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

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:
Read more »

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Union-Dynamo: Lineups and prematch observations

UNION (4-2-3-1) 
Blake 
Gaddis-Elliott-Onyewu-Fabinho 
Bedoya-Medunjanin 
Picault-Ilsinho-Pontius 
Sapong 
Bench: McCarthy, Rosenberry, Marquez, Creavalle, Herbers, Najem, Simpson 

Houston Dynamo (4-3-3) 
Willis 
DeLaGarza-Machado-Leonardo-Beasley 
Alex-Cabezas-Clark 
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.”
Read more »

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Home sweet home: Time is now for Union to capitalize at Talen

Talen Energy Stadium has been anything but a happy hunting ground
for Chris Pontius and the Union this season.
(Digital First Media/Mike Reeves)
Laid before the Philadelphia Union this week is a notable opportunity. Twice, Western Conference foes will arrive in Chester. Both present compelling cases why the Union could glean three points from their respective encounters. Both are positioned as golden chances for a hot Union side to perpetuate its recent run of strong form in a place where wins are (supposedly) easier to come by.

For a team that has been close to broken this season, this week hardly qualifies as a make-or-break stretch. But history would suggest a huge burden for the Union to recoup a significant return of points against Houston Wednesday, then Colorado Saturday, to prove their recent four-game unbeaten streak isn't a flash in MLS's parity pan.

(I fully realize the ludicrousness of what I'm about to propose. To pillory the Union for months on end and see them endure 252 winless days, then assert that they can win four times in 15 days seems even to me the height of optimism bordering on insanity. But little makes sense in MLS, so why let that stop us?)

When this week ends, the Union will have played seven of their scheduled 17 games at Talen Energy Stadium in 2017. Currently, the Union stand 1-2-2 in five home contests, a yield of five points from a possible 15. That's suboptimal, but to what degree?

The Union have claimed only 33.3 percent of the home points available this season. Unsurprisingly, that paltry return doesn’t correlate well with playoff aspirations. Read more »

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Saturday, May 13, 2017

Union-D.C. United: Lineups and game thread

UNION (4-2-3-1) 
Blake 
Gaddis-Elliott-Onyewu-Fabinho 
Medunjanin-Bedoya 
Pontius-Ilsinho-Picault 
Sapong 
Bench: McCarthy, Marquez, Rosenberry, Creavalle, Herbers, Najem, Simpson 

D.C. United (4-1-4-1) 
Hamid 
Birnbaum-Opare-Boswell-Kemp 
Jeffrey 
Sam-Harkes-Acosta-Neagle 
Mullins 
Bench: Worra, Robinson, Korb, Odoi-Atsem, Ortiz, Sarvas, Le Toux 

- A win = NO CHANGES ALLOWED for the Union, apparently. Ray Gaddis is again preferred to Keegan Rosenberry, and Oguchi Onyewu and Jack Elliott each keep their spots even with Richie Marquez at full health. There’s a certain logic to that, and we’ll see how it works.

- The one change is one some have been clamoring for: Ilsinho as the No. 10. He doesn’t seem to be changing games as a winger, so why not try him centrally in the absence of Roland Alberg (quad)? The only slight issue in this: 60 percent of the supposed attack five (Ilsinho, Alejandro Bedoya and Fafa Picault) have a combined 0 goals and 0 assists this year. At least Bedoya gets another game in the No. 8, where he’s been quite good.

- D.C. goes defensive with the backline, with Steven Birnbaum playing at right back, an injury-depleted position for them. Sebastien Le Toux is sitting he bench with Patrick Mullins restored to the starting lineup along with Bill Hamid.

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Tuesday, May 9, 2017

From Lone Star to World Cup, on Derrick Jones' Under-20 call-up

Derrick Jones, right, has gone from Junior Lone Star's youth team
to the U.S. Under-20 squad at this month's World Cup. (AP)
“I think the future of soccer on the global stage relies on kids coming from the inner-cities.”

That sentiment was being relayed to me Monday evening at Penn Wood Middle School by Neewillie Saie, the first-team coach for Junior Lone Star. The club hits a milestone Wednesday when they travel to South Jersey to take on Ocean City Nor’easters in the first round of the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the first time that the club founded in 2001 has advanced to the main draw of the 104-year-old domestic cup competition.

Tuesday featured a bit of news with similar resonance for Junior Lone Star’s standing in the American landscape: Derrick Jones, the Ghanaian-born midfielder who traces his American soccer roots to Junior Lone Star, was named to the U.S. roster for the Under-20 World Cup that begins this month.

The two pieces of news aren’t related. Jones was famously plucked from Junior Lone Star at age 15, already an imposing midfielder who has grown into a 6-foot-4 stature, when the Lone Stars played a Union academy side. Since, Jones has been among the pioneering members of the Union Academy at YSC Sports in Wayne before signing as a Homegrown Player last summer, ending a nearly five-year drought in that department.

Jones was among the minutes leaders for Bethlehem Steel’s inaugural team and has established himself as a regular with the Union this year, playing eight games and making five starts. He was cleared to represent the U.S. in a competitive match just last week, having played in one match and several training camps for the Under-20s. Jones previously represented Ghana at the U-15 level.

I happened to be chatting with the Junior Lone Star coaching staff and players Monday, so I figured I’d ask what effect Jones’ ascent has had on the club. (It’s one of many quality nuggets for which I simply have no room in the story in Wednesday’s Delco Times.)

“It changes a whole lot,” said Bobby Ali, a co-founder of the club and now the Under-23 coach after a successful stint as the first-team skipper. “It helps us get a lot of players because when they come here, they think they’re going to get the same opportunities that Derrick Jones had. It’s a good name for us, a good name for us. People feel that when they come here.”



Wednesday’s article focuses on the first team, but it’s worth pointing out that Junior Lone Star also fields U-23 and U-19 sides. The Under-23 team plays in the Philadelphia Premier Soccer League (PPSL) alongside a senior team, which also plays in the National Premier Soccer League’s Keystone Conference. The ultimate aspiration would be to get U-23s into the Open Cup eventually, and that could come to fruition down the road.

For now, Junior Lone Star hopes to position itself in an important role, as Saie indicates. They have a foothold in a community where many talents like Jones can go overlooked, and greater visibility for the club means greater chance of those talents being spotted.

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Monday, May 8, 2017

Meet the new CJ: Why 2017 has been different for Sapong

CJ Sapong has had plenty to celebrate this season, including Saturday's hat trick
against the Red Bulls. (For Digital First Media/Mike Reeves)
Once or twice or seven times in the past, I’ve made the argument about a central deficiency of the Philadelphia Union: Never in franchise history has the club had a truly elite goalscorer, a top-10 MLS hit man to lead the line and paper over cracks elsewhere in the side.

They’ve had a lot of other positives – exemplary chance-creators (Sebastien Le Toux, the ultimate luxury player Cristian Maidana and now Haris Medunjanin), top defenders (Jeff Parke and Carlos Valdes, part one), even a goalkeeper of the year, hard as that may be to believe.

But the Union have flailed in vain for nearly a decade trying to find that star to reliably put goals in the back of the net and strike fear into the heart of opponents (pun intended). They’ve tried to go young, go old, draft and loan, literally around the world.

For all that searching, through the first quarter of the 2017 MLS season, CJ Sapong has looked like that elusive striker. Now we’ve heard versions of this story before – ah the halcyon days of #Sapong4USMNT – and it’s well established that Sapong hasn’t yet in his career been a double-digit scorer in MLS.

That reality caused a bit of tension following the Union’s 3-0 win over New York Red Bulls Saturday when that question was put to Union manager Jim Curtin (or at least was attempted; I’ll refer you to Kevin Kinkead’s timeline for further details).

So let’s attempt the query again: What makes 2017 different than the previous six seasons of evidence we have on Sapong? What evidence is there that nine goals isn’t the rigid ceiling it’s appeared to be, one Sapong has hit twice but never broken through (2015 with the Union and 2012 with Sporting Kansas City)?

Curtin’s response was short on details:
“He’s the same. He’s the same player. He’s confident though, and when strikers are confident, they go on runs, just like Bradley Wright-Phillips, when he’s confident, he goes on runs. David Villa, the same thing. It’s not one thing. It’s getting services, it’s a little bit of timing and movement in the box, sometimes a ball just drops to you and you get on a streak. The finish on a PK, he does that. He’s scored goals a lot of different ways, and CJ is again a very good striker who’s in good form right now, and when he’s confident, he’s as dangerous as anybody in our league.”

Since forecasting the future is not exactly my forte, let’s instead look at the present, which will tell you that Sapong is one of MLS’s most efficient forwards in the early going of the season.
Read more »

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Saturday, May 6, 2017

Union-Red Bulls: Lineups and pregame observations

UNION (4-2-3-1) 
Blake 
Gaddis-Elliott-Onyewu-Fabinho 
Medunjanin-Bedoya 
Pontius-Alberg-Picault 
Sapong 
Bench: McCarthy, Rosenberry, Wijnaldum, Jones, Ilsinho, Herbers, Simpson

Red Bulls (4-2-3-1) 
Robles 
Murillo-Long-Perrinelle-Lawrence 
Adams-Felipe 
Muyl-Kljestan-Royer 
Wright-Phillips 
Bench: Meara, Ndam, Zizzo, Grella, Davis, Veron, Etienne, Gulbrandsen

- All eyes on the backline, where Jim Curtin takes the safe route. A week after keeping a clean sheet in Los Angeles, he preserves the back four as much as in is his power, with Ray Gaddis starting for a third straight game at right back instead of Keegan Rosenberry. It would seem at home that the Union could’ve gone with a more attacking backline, but instead Curtin remains shackled by the result = no change equation. Oguchi Onyewu steps in for Richie Marquez due to illness, the first time Marquez has missed an MLS game since the 2016 opener.

- Injury precludes Ilsinho from taking part for a season straight week, which allows Fafa Picault to keep his spot in the lineup. Still no Fabian Herbers in the lineup, but Picault is being given the chance to show his stuff yet again.

- Giliano Wijnaldum sighting: He’s on the bench, for the first time this season. Baby steps.

- The Red Bulls cobbled together a makeshift lineup in Wednesday’s loss at Kansas City, so the first-team stance returns this week, with many of the rested names restored to the lineup. Felipe went the full 90 Wednesday, so he could be one to exploit in the middle of the pitch, but Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan are plenty rested.

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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

'You're the worst:' The Union winless streak goes global

It's been that kind of year for Jim Curtin,
Ilsinho and the Union. (AP)
You may have heard once or twice, in this space and others, a slight bit about the struggles of the Philadelphia Union in recent weeks. You may be aware that the Union haven’t won a competitive game since last August. You may know that it’s been 15 MLS regular season games plus a playoff contest. I don’t know what you read, so I can’t be sure.

Suffice it to say that the purview of the Union beatwriter in recent weeks has been plumbing the depths of the club’s struggles to provide context that goes beyond qualitative generalities like bad luck and low confidence.

So I got to wondering … We know how the Union’s barren streak stacks up with the worst in MLS history. But since it got some global attention this week, is the Union’s winless streak the worst ongoing run in the world?

On that front, Union fans, I have good news. That Union are not the worst soccer team in the world! (prayer hands emoji) But they’re probably closer than you’d like.

Around the world in 80 leagues

How to figure out the worst team in the world? Well, clearly that’s a subjective, nonsensical measure. So I spent the afternoon combing through the soccer web looking for the longest winless streaks in top divisions across the globe. The analysis looked at the top flights in 74 countries (including MLS) for teams with the most enduring winless streaks. That group includes five continents plus Australia (though for soccer purposes, that’s Asia) and includes the top 30 or so leagues in Europe based on UEFA coefficients. (Sorry to the Moldovan Union fans.)

And the winner in losing is … Say hello to Young Lions of Singapore, which is winless in 19 consecutive games. In the 2017 season, the club based in Kallang has lost all seven games. They concluded the 2016 season with 12 winless games to cap a 2-19-3 record. The Young Lions are 0-16-3 in the string with 15 straight losses. The last win was May 12, 2016, almost a year ago.

But … there’s a catch. The Young Lions are a developmental team, essentially the Singapore Under-23 squad. So full-fledged professional, they aren’t exactly. Which brings us to …

Having a Bal-tic Read more »

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Monday, May 1, 2017

We're going streaking: Diving into the Union's interminable winless run

Saturday's draw for Alejandro Bedoya, right, and the Union
to Joao Pedro's L.A. Galaxy makes it 16 straight games without a win
for the club. (AP)
I made an attempt in Monday’s paper to hit whatever passes as positives with regard to the moribund 2017 Union season, and the dredging left me slightly spent. So in the constant drive for content and the absence of any positives on the team side, figured I’d steer into the skid as it grabs headlines on both sides of the Atlantic.

There’s ambiguity in the numbers that bothered me that I needed to get to the bottom of: I tweeted two weeks ago about the Union’s historical standing in the annals of MLS winless streak history. Those numbers weren’t cut and dry since I remained unsure if they factored in playoff games officially, since teams on historic winless streaks shouldn’t be making the playoffs, as I understand that concept. But the Union broke the mold with their slide last year somehow not precluding playoff positioning.

That led to a deeper dive to add texture and context to the teams the Union are chasing (read: praying to avoid). I was unsurprised – and you may be, too – to find a strong correlation between lengthy winless streaks and both missing the playoffs and low finishes in the standings. (You know, correlation vs. causation but in this case, just no.) By necessity this season, the Union have clung to the notion that they’re just one win away from a sea change in results like an ideological lifesaver. The truth is that there’s very, very little historical context to back that assertion, though the Union are bucking other trends.

Here’s the list of the eight most barren streaks in MLS history, annotated by the seasonal breakdown of those games and the team’s record in the streak. You’ll note that each winless gamut has bridged seasons.

Colorado Rapids, 18 games (July 30, 2014-April 4, 2015 – 14 to end season, 4 to start), 0-13-5
Real Salt Lake, 18 games (Aug. 10, 2005-May 6, 2006 – 12 to end season, 6 to start), 0-16-2
San Jose, 16 games (Aug. 8, 2014-March 7, 2015 – 15 to end season, 1 to start), 0-9-7
UNION, 16 games (Sept. 3, 2016-present – 7 to end season, 1 playoff game, 8 to start), 0-10-6
Chivas USA, 15 games (Aug. 12, 2012-March 2, 2013 – 14 to end season, 1 to start), 0-11-4
D.C. United, 15 games (Aug. 10, 2013-March 29, 2014 – 12 to end season, 3 to start), 0-11-4
Real Salt Lake, 15 games (Sept. 23, 2006-June 17, 2007 – 4 to end season, 11 to start), 0-6-9
Toronto FC, 15 games (July 28, 2012-March 2, 2013 – 14 to end season, 1 to start), 0-11-4

Quick accounting note: For weeks, I’ve excluded the Union’s playoff loss from the streak or added it with a caveat, unsure if the other streaks were just regular-season matches while similarly ignoring playoff contests. Since the Union are the only member of this ignominious octet with a playoff loss, I’m factoring it in now.

In a class of their own
Read more »

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