some warm feelings for the return to Philadelphia, exchanging hugs and handshakes with members of the Union and the team’s training staff before the game. But the 26-year-old is more concerned with the present than the past.

“Here, to be able to get minutes, to see some fans that became family and see some fans see my name when I was warming up, it felt good,” he said. “But it feels good to get the win.”

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Saturday, April 8, 2017

Union-Timbers: Lineups and prematch observations

UNION (4-2-3-1) 
Bench: McGuire, Gaddis, Elliott, Herbers, Epps, Alberg, Simpson

Timbers (4-2-3-1) 
Bench: Atinella, Myers, Vytas, Okugo, Barmby, Mattocks, Ebobisse 

- Let’s talk pyramids: Jim Curtin picks the same midfield personnel this week, but will it be the same structure? The Union succeeded last week in the second half against D.C. (albeit too little, too late in a 2-1 setback) when they left Haris Medunjanin as the lone shield for the back four with Alejandro Bedoya and Derrick Jones pushing forward (i.e., Jones further forward, Bedoya dropping further back). That formation probably suits the Union’s talent/absence of a true No. 10 better than the straight 4-2-3-1. But you’d better hope the Union have worked out the kinks, since Portland is a much better counter-attacking team than D.C.

- Richie Marquez is healthy, which means he’s back in the lineup. Jack Elliott denied his first MLS start as a result. Marquez’s health will be tested early and often with the physicality of Fanendo Adi.
- Marcus Epps on the bench? That’s, um, interesting, especially ahead of Fafa Picault.
- Few teams have as finely-crafted an identity on the field as the Timbers, so there should be no surprises for Union’s preparation. They have the hold-up play of Adi, the stellar wing skill of Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe and the ability to flip from defense to offense to rapidly with the dynamism of Diego Chara and David Guzman in the center of the park. There’s a reason why they lead MLS in goals this season, and it’s not just because they had Minnesota on the schedule already.

- Today marks the return of Amobi Okugo to Talen Energy Stadium. The midfielder/defender played 117 games for the Union through the 2014 season; since, he’s found it tough sledding with 23 games with Orlando City, Sporting Kansas City and now Portland. He has one start this season.

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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Union presser notes: Injuries, Ayuk and that new losing feeling

After the loss in D.C. last week, manager Jim Curtin said the belief
from Fabian Herbers and company remains high. (DFM/Mikey Reeves)
Jim Curtin covered a lot of ground in an uncharacteristically voluminous press conference Wednesday. Most of my story in Thursday’s Delco Times will fixate on a conversation with Alejandro Bedoya and the cognitive dissonance surrounding his midfield positioning. That crowds out news and notes, so here’s what else filled Curtin’s 28-minute press address.

- The mood this week, as the Union’s winless streak grows to four games in 2017, 12 overall and 11 in the MLS regular season, seems to bear some hallmarks of past disappointments. But the character of this squad, Curtin and others take pains to point out, is different than last year. Curtin:
“2017 is different than 2016. It’s always tough with carryover. Obviously we know how last year ended. We’re four games in this year; we’ve lost two games in a row. That doesn’t taste good to anybody. We’re not happy with that. But it’s a different group. There’s different players involved. A lot of them don’t even know the feeling from last year. So it’s tough to really pinpoint and say, does it feel exactly the same? It doesn’t, but there is a sense of urgency, though. We are in a bad spot. …

“It’s still, when you talk with all the players individually … there’s a real belief in the group that yes we’ve come on the wrong end of some results, but it’s not as if we’ve been outclassed in games, where we say, ‘man that team is a lot better than us.’ So again, there’s still a feeling of belief that if we continue to execute on the field, some of these breaks will go our way.”
- Jack Elliott got first-team reps with Oguchi Onyewu Wednesday. That pairing finished the D.C. United game and could start Saturday against Portland. Elliott has clearly supplanted Ken Tribbett, and all that remains is whether Richie Marquez graduates concussion protocols in time. Curtin expects Marquez to be cleared, but the coach doesn’t have a long track record of playing guys who don’t train by mid-week. It’s unlikely he’ll rush Marquez back off one or two days of training.

- John McCarthy (concussion) suffered a setback from an injury sustained two weeks ago. The goalie worked out Sunday but suffered symptoms and has been delayed. He didn’t train Wednesday, meaning Jake McGuire is going to be the backup Saturday.

- As speculated last week, Fafa Picault was healthy but found himself the odd man out for the Union’s trip to D.C. Curtin went with three reserve defensive options and three attacking players, Picault landing fourth on the latter list behind Roland Alberg, Fabian Herbers and Jay Simpson. That bench composition would seem to posit that it’s a question of Picault or Warren Creavalle most weeks. Read more »

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Saturday, April 1, 2017

Elliott rises to task in MLS debut

Union rookie Jack Elliott showed well in his MLS debut
Saturday, a 2-1 loss to D.C. United. (AP)
With his 6-foot-5 stature, Jack Elliott is used to standing tall. But the rookie’s ability to not shrink from his MLS debut Saturday night at RFK Stadium spoke to more than just his physical mettle.

Elliott took his MLS bow under difficult circumstances, for a Philadelphia Union team trailing two goals at halftime. But he acquitted himself well for a defense that didn’t allow a third goal, giving the team space to attempt a comeback in what went down as a 2-1 loss to D.C. United.

Elliott, drafted in the fourth round of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft out of West Virginia, entered at halftime for Richie Marquez, who suffered an apparent concussion.

“I had to do a job,” Elliott said. “Richie went out at halftime and I stepped up. It felt great to finally be on the pitch for my MLS debut. At the same time, we didn’t come out with the result, so bittersweet.”

Marquez got kicked in the head by goalie Andre Blake in a scramble in the 15th minute. He soldiered on, conceding a penalty in the 26th minute on a handball converted by D.C.’s Luciano Acosta. Manager Jim Curtin said that Marquez felt fine after the initial on-field concussion testing but experienced blurred and double vision later in the half and couldn’t continue.

In stepped Elliott, the 77th pick in January.

“You tell Jack to do what he’s done in training each and every day,” Curtin said. “He’s worked hard to be the reserve center back right now. He stepped in and performed very well. You can see his qualities on the ball. Composed on the ball, and he wins everything in the air. He did a good job in a 45 minutes where we were on the ball a lot, had a lot of the run of play.”
Read more »

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Union-DC United: Lineups and prematch observations

UNION (4-2-3-1) 
Bench: McGuire, Elliott, Gaddis, Creavalle, Alberg, Herbers, Sapong

D.C. United (4-3-3) 
Bench: Worra, Franklin, Jeffrey, Opara, Neagle, Buescher, Le Toux

- It’s steady as you go for the Union again this week. One change again comes on the wing with Ilsinho making his first start in favor of Fabian Herbers. Ilsinho has been effective as a late-game sub; we’ll see what he can do having to shoulder the defensive work for 60 minutes plus. The bright side is that with the depth available on the wing, the Brazilian’s mission should be compressed to an hour of exertion with Herbers able to spell him. Odd not to see Fafa Picault make the lineup; probably the odd attacking option out away from home. 

- Jay Simpson (rib contusion/bruised lung) is healthy enough to return to the lineup. Interesting that he displaces CJ Sapong up top, since Sapong has scored in consecutive games (plus twice in last week’s closed-door friendly with Bethlehem Steel). I suppose Simpson’s speed suits the counter-attacking the Union will likely do away from home.

- Jake McGuire, the rookie signed off waivers from Houston, will be the backup goalie after John McCarthy sustained a concussion this week that keeps him out.

- The big missing piece for D.C., which has yet to score this year, is forward Patrick Mullins. In his stead, Jose Guillermo Ortiz starts up top. That leaves former Union man Sebastien Le Toux on the bench.

- The big matchup is going to be how the Union’s midfielder pair of Derrick Jones and Haris Medunjanin handles the threat of Luciano Acosta. Jones and Medunjanin have paired well this season, but neither is the kind of dogged matchup midfielder to hound an opposing creative attacking midfielder (think Brian Carroll in his prime). Too much of the midfielders handing Acosta off to the center backs to defend will create space in the backline that Ortiz, Lloyd Sam and Patrick Nyarko can exploit.

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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The boss comes to town: A City Hall discussion with Don Garber

MLS Commisioner Don Garber, center, greet Union Academy director
Tommy Wilson, right, and sporting director Earnie Stewart
Tuesday at YSC Sports in Wayne.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber toured the Philadelphia Union’s holy triangle of sites Tuesday – first Chester, then Wayne, then Philly – to see firsthand the infrastructure in which the club has invested so heavily in recent years.

Most of Garber’s remarks, to students at YSC Academy and then to a Town Hall audience at City Hall in Philly, centered on the Union and their situation within the MLS landscape. But in a one-on-one setting afterward, members of the media asked Garber some more pointed questions that went outside that local box.

A few highlights:

- First, a question from the town hall audience directed at Garber was aimed at the growth of the game via expansion and television. Garber said that the MLS TV contracts were set through 2022, but “we’re soon to announce over the top a social media package where games will be available on one of the more well-known social channels.” Feel free to speculate what that is, but there is recent precedent for experimentation in that realm. Liga MX and CONCACAF Champions League have taken to Facebook, the NFL used Twitter to livestream games and YouTube has been the chosen platform for the U.S. Open Cup for several years.

- In February, Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl published a report on a “Designated Player-level” prospect who elected not to move to an MLS club due in part to the legal climate in the United States. The player, a Muslim, reportedly did not feel safe in the U.S. in light of President Donald Trump’s (since reconfigured) travel ban on residents from seven Muslim-majority countries. (The player was not from among those countries, Wahl reported.)

Garber said he wasn’t familiar with Wahl’s report or the player or club in question, but he did say the league is monitoring how the executive order changes.
“I think the bigger issue is how is the most recent law going to impact all Americans and impact all businesses. We have a particular interest because of the number of international players we have. I don’t know who that player was and I haven’t spoken to him and I haven’t heard anything else about that specific player. But we are a league for a new America, and you look at those kids there, I pointed to the mayor to look at the diversity of those players that are in the Union Academy, that’s what makes our country great, that’s what makes our league great, and I hope that we’re going to be able to continue to represent the wonderful story of immigration and diversity of our country. But it is very premature. We, like all other sports leagues, are carefully monitoring what’s happening. As you can imagine, we are following it closely to ensure that we are able to operate our business in a way that reflects on our values and those things that really matter.”
As far as any concerns regarding MLS players carrying passports from any of the countries on the list being barred from re-entering the country if they were to travel to a game in Canada, for instance, Garber said: “Not at this point. … None. We have not had any issues, but we are closely monitoring it.”
Read more »

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Despite family ties, lifelong Red Bull Najem's heart is in Philly

Midfielder Adam Najem, center, poses with Union sporting director Earnie Stewart,
left, and coach Jim Curtin after signing with the club last week.
(Courtesy of Philadelphia Union)
PHILADELPHIA >> A smile creeps across Adam Najem’s face when a scenario that he has clearly thought plenty about is presented to him.

Someday soon, whether while wearing a Bethlehem Steel or Philadelphia Union jersey, Najem could line up against the club of his youth, the New York Red Bulls (I or II). Opposite him on the field that day could be his older brother, David Najem, a 24-year-old midfielder for Red Bulls II.

“We grew up playing against each other all the time and having little one-v-one battles in our backyard,” Adam Najem said with a smile Monday after Union training under the bubble at Penn’s Dunning-Cohen Champions Field. “We’re always competing with one another. It’ll definitely be fun to see him competing on the other side of the field. I’m just glad he’s getting his opportunity, and hopefully he can make his way up from there.”

The potential of a brotherly matchup is just one oddity of Najem’s move to the City of Brotherly Love, sealed last week when the Red Bulls shipped Najem’s Homegrown rights to the Union for its natural second round in the 2018 SuperDraft pick.

It appears a tidy piece of business to add the 22-year-old attacking midfielder, who spent four seasons at the University of Akron and likely would’ve been a high first round pick had he entered the draft. Instead, with the Red Bulls holding his rights to sign or trade, Najem was excluded, forced to play a different kind of waiting game as his classmates learned their professional futures.

“I know it’s a business and everything around it is going to be complicated,” Najem said. “It was a little unsettling and I didn’t really know what was going on, but I’m sure guys in the draft had the same type of unsettling feeling. Everything happens for a reason. I just took it and was patient and thankful for Philadelphia Union for taking a chance on me.”

Najem surfaced at Union training camp on Day 1 as a “trialist” and drew plaudits from manager Jim Curtin from the start. In the native of Clifton, N.J., Curtin saw the talent that yielded 33 goals and 29 assists in 89 games for the powerhouse Zips, and the diminutive playmaker’s skills translated instantly to the professional practice field. Curtin drew cautious parallels between Najem and FC Dallas’ spritely playmaker, Mauro Diaz, one of the league’s best.

The 5-foot-8, 150-pound Najem enticed the Union as a depth option at the No. 10, where the Union are relatively thin – Alejandro Bedoya is the presumptive starter, with Roland Alberg as a proto-backup/super-sub.
Read more »

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Monday, February 13, 2017

Union training notes: Under the bubble, Feb. 13

Union defender Josh Yaro, right, is facing three to four months out
after surgery on his balky right shoulder. (File)
The Union took a brief hiatus in their Floridian preseason to return home and regroup before recamping in Clearwater for the final phase of the preseason. After three days off, the Union snuck in a session Monday morning under the Bubble at Penn Park’s Dunning-Cohen Champions Field ahead of a travel day Tuesday. A few takeaways:

- Mostly it was notable for the absences. Jay Simpson, Oguchi Onyewu, Eric Ayuk and Chris Pontius were among those not taking part in practice. Additionally, Maurice Edu (leg) was continuing his rehab with the medical staff in Chester, while Josh Yaro was in attendance, his right arm in a sling after shoulder surgery last week that will sideline him three to four months.

- Also with the team but back in Chester was new midfielder Haris Medunjanin, who took a physical Monday. Manager Jim Curtin said that the Bosnian could’ve trained, but it was wiser to wait for his first Union practice to be on grass in Clearwater rather than frigid Philly turf. Medunjanin was also getting a tour of the facilities for the first time, which Curtin said left him impressed compared to recent stays in Spain and Israel.

- One player on the turf was Brian Carroll, with whom the Union have been cautious given a history of plantar fasciitis, which is easily exacerbated on artificial surfaces. Carroll played as a neutral in 7-v-7 short-sided games, eschewing the running off to the side that others did.
Read more »

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