Philadelphia Union

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's swoon continues with 3-0 loss to MLS-best Toronto FC

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Union's swoon continues with 3-0 loss to MLS-best Toronto FC

BOX SCORE

TORONTO -- Sebastian Giovinco, Nicolas Hasler and Jozy Altidore scored and MLS-leading Toronto FC beat the Union 3-0 on Wednesday night to run its unbeaten streak to eight games and remain undefeated at home this season.

Playing in front of a capacity crowd of 28,645 fans at BMO Field, Toronto improved to 15-3-8 and 10-0-3 at home.

With eight games left in the regular season, the Reds -- who haven't lost since a 3-1 setback in Dallas on July 1 -- remain on pace for the most points in MLS history. Toronto has 53 points, 15 shy of the league record set by the Los Angeles Galaxy in 1998.

Giovinco scored his 13th goal of the season on a free kick from just outside the 18-yard box in the 10th minute, curling a shot over the defensive wall and into the top right corner.

Hasler scored in the 30th minute off a corner kick from Victor Vasquez, and Altidore connected in the 57th.

The Union dropped to 8-12-6.

Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Facing the league's best team

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Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Facing the league's best team

Union at Toronto FC
8 p.m. on TCN

Fresh off a frustrating draw in San Jose, the Union (8-11-6) have an even tougher road game as they face first-place Toronto FC (14-3-8) at BMO Field on Wednesday night.

Here are five things to know:

1. Road woes
The Union have won only once on the road this season — one of five teams in MLS with less than two away wins in 2017. And of all those results, perhaps none were as disheartening as Saturday’s 2-2 draw with the Earthquakes, as a penalty in the final minutes caused them to blow a very late lead.

The result spoiled an overall good performance, including the first career goal from rookie Jack Elliott, and did little to help them in their playoff chase. With 30 points, the Union currently sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, six points out of the final playoff spot.

“It was a good team performance and a heartbreaking ending to the game,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “Guys put a ton into it. I thought it was one of our better road performances, so there are positives in that regard.”

They’ll need an even better road performance to get a result against a Toronto side that’s a whopping 9-0-3 at home. 

2. The league’s best ever?
With 50 points in 25 games, Toronto FC is not only comfortable in the Supporters’ Shield lead but also on pace to become just the third MLS team this millennium to reach the two-points-per-game plateau and finish with the best record in league history.

So is this the best team Curtin has ever seen?

“I know with the Twitter world, you have to talk about best ever everything, best eclipse, best whatever,” Curtin said. “I don’t like comparing generations because it’s always challenging to do. But I do think they’re a special team.”

And the reason they’re special, he said, is not only because of Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley but the effective role players they’ve filled out around their star trio. Curtin shouted out last week’s MLS Player of the Week Justin Morrow, midfielders Victor Vasquez and Marky Delgado and defender Drew Moor as just a few examples.

“Toronto has three key guys but then people forget about the pieces they have around them now,” Curtin said. “They’ve done a heck of a job assembling their roster.”

3. Blake set to return
The good news for the Union is that they’ll have a big weapon to try to slow down Altidore, Giovinco and the rest of TFC’s star-studded attack.

Curtin announced that reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Andre Blake, who missed the last eight games because of the Gold Cup and a hand injury, is set to once again man the net.

“It’s good to have him back,” Curtin said. “I think Johnny [McCarthy] did an excellent job in his absence. But to have Andre back in net is a good thing for the group.”

With Blake returning and even Maurice Edu finally on the mend, the Union are quite healthy for their upcoming stretch that includes a home game vs. Atlanta on Saturday. Only Fabian Herbers is out with Curtin saying that Ilsinho (right adductor strain) and Oguchi Onyewu (left groin strain) will be available for selection. 

4. Keep an eye on …
Jack Elliott: The Union center back and MLS Rookie of the Year hopeful had arguably his best game of the season in San Jose and is now set for his toughest test yet. Curtin thinks he’ll be up for the challenge, though he does want to see the rookie improve his defensive heading. “He’s playing way behind the years,” the Union coach said. “He’s playing against some of the top forwards in the league and has been our most solid guy back there.” 

Sebastian Giovinco: Curtin thinks the Italian playmaker is maybe the best player the league has ever seen. And Giovinco often shows that against the Union, scoring in his first five games vs. Philly before that streak ended earlier this year when he left a game with an early injury. “Giovinco can beat you 100 different ways,” Curtin said. “You give him a free kick and it’s all but a certainty that it will at least be a scare for Andre. You have to be smart, have to be disciplined.”

5. This and that
• Keegan Rosenberry, last year’s Rookie of the Year runner-up, made his first appearance since May on Saturday after Giliano Wijnaldum was forced to exit with an injury. And he might see some more action this week. “Whether it’s Toronto or Atlanta, he will play a role in these games moving forward,” Curtin said.

• TFC are unbeaten in their last 13 regular-season home games, winning 10 of them and drawing three. 

• Toronto’s scored four goals in each of their last two home games. They’ve never scored four goals in three straight home games.

• The Union are averaging 16.2 aerials won per game this season, the most of any MLS team.

• In 17 regular-season meetings, the Union and Toronto have each won six times to go along with five draws.