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

Friday, September 27, 2013

History says Union stretch drive could be rough

I don’t think it would shock anyone to reveal that a fair amount of eyebrows were raised Wednesday when Philadelphia Union manager John Hackworth stopped short of categorizing Friday’s trip to Sporting Kansas City as a must-win.

Here are Hackworth’s words when posed the question:

“I think you can get into a little bit of a tough situation if players think that every week, it’s got to happen this week,” he said. “The reality is if you look at the last five games, and you’ve got Kansas City twice in that last five, going away to Kansas City certainly is going to be a huge, difficult game for us. But I don’t think it’s one that people are going to say, ‘Philly’s got to win this one to put themselves back in the race.’ You look at the home games in the rest of the schedule and think there’s better games to do that. My answer to you is that we’re probably learning as we go, but we have to keep things in check so we don’t let that pressure get to us.”

The rather arbitrary number set by Hackworth for the Union’s final five games is 10 points, i.e. three wins and a draw. That total would bring the Union (10-10-9, 39 points) to 49 points, which guarantees nothing in terms of the playoff race. We’ve seen that in the past, 52 has seemed a decent benchmark, but then things haven’t exactly gone to form in the Eastern Conference this season.

To use history as a guide, then, here’s a question that I posed in Friday’s paper: How many times in the Union’s four-year history have they managed some combination of results over five MLS games to earn 10 or more points (so at a minimum, three wins and one draw in five games)? The answer is eight (points in parentheses): Read more »

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Column: A Union script that is sounding tired

John Hackworth isn’t exactly a betting man. He’s not the type of manager who tries to play the role of master puppeteer with a group of players, not a coach who changes formations and lineups just because the club crest on his blazer tells him he can.

But Hackworth is making a gamble over the last month of the MLS season. He’s wagering that the team that has brought the second-year coach to the brink of playoff qualification but has lately looked less than playoff-worthy can finish the job. And lately, it’s looked like the chips have been stacked against him in the pursuit.

Maybe it’s that Hackworth has an idea of what cards are left in the deck – what the real value of potentially idealized bench options like Michael Farfan or Kleberson or Roger Torres are when the cards are laid out on the green stuff the next five weeks. Maybe it’s that Hackworth is a devotee of disseminating a steady message, has unwillingness to burden his players with their proximity to the panic button or simply respects them enough to know that they must know stakes at this point.

Hackworth didn’t sound Wednesday like a manager whose team has scored just once in five matches and picked up five points in the standings since the end of July.

Part of it, from the cynical perspective, reeks of complacency. “If you guys would’ve asked me that in February, that we would be in the thick of it” goes the popular Hackworth refrain, “I would take it, for sure, especially with five games to play.” Implicit in that statement is an acknowledgement that the Union team that spent the majority of the summer within striking distance of the Eastern Conference summit punched well above its weight and is returning to earth, quickly and with a thud. Read more »

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And the answer to the Union's problems is not...

The answers John Hackworth gave Wednesday as to his team’s potential late-season turnaround were a lot of the same: Emphasizing process, reassuring that the same players who have been there all year will be around to help them chase a playoff spot they not long ago had a solid grasp on.

Part of that affirmation of the status quo was eschewing the possibility that changes were on offer, in particular in a midfield where the talents of Roger Torres and Kleberson would seem to be in demand. They haven’t been, though, and they’re not expected to be anytime soon.

Here’s what Hackworth had to say on both.

On Torres:

“Sure, there’s a shot. But how many minutes did you say he played? In reality, I don’t think we’re in a desperate situation. And I think if you start to reach for straws and play guys who haven't really represented your team at this point in the year, then you’re getting to desperate times. Roger has done well in training the last couple of weeks – that’s why he was in the 18 against Houston. But I think it’s unrealistic to say that you’re going to go to a guy that has played under 40 minutes for you all year.”

On Kleberson:

“I think every guy on our roster has a very important role to play, but similar to the way I talked about Roger earlier, I wouldn’t expect us to go to desperate lengths and play guys that haven’t been a part of what we do all year. I would make the point to all of you that this is the first time the entire season that we’ve lost two games in a row. And saying that, probably shouldn’t have lost two games in a row. We’re a team that has bounced back and we’ve been a team that has, for the most part, when we’ve had a bad performance, we’ve come back and had a good one. And that’s consistency. I don’t know how you measure that. But the way I’m looking at it, we’ve been pretty good in those situations. Now it’s a tough challenge. It’s been two games that we haven’t gotten results, and we need to bounce back from it.

“I’m not trying to send any message to the fan base. I’m trying to put 11 players on the field that game-in and game-out, give us the best chance to win. And Kleberson has been a big part of that. But I would go back to the real reasons that he is here and what he has done for the club. And those are different for our coaching staff and for the players in the locker room.”

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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Union-Dynamo: Lineups and pre-game thoughts

Philadelphia Union (4-4-2)
Le Toux-Casey
Bench: Nikolov, Lahoud, Torres, Farfan, Wheeler, Hoppenot.

Houston Dynamo (4-4-2)
Bench: Marscheider, Ching, Cummings, Chabala, Lopez, Ownby, Carrasco. 

 - John Hackworth promised changes, and he’s delivered. Sort of. A beleaguered midfield gets a boost on the wings with Fabinho, who had deputized for the suspended Amobi Okugo in defense, coming in to presumably play on the left with Danny Cruz going to the right. Sebastien Le Toux moves up top to pair Conor Casey at his more natural striker position, while Jack McInerney heads to the bench.

- What isn’t changed, however, is the Union’s predictability in attack. With Keon Daniel in the center, there’s still an attacking stagnancy there, and the onus will be on Fabinho and Cruz to provide crosses to the two, 6-foot target met. Creative.

- But the Union may have a change of pace available on the bench in Roger Torres, who’s been limited to just 37 minutes in three MLS appearances this season. That breakthrough comes at the expense of Kleberson, who is not included in the 18-man roster today.

- Houston will have the services of newly-acquired Servando Carrasco, picked up from Seattle in exchange for Adam Moffat Friday, on the bench. Will Bruin and Cam Weaver start up top with Giles Barnes and Brad Davis doing the majority of the creating in midfield thanks to Oscar Boniek Garcia’s suspension.

- Let’s not mince words here: Both teams are winless in their last four. A win by either side puts the other team into full tailspin mode. The Union could put five points between them and the Dynamo tonight with a win. This is a game playoff teams must win.

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Friday, September 13, 2013

Chris Konopka traded to Toronto, Supplemental Draft cut?

The Philadelphia Union made a personnel move Friday, trading reserve goalkeeper Chris Konopka to Toronto FC for a third-round pick in next year’s MLS SuperDraft. Perhaps the most stirring revelation of the trade is that what the Union got in return actually existed.

First, there’s Konopka, the 28-year-old ’keeper who joined the Union in 2012 and for whom Toronto is his fourth MLS stop. He made just one league appearance in nearly two years with the Union, a 1-0 loss to none other than Toronto May 26, 2012. Three days later, Konopka shut out the Rochester Rhinos, 3-0, for the Union’s first ever win in the U.S. Open Cup.

Konopka served as the backup for the first 24 league matches of the 2013 season behind Zac MacMath, who’s played every MLS minute and leads the league in shutouts. A knee injury kept Konopka out of the matchday 18 since Aug. 17, and he has been supplanted by veteran summer signing Oka Nikolov. 

Konopka, who was recently named one of the Philadelphia Daily News' Sexy Singles, was a bit of a fan favorite as backup goalies tend to be. He tweeted Friday morning:

As for the SuperDraft, which will be held in Philadelphia in 2014, the format has apparently changed. Instead of two rounds with a four-round supplemental draft, the latter has been eschewed for just a four-round SuperDraft this season, a fact that MLS never directly announced (there's even still info on the MLS site touting the supplemental draft).

However many rounds the league finally decides the draft will entail, the Union will be armed with an a bevy of picks. In addition to their four allotted picks, the Union have Chivas’ first pick thanks to the Gabriel Farfan trade, Chicago’s second-rounder in exchange for Bakary Soumare and a conditional pick acquired from Los Angeles in return for Chandler Hoffman.

The Supplemental Draft has been pretty friendly to the Union, as they've managed to extract the likes of Antoine Hoppenot in 2012 and Leo Fernandes in the final round of 2013. (Konopka, it should be noted, was picked in the third round of the 2007 Supplemental Draft by Kansas City.)

The league has jockeyed back and forth with the Supplemental Draft, twice dropping it then reinstating it, the last time being in 2011 after a two-year hiatus. Among the players to come through the Supplemental Draft process through the years: Adam Jahn (2013); Aaron Schoenfeld, Greg Klazura, Brian Rowe and Andy Rose (2012); Ryan Richter (2011); Chris Tierney (2008); Steve Purdy, Kosuke Kimura and Daniel Woolard (2007); Jordan Harvey, Andy Gruenebaum and Daniel Paladini (2006).

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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Is Amobi Okugo the answer to the Union's midfield issues?

It’s becoming apparent that the problems of the Philadelphia Union are myriad. It’s been 220 minutes since they last scored a goal. They have just three wins in their last 12, two coming against conference bottom dwellers Chivas and D.C. United. Since Aug. 1, their total of five points is second-lowest in MLS. For the first time since late May, they are saddled with a negative goal-differential.

Through it all, though, one area of the Union’s recent futility has stood apart: The midfield. And the possible solution, one that is looking manager John Hackworth squarely in the face, is one that will likely go unexplored.
Is Amobi Okugo the answer
to the Union's midfield struggles? (Times Files)

The problem
Just how difficult has it been for the Union midfield? Well, it depends on perception. Defensively, the Union have managed to recover from a rough start to the season to present pretty stout resistance to opponents. But the realization is setting in that such defensive solidity comes at a steep offensive price, and the Union have been woeful in that regard this season.

It’s easy to see tactically. The Union’s deficiency of midfield depth has caused them to play Sebastien Le Toux out of position all season. Danny Cruz’s performances have been inconsistent. Keon Daniel has struggled to grasp the notion of an “attacking midfielder.” Michael Farfan has constantly underwhelmed. And creative players like Kleberson and Roger Torres haven’t been able to get on the field for whatever reason.
Read more »

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Monday, September 9, 2013

Earthquakes 1-0 Union: The long road back from California

About all you needed to know about the Union’s latest uninspired performance, a 1-0 loss at San Jose late Sunday night, won’t make the highlight reels, even for the Earthquakes. As the game went into stoppage time, San Jose sub Steven Lenhart ragged the ball to the corner flag to waste time. He proceeded to earn a corner kick, a second corner, a foul by Brian Carroll, another foul on Carroll, then a throw-in. About two minutes of the Union’s comeback effort was wasted 115 yards from its goal.

That image perfectly encapsulates the Union’s night. Even when they went up a man thanks to Rafael Baca’s red card in the 57th minute (the 11th shown to a Union opponent this season), they showed little fight and even less purpose until later. The problems, in list form:

- The Union have one goal in the last 374 minutes. They haven’t scored in 220 minutes. John Hackworth can play his cards close to the vest all he wants on his attack, but there are problems. Big ones.

- The Union are creating chances, though. The issue is the lack of quality finishing. They forced four saves from John Busch, only Carroll’s late drive forcing him to a tough action. Sebastien Le Toux scuffed a shot and made an open chance into an easy roller on goal. Jack McInerney, his confidence no longer in the same time zone as he, missed a couple of chances. And Sheanon Williams and Keon Daniel hit posts. In the effort department, it was too little, too late. Read more »

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