Union-Red Bulls thoughts: Focus on future but still reasons to fight

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Union-Red Bulls thoughts: Focus on future but still reasons to fight

Union (8-12-8) at Red Bulls (12-10-5)
1 p.m. on ESPN

Separated by nine points in the Eastern Conference standings, there’s little at stake when the Union and New York Red Bulls meet Sunday afternoon at Red Bulls Arena. But that won’t stop either team from preparing for a fight as the familiar clubs clash in New Jersey.

No handouts
With six games remaining in the regular season and the Union sinking to the bottom of the East, the focus turns to the future. But as Union manager Jim Curtin explained Wednesday, that change in focus doesn’t mean playing time will come as a charity for up-and-coming players.

“It won’t just be to throw six or seven guys out there and say good luck, I don’t think that’s a good idea for the development of young players,” the manager said. “We need to continue to fight for points, we have six games left. Is there a window and dip in form from certain guys, maybe we’ll find a way to get them in.”

Players like Adam Najem, Marcus Epps, Derrick Jones, Keegan Rosenberry and even defender Auston Trusty, are considered the next wave of talent for the Union, a team with little to be excited about. Yet if those young players want more playing time, they’ll have to earn it. 

“We still pick the team each week based on how they perform in training and things won’t be just handed to people,” Curtin said. “If Warren Creavalle is outperforming Derrick Jones in training, in every practice session, and I choose for Derrick because he’s young, I think it sends a bad message to the team.”

But that process doesn’t mean the Union are analyzing every move from their prospects. Curtin explained that if you can’t impress with the Union’s USL affiliate, Bethlehem Steel, you probably won’t thrive with the Union.

“Right now, how many guys do we have dominating those Bethlehem Steel games? It’s not enough, it’s not enough right now,” Curtin said. “The performances that happen in those games are judged and judged harshly. We will play young players but we’ll also play the team that gives us the best chance at getting three points.” 

Defensive changes
One of the Union’s young prospects that is getting an opportunity to shine might not dress Sunday. Defender Josh Yaro, who sat out last weekend’s draw with Minnesota United because of a red-card suspension, injured his knee in training this week.

“Yaro picked up a knee injury, it swelled up on him,” said Curtin, who also noted that Yaro could still make Sunday’s starting lineup. “A knock he took on the knee in training.” 

If it lingers, however, the injury puts the Union in a tough position. With center back Oguchi Onyewu suspended against the Red Bulls because of yellow card accumulation, the Union could pull Richie Marquez out of mothballs to play next to Jack Elliott at center back.

“Richie had a very good day of training and that’s how we trained today, with Elliott and Richie on his left,” Curtin said. “It’s something that we’re confident in, something we’ve seen a bunch of the years.”

If Marquez does make the starting roster, which isn’t a given, it will be a golden opportunity for the 25-year-old. After making 53 starts over the last two seasons, Marquez only made eight starts in 2017 as he fell behind Elliott and Onyewu on the depth chart.

“Richie is a guy who is a pro, keeps his mouth shut and does his work each and every day,” Curtin said. “He’s a guy that I trust and still believe in. I know it’s been a difficult year for him, he’s been kinda the odd man out, but he can easily get in. He knows what we’re about with our back line and a guy whose number could be called.” 

Up for the fight
Despite the difference in the standings, the Union have played the Red Bulls with vigor in the club’s first two matches. The Union dominated the first game, 3-0, but dropped the second, 2-0, after falling to 10 men.

“We know what they’re about, they are a team that will high press, have a ton of fight and energy,” Curtin said. “It’s a rivalry game in their building, which will be difficult because they are in a good run of form now and we need to give maximum effort to get three points.”

If the two previous matches weren’t a signal to the Red Bulls to take the Union seriously, playoff implications will. As it stands, the Red Bulls, who have an Open Cup finals against Sporting Kansas City match Wednesday, hold the final playoff spot in the East with 41 points — five more than trailing Montreal Impact.

“They are a better team than their results,” Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch said about the Union, “They are a dangerous team. I know they are always up to play us, especially at Red Bulls Arena. We know that will be a really important one.”

Keep an eye on …
C.J. Sapong: The Union leading scorer buried his 13th of the season last weekend against Minnesota United, and he should have had a second. Sapong is playing well and will be a person of interest for the Red Bulls back line.

Bradley Wright-Phillips: With the Open Cup Finals on Wednesday, it’s not a given that Wright-Phillips will even play Sunday. But if he does, he’s the guy to watch. BWP had both goals in the 2-0 win over the Union back on June 3. He has 15 on the season.

5. This and that
• The Union are 6-12-3 against the Red Bulls all time, with much of that damage coming on the road. They are 1-7-1 at Red Bulls Arena.

• The Union enter Sunday’s match winless in their last five matches, with a 0-2-3 record. Meanwhile, Red Bulls are 1-1-3 over the same span.

• With 13 goals on the season, Sapong is one away from the Union franchise record of 14, set by Sebastien Le Toux in 2010.

• The Union will get captain Alejandro Bedoya back in the midfield after he missed last week’s match because of a yellow-card accumulation suspension.

NBA 2K18 release moves Sixers, NBA toward inaugural NBA 2K League season

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AP Images

NBA 2K18 release moves Sixers, NBA toward inaugural NBA 2K League season

For sports gamers across the country, Friday marked the anticipated opening whistle for NBA 2K18, the latest version of the most popular sports title in North America. But for the Sixers and NBA, it means another milestone in the progression toward the inaugural season of NBA 2K League.

“It’s huge,” said NBA 2K League managing director Brendan Donohue. “Everyone connected to this thing is wildly excited about the game coming out. It definitely throws some gas on the fire in terms of our excitement level, the teams and their respective markets. This will be another crescendo point on our calendar in the next six months.”

And there’s reason to be excited. NBA 2K League is a budding esports competition based on NBA 2K18 and future NBA 2K releases. Expected to begin in May 2018, the Sixers and 16 others NBA franchises will build a roster of professional gamers to battle it out on the NBA 2K18 court in fully staffed 5-on-5 games. 

“Since the league was announced in February, we’ve seen a growing excitement around the game and it keeps getting higher and higher,” Donohue said. “For us, we’re excited the game is well received and that the community is excited about it.”

While the idea of a competitive league based around a video game may seem foreign to many, joining the NBA 2K League wasn’t a shortsighted investment for the Sixers, who are extremely active in the esports space.

“The potential is endless,” said Sixers Chief Sales and Marketing Officer Chris Heck.

Newzoo, a market research firm dedicated to digital gaming, predicts general esports revenues will more than double to upwards of $1.5 billion by 2020. Jumping on that wave of momentum in September 2016, the Sixers purchased Team Dignitas as their first foray into esports.

“We had a very fast and hard dose of reality when we were investigating the purchase of Team Dignitas, our esports franchise,” Heck said. “What we found out was maybe half the world is watching traditional stick and ball sports, and we feel really good about that. But there’s the other half of the world and they are into esports. It was a no-brainer for us to jump into this space and we’re seeing the results with compelling numbers from our sponsors both locally and internationally.” 

According to Forbes, each NBA 2K League organization paid $750,000 to buy-in for a three-year commitment, with more NBA teams lined up to join in for the second season.

“It’s not for the faint of heart but we’re not in this business to just get through the day,” Heck said. “We want to do something that changes the future landscape. It’s a big commitment because we believe in it and we believe in esports in general, we obviously believe in the NBA and we think that being one of the original franchises is a gift.”

Being an original franchise in an original league also means building a team from scratch. Before organizations like the Sixers enter the competition, they need to identify, analyze and draft players. The first league draft will take place in March with tryouts held in February. 

There could even be a NBA-style lottery to determine pick seeding.

“We want all 17 teams to be successful and have a chance at being successful, so yes, you will see a draft from us,” Donohue said. “All of the teams will be able to draft their players, and we’ll create a system where they can identify those players.” 

Unlike many other esports clubs, once drafted, the 2K pros, who will be salaried, will move to their host city, live in a team-supplied gaming house and practice together. With the Sixers' infrastructure and connection to Dignitas, Donohue believes the Philadelphia team has an opportunity to stand out.

“The Sixers are already using their practice facility for crossover opportunities with Dignitas, so that’s really where it's amazing to see potential,” he said. “The player experience, whether that's access to education around nutrition, sleep, psychology and doctors. They have state of the art medical operations and facilities, it will be a pretty cool advantage.”

Heck noted that the Sixers will rely heavily on their already established esports connections. 

“We’re following their lead more on the esports side than on the basketball side,” Heck said of Dignitas. “We have a view of the world that is maybe different than everybody else.

“We’re as well suited for this opportunity as any franchise in the world.“

Taking a page from both the NBA schedule and popular esports tournaments, NBA 2K League could feature a regular season and side tournaments, similar to NCAA basketball conference tournaments and NCAA Men’s Division I basketball tournament, or March Madness. Details are still being worked out.

“We love how esports generates tournaments that create incredible drama and create incredible stories,” Donohue said. “It brings the players to life.”

Teams will be flown to the central location, which has yet to be determined, where all games will take place on either console, Sony PlayStation or Microsoft Xbox, or PC. This will likely be a small venue to host fans and provide infrastructure for a successful broadcast, which is also to be determined.

“They are working on that right now, we are weighing in with our own thoughts about what’s best for the league,” Heck said. “We have full faith that the NBA will make the right decision on how the fans and viewers receive the content.” 

With details constantly emerging, the league is hurdling toward relevancy and its 2018 launch. Esports, with all its potential, is the next evolution in big-money sports, and the NBA has claimed its spot.

“We believe that the NBA and league office has more of a global look and view in the world of sports and beyond than anyone else,” Heck said. “They see this as a new frontier.”

Union-United thoughts: Looking for improvement in clash at Minnesota

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Union-United thoughts: Looking for improvement in clash at Minnesota

Union (8-12-7)  at Minnesota United (7-14-4)
8:00 p.m. on TCN

The weary Union, winless in their last four matches, aim to end their slide as they travel to TCF Bank Stadium Saturday night to take on expansion side Minnesota United for the first time in club history.

Here are five things to know.

1. Still fighting
With an 8-12-7 record and their playoff hopes all but dissolved, the Union don’t have much to play for Saturday, but that isn’t stopping manager Jim Curtin from demanding a focused performance.

“There are still seven games left and we’re going to chase all 21 points that are out there,” he said. “We still believe aren’t far off and that the foundation is a good one.”

If the final seven matches of the season can’t be about climbing up the Eastern Conference standings, Curtin wants to see steady improvement, especially away from Talen Energy Stadium. The club has only one win in its last six games.

“We’re not as concerned now with where we’re at in the table, we need good performances to get results,” Curtin said. “We’ve been poor on the road this year, it’s no secret. We’ve shown glimpses and shown a little bit of improvement. Now we have Minnesota.”

But that thirst for performance isn’t just about Curtin getting the most out of his beleaguered team. The manager feels the negativity and frustration coming from the Union’s fan base and wants to give them something to be proud of.

“There’s been negativity here and it’s deserved because he hasn't gotten the results that we set out to at the start of the season,” Curtin said. “I want to make the fans happy, I want nothing more than to win a trophy for this city and that will never change. I won’t stop working until I’m able to accomplish that goal.” 

2. Finding motivation
To achieve the performance level that Curtin is looking for in the final seven games, the Union players need motivation. That might not be an easy accomplishment with the club firmly outside of the playoff picture.

“Guys are always aware that they are fighting for not only three points but for the following season, how contracts are handled in the offseason,” Curtin said. “That’s a constant battle for every professional, so that’s nothing new for any of the guys.” 

Not pulling punches about where the Union currently stand, Curtin, whose club has been outscored 10-4 over its last three matches, explained how tough it can be to manage that motivation and keep minds from wandering. 

“As the season gets later, guys eyes start to wander,” said Curtin, who expects some roster changes this offseason (see story). “As it gets later on in the year, guys have an eye on different places and want to know where they stand. We have seven games left. We want to get better and get the maximum amount of points.”

While some players might be eying the door, others want to make the most of a bad situation.

“We wake up, get out there and deal with whatever situation is put in front of us,” Union forward C.J. Sapong said. “This season, there’s been a lot of adversity and we know if we stay true to ourselves we’ll get something out of it.”

3. Minnesota improvement
The Minnesota United aren't the same pushover they were at the start of 2017. With only five wins in its first 21 matches, the club has rattled two wins in its last four games.

“They are getting to know each other a little bit more,” Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath said. “I think we have a better group than we had at the beginning of the season.”

The Union have taken notice. Despite being 7-14-4 overall, Minnesota United is 6-6-2 at home this season.

“It’ll be a difficult place to play,” Curtin said. “They kind of retooled their roster already this year and they are a strong team, a team that has kept the ball very well. If you look at the data, watch some of the films and they are dangerous. They have dangerous attacking pieces, [Abu] Danladi, the addition of [Ethan] Finlay, [Kevin] Molino, to name a few. We’ll have our hands full trying to neutralize them in their home stadium.” 

Heath credits an uptick in intensity and a team game for Minnesota United’s recent success.

“The level of performance the last two games, we need to build on that,” he said. “For me, it’s the intensity level and everyone putting in a full shift in, working hard for each other, defending the goal as a group and being really dangerous on the counter attack.”

4. Keep an eye on …
C.J. Sapong: Despite the down season from his club, the Union forward is having a career year with a team leading 12 goals in 26 games. The Union need finishing on the road and Sapong could be the guy to deliver it.

Kevin Molina: The playmaking midfielder is the creative force behind the Minnesota United attack. He leads the club with seven assists. 

5. This and that
• Union captain Alejandro Bedoya (yellow card accumulation) and center back Josh Yaro (red card suspension) will be suspended for Saturday’s match. Bedoya is expected to be replaced by either Warren Creavalle or Derrick Jones, who is working to exit Curtin’s doghouse, while Oguchi Onyewu is expected to start in favor of Yaro.

• While the Union are relatively healthy, Minnesota United will be without midfielder Bernardo Anor, midfielder Thomas de Villardi, defender Jermaine Taylor and midfielder Sam Cronin, all listed as out for Saturday.

• Between Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, Curtin understands his players might not be focused on soccer at the moment. “It’s a concerning time,” he said. “Fafa [Picault] has family in Miami and there are discussions going on with him. It’s scary. Some things you can’t really predict that are much more important than soccer.” Since then, Picault tweeted Friday his family arrived safely in Philadelphia.

• The Union have been surprisingly good against the Western Conference this season, holding a 3-2-4 record, which includes road draws in San Jose and Vancouver.

• One of the primary problems facing the Union offense is playmaking. Highlighting that deficit is Chris Pontius, who is second on the team in assists with six despite not registering a helper since May 17. Haris Medunjanin is first with eight.