With expectations high for '14, Union ready to go

usa-philadelphia-union-mcinerney.jpg

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."

Honest Haris Medunjanin gets D.C. United red card rescinded with fair play

usa-haris-medunjanin.jpg
USA Today Images

Honest Haris Medunjanin gets D.C. United red card rescinded with fair play

CHESTER, Pa. -- Sportsmanship isn’t dead. 
 
In the 74th minute of Saturday’s 1-0 Union win over D.C. United at Talen Energy Stadium, Luciano Acosta knocked midfielder Haris Medunjanin out of bounds. Trekking in from midfield, referee Sorin Stoica immediately threw up the red card to eject the United's Acosta from the match.
 
Moments later, play restarted with Acosta still in the game. 
 
"All I know is I saw the red card, turned around and next thing I know is he’s still on the field," Union center back Oguchi Onyewu said. 
 
The red card was pulled for what Stoica believed was Acosta kicking Medunjanin. Unaware that the referee could even rescind the card, the Union man honorably disputed the kick and Stoica pulled the ejection.
 
"I rescinded the card because [Medunjanin] stated that he was not kicked after the play, which was the initial decision I made," Stoica told a pool reporter.
 
Medunjanin explained his side.
 
"I saw the red card and spoke with Acosta and he was saying that he didn’t kick me," he said. "I said I didn’t feel it also. I went to the referee and he said, 'did he kick you?' and I said, 'no he didn’t kick me, I think it was just a push.' That’s why it was no red card for me." 
 
He then took a shot at New York Red Bulls player Felipe, who drew a red on the Union’s Derrick Jones last Sunday in what the club believed was a dive.
 
"I hope Felipe was watching from last week," Medunjanin said. "I wish he could say the same. I think you need to be honest and I felt like it was just a push."

Union manager Jim Curtin, who admitted he may not have been so honorable in Medunjanin's position, was proud of his player. 

"It’s not a red card, and I have to give a lot of credit to Haris," he said. "He’s a person that I respect a great deal. It’s an incredible act. I think it’s something you could show to not just young kids but also a lot of the adults that play in professional soccer because what he did is very honorable. It’s the right thing to do."
 
While fair play Medunjanin gained respect from Curtin and United coach Ben Olsen, who called him a “classy player and classy human being,” he was grilled by his teammates, who found the scenario humorous. 
 
"I don’t know whose team Haris is on, I really don’t," Onyewu said jokingly. "I don’t know if Haris and the referee or Haris and Acosta are actually best friends, I don’t know. Maybe they are going out later tonight and they didn’t want any bad tension?"
 
They also found it perplexing.

"I didn’t think that was possible,” Medunjanin said, a sentiment echoed by Onyewu. “The referee chose to do it so you need to respect that. I can talk now and be honest. Maybe if it was a draw, it would’ve been a little different."
 
But it happened and Medunjanin can walk away with three points and an unofficial award for being a class act.

"Everybody said thanks for the fair play,” Medunjanin said. “Nice gesture of you and that’s it. The coach came over to speak with me and I said, 'no problem this is football. We fight for the three points, but we need to be honest.'"

Andre Blake's shutout helps give Union life with slump-busting win over D.C. United

usa-union.jpg
USA Today Images

Andre Blake's shutout helps give Union life with slump-busting win over D.C. United

BOX SCORE

CHESTER, Pa. -- The Union have life.

Fafa Picault netted his fourth of the season and Andre Blake cleaned up the rest as the Union snapped a three-game losing streak by defeating D.C. United, 1-0, Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium. 

“It was a much needed three points, especially after the last two games,” Union center back Oguchi Onyewu said. “I feel that despite the previous games, despite losing, we haven’t lost the spirit, we haven’t lost the camaraderie, we haven’t lost the fight. That was visual in our gameplay tonight.”

Picault brought Talen Energy Stadium to life in the 31st minute with a highlight reel goal.

From the midfield line, Ray Gaddis pushed the ball down the right side to Alejandro Bedoya into D.C. United territory. With possession on the fast break, Bedoya, who made his return after missing two games with a hamstring injury, launched a lofty cross that seemed to surprise the defenders, who failed to track trailing Picault’s one-hit drive that beat Bill Hamid for the 1-0 Union lead.

“In those cases, you just track it,” Picault said. “When the ball’s put in, our jobs as attackers if the ball is played off the right side, CJ has to be there and me coming off the left side, try to make a run in. It ended up falling onto my left foot. I think either of us would’ve put it in, but it came to me and I had to put a strong one on to put it on target and give it a chance to go in.

Then it was Blake’s turn to play the hero. 

In the 69th minute, Union center back Oguchi Onyewu was called for a handball in the box. Lining up for the kick, Lamar Neagle fired off a strong shot to the left that was stopped confidently by diving Blake, keeping the Union’s lead alive.

“I decided I was gonna go to my right,” Blake said. “I saw a few cues from him and I made up my mind. I went there and I made the save.” 

Blake would punish Neagle again with another eye-popping save in the 90th minute. The goalkeeper brought the crowd to its feet with a leaping stop off a point-blank header from the top of the crease. 

“We created a penalty kick, plenty of looks, bunch of service in the second half,” United coach Ben Olsen said. “We revved them up a little at halftime. We had more life from the get-go but they made the play.”

Blake would finish with the four-save shutout.

“Incredible,” Picault said of Blake. “He’s for me by far the best goalie in the league. I’m really happy to have him on our side. Every week, week in and week out, he’s shown great performances. It’s emotional for me during the games to watch that. It gives me a lot of motivation to keep going. Especially on that PK stop.”

But the match wasn’t without referee drama. With the Union, now 5-7-4, in full control late in the second half, referee Sorin Stoica handed United midfielder Luciano Acosta a straight red for taking down and kicking Haris Medunjanin. However, the card was completely rescinded moments later.

Why? Medunjanin came clean that Acosta didn’t kick him after the play.

“I do commend him and give him credit,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “Crazy situation because all of us on the sidelines were not sure what was going on. I never have seen a red card and then it rescinded. We couldn’t figure out what was happening on our end. Very noble and honorable thing to do for Haris.”