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.”

Andre Blake the Union's first MLS Best XI team member since 2010

Andre Blake the Union's first MLS Best XI team member since 2010

Andre Blake continues to rack up the accolades.

A couple of weeks after being named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, the rising Philadelphia Union star was named to the MLS Best XI team as one of the league’s top players in 2016.

The rest of the team included:

• Forwards Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC), David Villa (New York City FC) and Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls)
• Midfielders Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact), Sacha Kljestan (Red Bulls), Mauro Diaz (FC Dallas) and Giovani dos Santos (LA Galaxy)
• Defenders Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Axel Sjoberg (Colorado Rapids) and Jelle Van Damme (Galaxy)

Blake’s inclusion on the Best XI is not a surprise considering he already took home top goalkeeper honors. Even though he didn’t have the best numbers in the league, he made the spectacular look ordinary in his first full season as an MLS starter.

But it is unique for the Union, who haven’t had a player make the Best XI since Sebastien Le Toux was included for his 14-goal, 11-assist effort in Philly's 2010 expansion season.

Union winger Chris Pontius, who recently won the 2016 MLS Breakout Player of the Year award, made Best XI while with D.C. United in 2012. Former Union players to be honored on the prestigious list were Bakary Soumare with Chicago in 2008 and Justin Mapp with Chicago in 2006.

Another big honor like this will likely only increase the chatter that Blake could be sold to a big team in Europe soon. But a couple of weeks ago, the Union goalkeeper insisted his only focus for 2017 is on Philadelphia.

“From a personal standpoint, I’m hoping to have an even better season than 2016,” he said at the time. “To be able to go in and be consistent and do everything I can for the Union — and maybe be the goalkeeper to get them their first [MLS] Cup.”

Bruce Arena rehired as U.S. soccer coach to replace Jurgen Klinsmann

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The Associated Press

Bruce Arena rehired as U.S. soccer coach to replace Jurgen Klinsmann

NEW YORK -- Bruce Arena is returning to coach the U.S. national soccer team, a decade after he was fired.

The winningest coach in American national team history, Arena took over Tuesday, one day after Jurgen Klinsmann was fired. The 65-year-old Arena starts work Dec. 1.

With the U.S. 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying for the first time, the U.S. Soccer Federation wants to spark a turnaround when competition resumes March 24 with a home game against Honduras followed four days later with a match at Panama.

"We need to build the chemistry of this team and have a common goal and really work on a team concept," Arena said during a telephone news conference. "I really believe individually and positionally we have good players and we've just got to get them working together as a team.

"There are no real secrets on how you build good teams: It takes a lot of hard work, it takes communication, it takes discipline and it takes some talent, and I think we have enough talent to build a good team and end up in Russia 2018. It's going to take a little time, a little bit patience and a lot of hard work."

Arena first took over as national team coach after the 1998 World Cup and led the U.S. to a 71-30-29 record. His contract runs through the 2018 World Cup.

"I don't view it as Bruce 2, but sort of Bruce 2.0," U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said. "I think he's got far more experience than he did when he had the national team the first go-round. He's proven and reproven many times at all levels of the game in the United States that he's an extraordinarily capable and successful coach."

A wisecracking Brooklynite known for blunt talk and sarcasm, Arena coached the University of Virginia to five NCAA titles from 1978-95, then led D.C. United to titles in Major League Soccer's first two seasons before losing in the 1998 final. He guided the Americans to the team's best World Cup finish since 1930, a 1-0 loss to Germany in the 2002 quarterfinals.

Arena was let go after the team's first-round elimination by Ghana in 2006. He coached the New York Red Bulls of MLS from July 2006 to November 2007, then was hired the following August by the Galaxy. He led the team to MLS titles in 2011, 2012 and 2014.

Arena was inducted into the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2010.

"I think 10 years later I'm better prepared for this job than I was in 1998 and 2002 and ultimately 2006, so I'm hopeful the experiences I had are going to benefit the program," he said. "One of the things you learn from experience is you see things a lot clearer and a lot quicker than you did previously, and the game has slowed down a bit, where I can see as a coach in my position how things are happening on the field.