Defensive rebirth has Union, MacMath rolling

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Defensive rebirth has Union, MacMath rolling

CHESTER, Pa. -- For the last five games, the Union have shown near defensive perfection.

Allowing just two goals and earning four shutouts during their recent 2-1-2 run, the Union have blanked the likes of the New York Red Bulls, Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps on their way to competing for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

“Our defense has been the strong point for us,” said Union coach John Hackworth, whose team is readying to face the New England Revolution on Sunday. “When you get shutouts, it starts to come to light a little more. We’re proud of our players because you can see we’re getting better and that’s what you want. If we’re going to be a team that contends for anything, we have to improve. We’re certainly doing that on the defensive side.”

But the Union’s positive defensive shift didn’t begin with this current five-game stretch.

After allowing a season-high five goals to the Montreal Impact on May 25, something clicked in the Union’s psyche. And immediately, what was once viewed as the Union’s weakness suddenly became a strength, as the embarrassed club completely turned its defensive issues around.

“That night, a lot of us looked at each other and thought we needed to get ourselves together,” goalkeeper Zac MacMath said. “After that period we buckled down and the coaches organized us better defensively during practice. We took that into the games and done really well with it.”

During the first 13 games of the season, the Union allowed 22 goals against and collected just three shutouts. In the last 12 games, the Union defense has given up just nine goals and earned six shutouts.

And while Union centerbacks Amobi Okugo and Jeff Parke can be credited with much of the defensive improvement, MacMath’s sudden steady hand in goal has been a welcome change. It has also provided a backbone for the team’s recent success.

“The team defensively has been amazing,” MacMath said. “The back core with Brian Carroll in the middle, they are working tirelessly and it has had a big effect on me. Getting the clean sheets in those four games has really boosted my confidence.”

Though he struggled with consistency to begin the season, MacMath finds himself fifth in the league in saves with 76 and tied for first in shutouts with nine. He is currently tied for fifth in MLS with 10 wins.

“I’ve always thought I could be one of the best goalkeepers in the league but I haven’t proven it,” MacMath said. “I’m trying to prove it.”

Union suffer 1st loss of season to Cyle Larin, Orlando City

Union suffer 1st loss of season to Cyle Larin, Orlando City

BOX SCORE

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Cyle Larin scored twice, including the game-winner in the 73rd minute, and Orlando City won its second straight to open the season 2-1 over the Union on Saturday.

With the score tied at one with 15 minutes left, Larin found his way behind the middle of the Union defense thanks to a streaking pass from Carlos Rivas and beat goalkeeper Andre Blake for the game-winner. The forward has accounted for all three Orlando City goals this season.

After Larin gave Orlando City (2-0-0) the lead in the 39th minute, C.J. Sapong found the back of the net with a header to tie the score in the 52nd minute. The Union (0-1-2) had a final opportunity to tie it in the 93rd minute, but Alejandro Bedoya's header was denied by Joe Bendik.

The Union are winless in their last 10 matches dating back to last season.

Orlando, whose March 11 game against New England was postponed due to extreme cold, was playing its first game without injured captain Kaka. Kaka injured his hamstring in the season opener with New York City FC.

Union-Orlando City 5 Things: Bracing for the Kaka-less Lions

Union-Orlando City 5 Things: Bracing for the Kaka-less Lions

Union at Orlando City SC 
Saturday 7:30 p.m., The Comcast Network

After two straight draws to start the 2017 season, the undefeated and winless Union (0-0-2) hit the road to face an Orlando City SC (1-0-0) team that will be missing one of the league's marquee players. 

Here are five things to know:

1. Striker status
After starting striker Jay Simpson scored 11 minutes into his home debut last week, he was forced to the locker room with an injury -- and then to the hospital after he frighteningly began coughing up blood. 

Luckily for the Union, head coach Jim Curtin says the injury -- a bruised lung -- doesn't appear to be serious. But considering he hasn't practiced most of the week, it seems doubtful he'll play in Orlando.

"He's a tough kid," Curtin said. "He probably had another goal or two in him, so that was disappointing. But injuries are part of the game and he'll have to recover now."

The Union are fortunate to have a more-than-serviceable replacement in C.J. Sapong, who came in for Simpson and scored the game-tying goal in last week's 2-2 draw with reigning MLS Cup finalist Toronto FC. 

"I'm happy with where C.J. is," Curtin said. "We know what he's all about. He'll fight for the Union badge, he'll give everything he has every day in training, whether he's starting or coming off the bench."

2. No Kaka
Just like Simpson, Orlando City SC star Kaka exited in the 11th minute of his home debut two weeks ago. But his situation is more serious as the Brazilian midfielder will miss a few weeks with a hamstring injury.

It's naturally a tough blow for Orlando but the Lions have an interesting option to replace him in Giles Barnes, a proven MLS player who assisted on Orlando's only goal in their season-opening 1-0 win over New York City FC. 

"He brings an element of speed," Curtin said. "He's a dynamic player, dangerous. And he's at a new club so he's looking to impress his head coach."

Midfielder Matias Perez Garcia will likely also see an expanded role with Kaka out, teaming with Barnes, Carlos Rivas and 2015 Rookie of the Year Cyle Larin in a dangerous four-man attacking front.

"Cycle is a great presence," Curtin said. "Twelve yards in, he's as good of a finisher as we have in our league."

3. No Mickey Mouse environment
Due to a weird scheduling quirk, the Lions will play their second straight game in their sparkling new stadium without having yet to leave Orlando. That's because their scheduled game in New England last week was postponed due to extreme cold.

It's hard to know if having a week off will hurt their momentum or if staying home will prove to be an ideal start to their 2017 campaign. Either way, Curtin is expecting a daunting atmosphere in Orlando -- even if the team is excited to get away from the cold.

"Everyone thinks about Disney and thinks it's a happy, smiley, kid-friendly place," the Union coach said. "I can tell you the Orlando fans are an intimidating group -- nothing Mickey Mouse about their group of supporters, that's for sure. 

"It's one of the few places where I get a police escort in and out of the building, I'll just put it that way. The police officers are actually very friendly, which is good."

4. Keep an eye on
Joe Bendik:
Aside from Larin and maybe new center back Jonathan Spector, no one was better in Orlando's opener than Bendik, who made a few sparkling saves, including the top one of the week. Between him and Union standout Andre Blake, we could be looking at a game with a few highlight-reel stops.

Derrick Jones: The 20-year-old defensive midfielder has had a terrific start to the season in his first two MLS games. But this will be another stiff test for Jones, who Curtin said is drawing praise from around the league, including coaches and execs from Toronto. "He's an exciting player in a position where I think the work sometimes goes unnoticed," Curtin said. "He's doing it in a way where a lot of people are taking notice in a position that maybe isn't the most glamorous."

5. This and that
• After missing the first two games with a hamstring injury, Ilsinho is expected to be available to make his season debut. He'd likely come off the bench with Fabian Herbers cementing his role on the right wing.

• Both of the Union's previous two games in Orlando have ended in draws but Philly leads the all-time series, 2-1-2. 

• Dating back to last season, the Union are winless in their last nine regular-season matches.

• Sarpong's goal last week was his fourth off the bench for the Union. Only four Union players have ever scored more off the bench with former super-sub Antoine Hoppenot leading the way with seven.