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-Crew 5 things: Still in good position, Jim Curtin's club looks to rebound

Union-Crew 5 things: Still in good position, Jim Curtin's club looks to rebound

Union at Crew
7:30 p.m. on TCN

Despite being dominated by Toronto FC on Saturday, the Union (9-9-7) managed to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, thanks to a handful of fortunate results around the league. But if the club wants to better its odds for the postseason, it needs to take care of business at Mapfre Stadium Wednesday night against the Columbus Crew (4-8-11).

Here are five things to know for the matchup:

1. Playoff push
It hasn’t been a convincing few weeks for the Union. Although the club still sits fourth in the Eastern Conference despite one win in its last six games, it needs points to stay afloat. That quest begins Wednesday against the Crew.

“The focus is getting points,” Union defender Richie Marquez said. “For us, home or away, we need three points because we need to solidify that playoff spot.”

As of now the Union are in snug playoff position with 34 points — one ahead of the Montreal Impact and six in front of D.C. United and Orlando City for the sixth and final playoff spot. On the plus side, the club is one point behind the New York Red Bulls with a game in hand.

“It’s a push to get into the playoffs and try to see how high we can end up in the table,” Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said. “It’s important we don’t look too much at the standings because anything can happen in this league. It’s all really tight. It’s important we go to Columbus with the right mentality and come back to Philly with three points.”

2. Coming off a loss
Speaking of the playoff push, the Union’s dream of being a top-two seed in the East took a major hit Saturday in a 3-1 bashing by Toronto FC. The loss put Toronto up six and New York City FC up seven on the Union. 

Worst of all, it crushed all Union momentum coming out of a 4-0 win over the New England Revolution a week prior. Still, the club maintains its confidence heading into Wednesday.

“I feel good about this team and the players we have,” Bedoya said. “The goals we gave up were too easy. We have talent on this team, but there’s little things we have to fix. Once we get those right, we’ll be tough to break down.” 

As Jim Curtin explained, the short turnaround from Saturday actually works in the Union’s favor. 

“We were smart with how we managed the past two days in terms of getting the guys massages, taking care of their bodies, eating right and getting enough sleep,” he said. “They’ll be ready to go, they’re itching to get the bad taste out of their mouth after the Toronto game.”

3. Win-starved Crew
With the help of Ethan Finlay and Federico Higuain, the Crew took down the floundering Revolution over the weekend. But that’s nothing to celebrate over. It was just the club’s fourth win of the season and second since May 28. 

The Crew are currently closer to having the lowest point total in MLS than a playoff spot.

“It’s been tough,” Crew coach Gregg Berhalter said. “It’s a team that I believe in deeply but it’s natural that confidence dips when you don’t get the results. It’s about believing in our playing style and fine-tuning things, approving in some areas. I think we did that in the last game.” 

Though the Crew attempt to climb out of the basement Wednesday, they know what they are up against. The Union took the first season meeting against the Crew, 2-1, and the second, 3-2. 

“They added Bedoya, who is a quality player,” Berhalter said. “Other than that, it’s similar to what they’ve been doing all year with [C.J.] Sapong and talented players behind him. Bedoya makes a good difference there, but they are a solid group and they’ll play with intensity. From our side, we’ll have to be smart how we approach the game.”

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: Facing the Crew twice this season, the Union have five goals. Chris Pontius has three of them. The Union forward scored the brace on March 12, then buried another on June 1. 

Crew: MLS rookie Ola Kamara leads the Crew with 10 goals, including one against the Union on June 1. Since May 28, the forward has 10 goals and one assist in 12 games.

5. This and that
• Facing the Crew has always been tough for the Union. Including two wins this season, the Union are 6-10-1 against the Crew all-time.

• The Union have only suffered back-to-back losses twice this season, and both times it happened in the club’s last 10 games.

• Of Kamara’s 10 goals this season, six have come at home. 

• The first-ever meeting between the Union and Crew happened on Aug. 5, 2010, and was a 2-1 loss for the Union. Sebastien Le Toux scored a penalty kick but Steven Lenhart buried the brace.

Jim Curtin downplays Ken Tribbett benching, considers it learning experience

Jim Curtin downplays Ken Tribbett benching, considers it learning experience

CHESTER, Pa. -- Ken Tribbett had a bad night. 

The rookie defender was tabbed for three first-half goals against, causing Union manager Jim Curtin to pull him at halftime for Josh Yaro, in the club’s eventual 3-1 loss to Toronto FC at Talen Energy Stadium (see game story).

“It’s hard, it’s a hard decision,” Curtin said. “Obviously, three goals is unacceptable at home. It’s not all on Ken, we’re a team and we’re together, but at the same time, I think he had a tough half.”

In his club suit, sitting alone in his locker room stall, Tribbett didn’t run from the situation.

“He didn’t say too much, but to just keep my head up,” he said, of Curtin’s halftime response. “[Toronto FC players] are fast, they’re strong and had good finishes. The situation called for a quicker type player in Yaro.” 

Although Tribbett has been mistake-prone since taking over the starter spot from Yaro in late March, Curtin has stuck with his player throughout almost any matchup. But on Saturday, the manager hit a breaking point, leaving the quicker Yaro, another rookie, in charge of marking Toronto FC’s speedy forward Sebastian Giovinco, who scored his club’s first goal of the match. 

“With the speed of Josh, I thought maybe that was a better matchup dealing with Giovinco,” Curtin said. “It’s a hard decision but it’s a young back line that’s still learning every day, getting better every day.”

If Yaro was the better match for Giovinco’s speed, then why wouldn’t Curtin have gone with that lineup for Saturday? The manager's thought process began with the 4-0 shutout win over the New England Revolution last weekend.

“It’s tough to change my thinking after a 4-0 performance,” Curtin said. “It’s tough to change the lineup. It would be over-tinkering, I think. Tonight it didn’t work out. At the same time, we learn from it. We will watch the tape, there’s things we can do better.”

But while the result was poor for Tribbett, the ask was astronomical. Tribbett couldn’t contain Giovinco on Toronto FC’s first goal, lost his mark on the club’s second goal and was unable to dispossess Jozy Altidore on the third goal. Not many people can stop Giovinco and Altidore, which is why Curtin is building up, not beating down his fresh-faced defender.

“As hard as the night was for Ken, you still learn from it,” he said. “You have to. He’ll be fine. You learn in these big games against top forwards.” 

But in the end, Tribbett’s night wasn’t all gloom. Getting on the end of a Tranquillo Barnetta free kick, the 23-year-old buried his second goal of the season off a strong header. That, not the benching, is what he’ll remember most. 

“It felt good, the ball was whipped in with pace so I was able to whip it in as well,” he said. “It was a special one, special for me, the first one at home.”

Tribbett, Union out-classed by Toronto FC in 3-1 loss

Tribbett, Union out-classed by Toronto FC in 3-1 loss

CHESTER, Pa. -- What was supposed to be a memorable home debut for Alejandro Bedoya and Charlie Davies ended in a bitter and lopsided loss, as the Union were steamrolled by high-powered Toronto FC on Saturday, 3-1, at Talen Energy Stadium.

“It just wasn’t our night,” said Union manager Jim Curtin. “Credit to Toronto, they are a very good team. Organized, tough to break down. They have guys that punish you if you make a mistake. They were clinical with their chances.”

The loss drops the Union, now 9-9-7, six points behind second-place Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference standings. The Canadian side moves to 11-7-7.

“We still know we’re doing a lot of things the right way,” Curtin said. “We’ve earned 34 points in this league, which is good. We’ll continue to pick up points down the stretch and get into the playoffs.” 

It was an eventful first half for Ken Tribbett that ended in the center back being pulled in favor of Josh Yaro at halftime. 

“The situation called for a quicker type player in Yaro,” Tribbett said.

With one sub down, Curtin tapped Roland Alberg and Fabian Herbers as his final two subs, leaving Davies on the bench, while Bedoya played the full 90.

“I didn’t think I would go 90 tonight but with the circumstances of the situation, I did,” Bedoya said. “It’s good I was able to go 90, get my fitness up.” 

In the 18th minute, Marco Delgado found Sebastien Giovinco with a lead pass that placed the Italian along with Tribbett in the Union box. With ease, Giovinco flew by by the Union defender and fired off a shot that deflected off the right post and in for the 1-0 Toronto lead. 

“It’s easy to play with good players,” said Toronto forward Jozy Altidore. “Seba’s first touch is nothing short of sublime, he puts himself in a good position to make the finish.” 

It was his league-leading 16th goal this season.

“You don’t want to get beat by one pass, but that pass Delgado plays is an unbelievable ball,” Curtin said. “And the way Giovinco handles it without breaking stride is next level stuff.” 

Then it was Tribbett’s turn. In the 24th minute, Tranquillo Barnetta absorbed a foul just yards from the Toronto FC box, giving himself a golden opportunity at goal. The Swiss playmaker placed a perfect free kick that found the head of streaking, 6-foot-2, Tribbett for the equalizer. 

“I’d give more credit to Tranquillo because he put it in the absolute perfect place,” Tribbett said. “All I did was run and put my head on it. Perfect goal.” 

Yet, the match would change for good in the 30th minute, when a Michael Bradley free kick found net off a diving header from Drew Moor, who beat Tribbett and squeaked his attempt between Blake and the right post for the 2-1 advantage. The visitors made it 3-1 in the 44th minute, when Jozy Altidore out-muscled Tribbett, then the entire Union defense before placing a shot past Blake.

“The second and third for me are unacceptable,” Curtin said. “As a back line, we need to do a good job but everyone needs to do a good job, as well.”