With expectations high for '14, Union ready to go

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With expectations high for '14, Union ready to go

With high-priced acquisitions on board and expectations of reaching the playoffs, the Union set to begin their anticipated 2014 campaign against the Portland Timbers on Saturday night at Providence Park.

The pressure is officially on.

“We don’t have to convey that message to the returning players at all,” Union manager John Hackworth said. “They fully understand last year and what it meant for our club to not make the playoffs. At the same time, we’ve had conversations as a team and new guys are talking to their teammates and getting an idea as to what the standards are here and what the expectations are. So a lot of those things get talked about every single day and certainly get reinforced with the way we do things.”

Having little time to gel, the Union will try to find themselves against the stingy Timbers, who finished the 2013 season at a Western Conference best, 14-5-15. Caleb Porter’s club added Argentinian center back Noberto Paparatto and creative attacker Gaston Fernandez, while bringing back Diego Valeri, Will Johnson and Darlington Nagbe.

The Timbers’ quality roster makes them favorites in the West and a potential early wake-up call for the Union.

“We know we’re going to be up against it going to Portland,” Hackworth said. “They obviously had a successful season last year. But they brought in some new pieces, similar to us. We expect that with the way they played last year, we’ll see a similar type team. It’s a tough place to play and at the same time we’re looking forward to the opportunity. We feel like we put in good preparation and we’re ready for it.”

Cohesion will be the theme of the Union’s early season and the key to their success -- particularly in the midfield. The Union are expected to roll out Hackworth’s patented 4-3-3, with Cristian Maidana, Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueira, Brian Carroll and Sebastien Le Toux making up the team’s revamped middle.

“I’d love to tell you five weeks is enough to put all of those pieces together,” Hackworth said. “But in reality it takes a little bit longer than that. As is the case with all the teams in the league, when you start the season, you still have some things to work out. I think most teams in this league have that same issue.”

However, despite lack of field time together, Hackworth is optimistic.

“Clearly, having Mo [Edu] and Vincent together from the time Vincent arrived was key,” he said. “Add in Maidana to that mix and integrating those guys with Brian Carroll has been a good process so far. It’s hard to build all the things that are going to be necessary for the long haul in a short amount of time, but so far so good.”

But it’s not just the midfield that needs work. The Union are also looking for synergy on their defensive line, which added center back Austin Berry on Feb. 25 from the Chicago Fire.

“We had to accelerate that one dramatically with him coming in later to camp,” Hackworth said, regarding Berry’s integration beside center back partner, Amobi Okugo. “[Okugo and Berry] played good in the Toronto game and then got 80 minutes versus Montreal and that looked really good actually.”

Though the Union are returning Jack McInerney, Conor Casey, Le Toux, Fabinho and Ray Gaddis, among others, all eyes will be on newcomer Edu, the Union’s new star midfielder. Hackworth has no doubt Edu will become the team’s catalyst.

“Mo has come in and done everything we thought he would do,” Hackworth said. “He provides a physical presence for us in the midfield. A guy that likes to go and get involved in both ends. He’s a guy that wants to train hard and, as he put it, find the joy back in his game. And that can be contagious.”

The Union may be at a disadvantage on Saturday, as they battle injuries earned in training camp. Casey is wrestling with a calf strain that has kept him out of the entire preseason, while Antoine Hoppenot and Michael Lahoud are dinged up. Starting right back Sheanon Williams has a strained quad and is also questionable for Saturday.

“Right now both players are not in training,” Hackworth said. “Sheanon was more precautionary than Conor was. Conor we’re being more conservative with. Hopefully we’ll have Sheanon available for the weekend."

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.