Blogs > Union Tally

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

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Pontius gets warm welcome from hometown fans in Philly

His third cap in four Gold Cup games was extra special for Chris Pontius,
right, in Philadelphia Wednesday. (AP)
PHILADELPHIA >> The roar was pronounced as Chris Pontius readied on the sidelines.

The other two U.S. subs Wednesday night in a 2-0 win over El Salvador in the Gold Cup quarterfinals at Lincoln Financial Field were greeted warmly, for sure. But the passion behind the reception for the Philadelphia Union midfielder was something he noticed right away.

“It was great,” Pontius said. “I had some chants going up for me, too, which was nice as well. It was special for me.”

Wednesday’s appearance was a short cameo, Pontius entering in the 87th minute for Darlington Nagbe, the U.S. well on its way to salting away the win and a berth in the semis. But as Pontius has cemented a spot in the rotation under manager Bruce Arena, this appearance brought something special.

Not that Pontius, who scored 12 goals for the Union last year and is second on the team this season with six assists despite still being in search of his first goal, needed reinforcement that he’s arrived in Philly. He played at an all-star caliber level last year, his first with the Union after seven with D.C. United, the last several blighted by recurrent leg injuries. It helped him return to the U.S. fold after six years in the wilderness.

Wednesday’s rousing welcome reinforced the point.

“That was nice,” he said. “It was definitely special for me. Just to have it here in Philly, it was a great. … I think I settled in pretty well last year. I think you saw that in my play last year. I always said it was credit to the staff and credit to the guys around me because they made me feel at home right away and it was my first time in a professional environment moving teams, so it was tough for me. Philly has welcomed me with open arms.”

Pontius has also settled into a role under Arena. He’s made five appearances this year, two in January friendlies after the offseason camp and now three in four Gold Cup games. He might not yet be at first-choice status for World Cup qualifiers, but he’s an important role player in a tournament like this that requires depth and a certain tactical flexibility.

And he’s got reason to believe his role with the team in the competition isn’t done.

“We did what we needed to do, and still we weren’t as clean as we know we needed to be,” he said. “We just need to improve on all the little things. The name of the game in this is win and move on, and we’ve done that.”

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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A summer peak: Why the Union's 3-0 win over New England is bad news

Before Roland Alberg, center, and company do too much celebrating,
a big summer win like Sunday's over New England has rarely been apropos
of anything for the Union. (For Digital First Media/Mike Reeves)
The Union are coming off arguably their best performance of the season, a 3-0 drubbing of New England at home Sunday. It was comfortable, it was steady on both ends, with a rock-solid defense and crucial bouts of finishing in the attacking third.

It’s also a harbinger of things to come, right? Not so fast.

Sunday represented what has become a yearly tradition – a June/July hammering of an opponent at home that raises the Union’s hopes of a mid-summer renaissance. Often, that result hasn’t elevated the Union much higher than the three points gleaned on the day. Let’s go year-by-year:

- In 2016, the Union pounded D.C. United, 3-0, on July 9 thanks to – as it was known until just a few weeks ago – Ilsinho’s only two goals. One of those tallies, along with a Roland Alberg marker, came from the penalty spot on a day where the D.C. was reduced to 10 men thanks to a Kofi Opare red. The result came on the heels of two straight losses and was offered as proof that an early-season surge wasn’t regressing to the mean. What followed was just three wins in three months as part of a 3-8-4 finish and a first-round playoff ouster.

- The 2015 Union were a thoroughly forgettable bunch. But out of the Gold Cup break that year on July 11, they thumped Portland, 3-0, when coach Caleb Porter packed only a pair of reserve outside backs for the trip – the legendary duo of Taylor Peay and Jeanderson, both in MLS debuts to forget. That was the alchemy that produced Andrew Wenger’s first (and only) goal of the season in his 20th (and somehow not final) appearance. Vincent Nogueira also scored twice in Brian Sylvestre’s fifth and final shutout with the club. And the momentum translated to … Three straight losses and a five-match winless streak.

- OK, it wasn’t a shutout. But the Union’s 3-1 win over the Red Bulls July 16, 2014 fostered hope that the Jim Curtin new-coach bump might be sustainable. Conor Casey chose wisely in drinking from the right grail to cap a streak of six goals in six games, while Fred (!!!) also checked in with his first and only goal of his 14th of 16 stints with the Union (and counting?). This result actually translated to consistent form for a while – followed by two road draws, the Union went on a five-match unbeaten streak and lost once in an 11-game streak (5-1-5). But the exhaustion of the U.S. Open Cup final run eventually took its toll.
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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Union-New England: Lineups and prematch observations

UNION (4-2-3-1) 
Bench: McCarthy, Yaro, Rosenberry, Tribbett, Alberg, Epps, Simpson

New England (4-3-1-2) 
Bench: Knighton, Tierney, Delamea, Woodberry, Hollinger-Janzen, Herivaux, Wright

- Union manager Jim Curtin admitted to approaching this stretch of games with almost two separate teams. Particularly in the back, changes are wrought from the U.S. Open Cup with three new defenders in: Ray Gaddis, Giliano Wijnaldum and Oguchi Onyewu.
- CJ Sapong left Wednesday’s affair with a knock, a result of being “beat up” in Curtin’s words. Today would seem a great opportunity to rest him, particularly with a trip to former team Sporting Kansas City looming Thursday, but Curtin opts otherwise. Jay Simpson again on the bench.

- Interesting to see the choice with Roland Alberg. He worked for 120 minutes against the Red Bulls midweek, but after scoring a goal and giving what Curtin called “his best game in a Union jersey” (a history that includes a hat trick), the calculus between rewarding and resting him is difficult. But with a recovered Ilsinho waiting in the wings, Alberg gives way with a chance to impact the game off the bench.

- The Revs are depleted. No Diego Fagundez. No Kelyn Rowe. No Xavier Kouassi. No Juan Agudelo. No excuse for the Union to get three points. Granted, Kei Kamara and Lee Nguyen are plenty dangerous – Kamara has five goals and four assists in 10 games against the Union – but the lack of depth should make a team prone to conceding goals even more susceptible.

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Friday, June 30, 2017

After the Cup: Union training notes, June 30

In his first 'real game' with the Union, rookie Adam Najem impressed Wednesday.
(For Digital First Media/Mikey Reeves)
The Union are facing the last two installments of six games in 21 days, and the more granular stretch is a Wednesday-Sunday-Thursday span around the Fourth of July in an quirky schedule. The big news from training Friday was the return to full work for Maurice Edu, who’s approaching two years since his last Union game. You can read his reaction to this step in his recovery here.

A few other notes to send you into your holiday weekend:

- Let’s start on a positive note, shall we? Jim Curtin on Roland Alberg in Wednesday’s PK loss to the New York Red Bulls in the fifth round of the U.S. Open Cup: “I thought Roland Alberg had his best performance in a Philadelphia Union jersey. He was excellent.” Alberg scored in the 86th minute to send the game to extra time.

- Injury updates bring good news that extends beyond Edu. Andre Blake’s rib injury isn’t a concern, and he’s ready to go Sunday against New England, a team he’s demonized in the past. He got through training without issue Friday.

- Fabian Herbers cleared what Curtin called “the last hurdle,” shooting at full strength with his adductor strain that his cost him four MLS games. Sunday will be the fifth, as Herbers will join Bethlehem Steel for a home game with Richmond Saturday.

- Warren Creavalle is “ahead of schedule,” Curtin said, on his hamstring strain. But Sunday appears to be a bit too quick for the midfielder.

- Derrick Jones, who left Wednesday’s game with a knee knock, trained fully Friday, as did Ilsinho, who missed the RBA trip after a kick to his calf that led to bruising and swelling, which has dissipated.

- CJ Sapong left the Red Bulls game in extra time after a scary looking fall. Though he wasn’t out on the field for the entire session Friday, Curtin said he’s fine. Though the forward is sporting knocks to his shoulder and leg (“a little bit of a dead leg feeling that goes up into his back,” Curtin said without apparent concern), he should be fine for Sunday, though you wonder if Jay Simpson might be in line for the start to save Sapong for his return to Kansas City Thursday.
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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Union-Red Bulls: Magic of the Open Cup video and lineups

UNION (4-2-3-1) 
Bench: McGuire, Gaddis, Onyewu, Tribbett, Najem, Pontius, Epps 

New York Red Bulls (4-2-3-1) 
Bench: Robles, Allen, Metzger, Etienne, Lade, Royer, Veron 

- Once again, the U.S. Open Cup allows Jim Curtin to use two forwards without abandoning the one-striker formation (shrug emoji). Jay Simpson starts up top, with CJ Sapong on the wing. The ability to spell either of them, with Chris Pontius and Marcus Epps, presents itself on the bench.

- Ilsinho isn’t in the side, which means that Roland Alberg has the No. 10 role all to himself. He’ll have chances to create offense with forwards all around.

- The backline roulette lands on Keegan Rosenberry and Fabinho on the outside. Josh Yaro is in for Oguchi Onyewu. On the whole, no surprises, though a rib injury apparently rules out Andre Blake (or the Union want to get John McCarthy some time since he’ll be the goalie of choice against Sporting Kansas City when Blake is away for the Gold Cup).

- Red Bulls’ lineup is a mishmash, featuring three natural center backs and four natural center mids. I’d opine that Sean Davis becomes a winger opposite the defensive-minded Sal Zizzo and Aaron Long pulls out to the left back role. But we’ll see it in practice.

- These teams have played so often that there are few tactical unknowns. So let’s focus on the psychological ones. How miffed are the Red Bulls at the pointed commentary Haris Medunjanin had for Felipe after last week’s waving away of a red card? How does Derrick Jones rebound for that red 10 days ago? Where is the mind of Sapong after his Gold Cup snub? How are the Red Bulls feeling after the rivalry trouncing by New York City FC last week, motivated or defeated? That’s plenty of subtext.

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Saturday, June 24, 2017

D.C. United-Union: Lineups and prematch observations

UNION (4-2-3-1) 
Gaddis- Elliott-Onyewu-Wijnaldum 
Bench: McCarthy, Rosenberry, Yaro, Tribbett, Alberg, Simpson, Epps 

D.C. United (4-2-3-1) 
Le Toux-Acosta-Neagle 
Bench: Worra, Robinson, Korb, Sarvas, Buscher, Nyarko, Brown 

- Three straight losses lead to a change at the back, and it’s not the one you maybe expect: Giliano Wijnaldum makes his second start of the season for Fabinho. Jack Elliott and Oguchi Onyewu retain their places in the center.

- So thin is the central midfield corps that Ken Tribbett makes the bench as the reserve sans Derrick Jones (suspension) and Warren Creavalle (hamstring). At least Alejandro Bedoya is back in the starting lineup. Otherwise it’s as you were in the attacking half, with Ilsinho getting another look at the No. 10.

- The big name for D.C. United is the return of Sebastien Le Toux. This is Le Toux’s third game at Talen Energy Stadium in a non-Union shirt – March 31, 2012 with Vancouver, then in the season finale in 2012 with New York Red Bulls. Expect a big ovation for the Union stalwart.

- Deshorn Brown starts on the bench for D.C., giving Jose Guillermo Ortiz another go up top. D.C., which played midweek, makes a few changes – in comes Lamar Neagle for Patrick Nyarko, who scored in a win over Atlanta; in comes Jared Jeffrey for Marcelo Sarvas.

- Looking for a matchup to exploit: Chris Odoi-Atsem makes just his second career start at right back. The onus is on Wijnaldum and Fafa Picault to get up the field and put the rookie under pressure early and often.

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Sunday, June 18, 2017

Red Bulls-Union: Lineups and prematch observations

UNION (4-2-3-1) 
Bench: McCarthy, Yaro, Rosenberry, Creavalle, Alberg, Epps, Simpson 

New York Red Bulls (4-2-3-1) 
Bench: Meara,
Bench: Meara, Zizzo, Davis, Lawrence, Metzger, Veron, Etienne

- The Union were strategic in resting veterans in the midweek Open Cup game, which allows some strategic reintroductions. Ray Gaddis regains his place at right back, Fabinho in at the opposite side and Oguchi Onyewu centrally. Chris Pontius and CJ Sapong, who divvied up 90 minutes on the wing against Harrisburg City, are restored to their regular positions, while Fafa Picault is back as the starter on the other wing and Ilsinho is in at the No. 10. It’s perhaps interesting that none of the reserves that performed well Wednesday impressed sufficiently to win starting jobs back (though Marcus Epps is again on the bench).

- When it comes to the holdovers, the central corridor is full of players who logged 90 minutes Wednesday. Jack Elliott (by manager Jim Curtin’s preference) and the central midfield pairing of Derrick Jones and Haris Medunjanin (with no other options) each went the distance against Harrisburg. We’ll see if that workload in the center of park has consequences.

- The Union get a big boost with Warren Creavalle healthy on the bench. Alejandro Bedoya's hamstring injury wasn’t pushed.

- Interesting that Richie Marquez is the odd man out today, not even in the 18. With Josh Yaro having done so much running mid-week, it’ll be interesting to divine what this means for Curtin’s center back pecking order with four healthy options.

- The Red Bulls have tinkered with the idea of deviating from the 4-2-3-1, but they keep returning to the familiar structure. Sacha Kljestan and Bradley Wright-Phillips both went 89 minutes against New York City FC midweek, and Felipe, Aurelien Collin and Alex Muyl went the full 90 (and apparently Aaron Long as an outside back). That could translate into a lot of tired legs, with the heat and high pressure today.

- So much attention was paid to the job that Tyler Adams and Jones did at the U.S. Under-20s. They’ll be going head-to-head today in the engine room of midfield. That’ll be one to watch.

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Friday, June 9, 2017

Keeping it 100: Jim Curtin on the century-mark in games managed

Hitting 100 regular-season games managed in MLS
isn't the biggest thrill in the world for Jim Curtin. (AP)
Jim Curtin’s initial reaction Thursday to news of his 100th MLS game in charge of the Union was a joking “who cares?” muttered under his breath. So monumental was the achievement attained Saturday at New York City FC that Curtin didn’t hear much about it until questioned by the media five days later.

To put it lightly, milestones aren’t what drives Curtin to work every day. They also illustrate something important about his aptitude for the job: For all his early-season pugnacity and occasional prickliness in the face of criticism, he was more than willing to stand in the line of fire and take criticism for his team’s struggles. When it comes to accepting plaudits for his team's accomplishments, he’s far more deferential.

Which brings us back to the answer Thursday:
“It means I’ve been here for 100 games, which is something I guess. At the same time, I believe in the work that we’re doing. I think we are moving things in the right direction and it’s a milestone, but at the same time, the individual stuff isn’t anything I get too excited about, for sure. Wish we could’ve gotten a result on the road against New York City FC for our fans.”
With respect to Curtin’s position, from a historical perspective, it is significant. Jim Curtin is the 31st manager in MLS history to helm 100 MLS regular-season games with a club in one continuous stint. His next game will send him past Ron Newman, who coached exactly 100 contests with Kansas City from 1996-99. (Curtin is also the longest tenured manager in Union history, a less distinguished benchmark.)

An intriguing pattern within the numbers is the proportion of 100-game managers that are active. Of the 31, nine are active managers. The 32nd member of that list will be inaugurated in August when Greg Vanney (93 matches) hits the mark. The full list of active coaches with 100 or more regular-season games managed (through June 4, 2017):
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Monday, May 29, 2017

For improved Union defense, one weakness remains evident

The Union’s defensive record in recent weeks has gone from horrible to tremendous. It’s been rehashed many times, but once more for emphasis – dating to last year and including the playoff loss to Toronto, the Union allowed multiple goals in 12 of 15 games. They haven’t allowed more than one goal in their last six games, conceding a mere two times in that span.

Make no mistake, this is the foundation on which their turnaround his been built.

But though drastically improved, the team still has its vulnerabilities. And one forms the commonality between the last two goals they’ve surrendered, one of which cost them three points against Real Salt Lake Saturday.

Here’s the goal that the Union allowed against Colorado last week in a 2-1 win. Axel Sjoberg takes possession of the ball deep in his own half:

And here’s when Caleb Calvert deposits it in the net: 

That’s nine seconds for the ball to travel nearly 100 yards.

Fast-forward a week to RSL, and a play that begins with a wayward Chris Pontius cross that rolls toward the touchline that Fafa Picault and Tony Beltran pursue (the video doesn’t quite go back that far). Beltran recovers the ball at 35:14.

In 24 seconds, the ball is in the back of the net 90-some yards on, after a succession of nifty passing between the lines featuring Jefferson Savarino and Joao Plata and through a defense that never full resets into its shape. It’s a bit more leisurely a pace than the Colorado goals, but in the way RSL weaves in and out of Union bodies, it’s arguably more concerning.

The Union have gone through spells this season where particular actions have given them difficulties. They’ve been susceptible to moves up the center of the park, a weakness they’ve shored up. In years past, they’ve struggled with quick changes of field or set pieces or any number of issues. It’s a constant game of cat and mouse to adjust, and this vulnerability to the quick counterattack is the next one on the board to repair.

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Friday, May 19, 2017

Notes from training: Riding the wave into Colorado

Ilsinho has started two straight games at the No. 10 role. Jim Curtin
seems to think he could be up for a third Saturday against Colorado.
(For Digital First Media/Mike Reeves)
CHESTER >> For the third time in eight days, the Philadelphia Union will suit up Saturday night against the Colorado Rapids. That backlog of games could mean changes are in the offing, though that conventional wisdom opposes the Union’s red-hot form, in search of the franchise’s first ever four-game winning streak and enjoying in five-game unbeaten run, with the Western Conference straggling Rapids visiting to boot.

Some notes from training Friday:

- Roland Alberg won’t be a part of any squad shuffling Saturday. Manager Jim Curtin ruled the midfielder out after an injection in Alberg’s strained quad. He worked to the side of training with the goal of prepping him for Real Salt Lake next week. “Difficult to not have him, but at the same time, we know that other guys can step up in his absence, but it looks more like next Saturday in Salt Lake hopefully,” Curtin said.

- Two of the more obvious candidates for change Saturday are the oldest legs in the side – defender Oguchi Onyewu and midfielder Ilsinho. Onyewu has played every minute of the three-game winning streak, and Ilsinho has two starts in the No. 10 role under his belt this week. The Brazilian logged 64 minutes in the win over D.C. United and 67 Wednesday against Houston. Here was Curtin’s answer when asked directly about Onyewu and Ilsinho:
“You look at the data: Gooch plays a position where it’s a lot of organizing, it’s winning your duels and he’s done an excellent job of that. It’s not a position where it’s as taxing on the legs. It’s still difficult, but I think he’s up for the task of turning it around. Ilsinho in a newer position for him, I think has adjusted well to it. He’s doing a lot of running defensively. It is tough on the legs, but we’ll look at everything. We’re kind of still in the process of picking the final lineup, but he tells me he’s feeling great.”
On paper, this looks like a decent time to get Adam Najem his first start – at home, against a struggling team, maybe lower expectations. But if Ilsinho is ready to go, he’s Curtin’s preference, it seems.

- One area where the Union have options to swap is the wing, in part because Curtin’s system asks so much of wingers defensively. Chris Pontius and Fafa Picault have forged a bountiful pairing, but Fabian Herbers could slip in a start Saturday, given how the wingers tired against Houston and contributed to the Dynamo applying more pressure than Curtin would’ve liked. Curtin Friday:
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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Union-Dynamo: Lineups and prematch observations

UNION (4-2-3-1) 
Bench: McCarthy, Rosenberry, Marquez, Creavalle, Herbers, Najem, Simpson 

Houston Dynamo (4-3-3) 
Manotas-Torres-Quioto Bench: Deric, Anibaba, Holland, Sanchez, Remick, Wenger, Boniek Garcia 

- No changes from Jim Curtin this week, which should shock no one. Roland Alberg is still out, so Ilsinho gets another shot at the No. 10 role. Oguchi Onyewu and Jack Elliott keep their spots in central defense. And Chris Pontius stays on the same right wing where he’s been so effective late.

- It’s steady as you go for Houston, which makes just one change. Instead of risking Alberth Elis with a hamstring strain, he stays home and Erick Torres, MLS’s leading goal scorer, is restored to the starting XI for the Western Conference leaders.

- If you’re looking for a matchup to watch tonight, might I suggest the wings? Romell Quioto and Mauro Manotas have stretched opposing defenses vertically and horizontally, spreading defenses out and getting in behind. Ray Gaddis and Fabinho will have their hands full; they need to keep those two in front of them and prevent dangerous crosses from the byline in the direction of a dangerous target man like Cubo Torres. Given the steamy conditions tonight, expect Fabian Herbers to be ready to spell one of the wingers sooner rather than later since they’ll have to run plenty, too.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A perfect 10? Curtin gives Ilsinho high marks in new role

Ilsinho, here splitting a pair of D.C. United defenders in the April trip
to RFK Stadium, performed admirably in the No. 10 role last week.
(For Digital First Media/Mike Reeves)
CHESTER >> For the 16 or so months that Ilsinho has been with the Philadelphia Union, a false equivalency has sprung up around him.

The Brazilian is impeccably creative, capable of summoning tricks with a soccer ball that many dare not dream attempting. A career winger in Europe whose upbringing in the Brazilian ranks occurred as an outside back, Ilsinho has played his entire career on the flanks. But his skillset, to an American audience, mimics what is expected from a No. 10 – the passing, the runs, the danger but reticence to shoot, the diminished defensive responsibility.

To slide him centrally by 20 or so yards couldn’t be that different for him, right?

“Everything is different at this position,” Ilsinho said Tuesday.

Well, then.

Ilsinho capably handled matters in the middle of the park in Saturday’s 4-0 win over D.C. United. He made way in the 64th, just before Oguchi Onyewu’s second goal sent the visitors flying toward a rout. But his first foray of the season in the No. 10 role in the absence of Roland Alberg was promising, even if it entailed a good deal of change for the 31-year-old.

“Everything is new for me because I just played it two times last year, just the first two games,” Ilsinho said. “I have to move different, I have to run different. I have to look for some space, look for the final pass for other guys.”

For as different as the position might have felt to Ilsinho, manager Jim Curtin thought it extracted some of the traits the staff sought from him out wide. And while the final touch remains lacking – see the 21st-minute passage in which he does magnificently to create space but curls a meek effort straight at goalie Bill Hamid – the initial signs are encouraging for a player who hasn’t played there since the opening two games of 2016 when Tranquillo Barnetta was injured.

“I thought a lot of things we worked on him as a winger came out in the game,” Curtin said Tuesday. “We’ve been trying to get him to run in behind the defense a little more, since he has a tendency to come inside and not stretch them as much and hold the ball at his field. Strangely, as a No. 10, you saw the ball that Fabinho plays him over the top where he’s running behind aggressively, the one that (Steve) Birnbaum makes that hell of a play in the box to defend otherwise that’s a great goal, a tap-in from Ilsinho and a really good action from Chris (Pontius). To get him to do that, to run hard in the box, was really eye-opening, was good.”

“It’s different but the good point is that I have more freedom, I can move to both sides, left or right,” Ilsinho said. “But I need to run at it a little bit more. But it’s good. I just try to help my teammates, and I try looking for CJ (Sapong) or Fafa (Picault) or Chris when I get the ball. It’s different, but it’s good.”
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