Philadelphia Union

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."

Inside Doop: Blowing a lead ahead of toughest game of the season

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Inside Doop: Blowing a lead ahead of toughest game of the season

The Union traveled all the way across the country, scored a couple of goals, and came within seconds of pulling off a huge win over a team that rarely loses at home.

In the end, of course, that will only make Saturday’s 2-2 draw with the San Jose Earthquakes even more frustrating as Union coaches and players are well aware that stringing together wins is the only way to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive.

In this week’s Inside Doop, we’ll take a look at how a win turned into a draw and the brutally tough week that lies ahead.

Three thoughts about Saturday’s game
1. Anyone who’s watched the Union for the last eight seasons knows one-goal leads are never safe in the final minutes, especially on the road. And in San Jose, some of those old ghosts came back to haunt the Union again as a late penalty called on Josh Yaro allowed Chris Wondolowski’s 95th-minute PK to tie the game and spoil an otherwise positive performance. Afterwards, Haris Medunjanin threw his arms up in the air and stormed off the field, the team’s first-year midfielder perhaps learning some of the many frustrations that comes along with being a Union player.

2. Yaro has now made critical mistakes in each of his last three starts, all filling in for Oguchi Onyewu. That’s surely a tough thing for Union fans to swallow considering Yaro was the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft and is not really progressing as well as he should be, injuries aside. Contrast that, meanwhile, with Jack Elliott, the 77th pick in the 2017 draft. Elliott continued to build his case for Rookie of the Year with maybe his pest performance yet, scoring his first MLS goal and looking far more comfortable defensively than Yaro, his center back partner.

3. Questions certainly remain about Roland Alberg’s consistency and chemistry with teammates, but we can’t forget that he’s one of the better ball strikers this team has ever had. He showed that again Saturday with a very nice goal that put the Union ahead 2-1 early in the second half. With Ilsinho hurt, some may have thought promising rookie Adam Najem would assume the No. 10 role. But until the team is eliminated from the playoff contention, Alberg will likely still get the chance to show just how dangerous he can be and perhaps keep racking up the goals.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. Any time a team has to play games Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday, it’s a rough stretch. This one is even harder for the Union considering they had to fly back to Philly from San Jose before they quickly turn around to head to Toronto and face the league’s best team Wednesday, and then come back home to host upstart expansion side Atlanta United FC on Saturday. As always, there will be questions as how head coach Jim Curtin deals with minute management to keep everyone fresh. It might be especially interesting to see if he’d consider resting anyone in Toronto considering even a full-strength Union team has little chance of knocking off Toronto FC, who are currently 9-0-3 at home and maybe even one of the best MLS teams ever assembled. That said, if the Union can pull off the upset, it would be a huge boost toward their playoff push and a moment they’ll remember for a long time.

2. Remember Maurice Edu? The Union midfielder hasn’t played an MLS minute in nearly two years but suited up for USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel on Sunday, playing just over 30 minutes vs. Louisville City. Does that mean he’s ready to play for the Union? Not necessarily. Last year, he made three rehab appearances with Bethlehem, before then getting hurt as he was set to play for the Union. So the coaches may still want to give it a bit more time with the Steel, meaning a trip to Toronto is unlikely.

3. Another player who’s probably closer to returning is Andre Blake, who’s now missed eight straight games because of the Gold Cup and hurting his hand in the tournament final. John McCarthy continues to play well in his absence, but getting Blake back in time to face a star-studded Toronto attack could make a huge difference north of the border.

Stat of the week
With his goal Saturday, Alberg is tied for second on the team in goals this season with five. He also finished second on the team last season in that category, and his 14 total goals in nearly two seasons ranks fifth all time.

Quote of the week
“Both teams needed three points to be honest, so a tie kind of doesn’t do much for either of us at this stage.”

— Union head coach Jim Curtin, after Saturday’s 2-2 draw

Player of the week
On top of his goal, Elliott also helped set up the team’s second goal and made a couple of huge clearances in the box. The rookie was, by far, the team’s best player on the night.

Union squander late lead in San Jose, finish with draw against Earthquakes

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Union squander late lead in San Jose, finish with draw against Earthquakes

BOX SCORE

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Chris Wondolowski scored on a penalty kick in stoppage time to give the San Jose Earthquakes a 2-2 tie with the Philadelphia Union on Saturday night.

Shea Salinas drew a foul on Joshua Yaro in the penalty area to set up the penalty kick in the 95th minute. With his 10th goal, Wondolowski became the first player in MLS history with eight straight double-digit seasons.

Roland Alberg scored in the 55th to put Philadelphia (8-11-6) up 2-1.

Valeri Qazaishvili scored three minutes for San Joe (9-10-6). He eluded two defenders before punching it between two more defenders.

Jack Elliott tied it in the 35th with his first goal of the season, knocking the ball in on the left side of the net.