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: Union inch closer to playoffs after tie in Toronto

Inside Doop: Union inch closer to playoffs after tie in Toronto

The Union left the country for a big game over the weekend and did not return to the United States with a win as they hoped.

But they did come back with a hard-earned point against the top team in the conference as well as the first MLS goal from their marquee summer signing, while inching closer to the playoffs. Here’s a look at Saturday’s 1-1 draw with the Toronto FC and what lies ahead with three regular-season games left.

Three thoughts about Saturday’s game
1. It took Alejandro Bedoya almost two months to score his first MLS goal … but what a goal it was. After collecting a pass from Fabian Herbers midway through the first half (just barely avoiding being offside), the U.S. national team starter took one dribble and fooled goalkeeper Clint Irwin with a clever chip over his head and into the net. You don’t see those kind of chip goals often and when you do, they’re usually delivered by big-time playmakers — the kind of guys the Union don’t usually have but do now with Bedoya. Head coach Jim Curtin’s decision to play Bedoya at the No. 10 attacking midfield spot with Tranquillo Barnetta injured also paid big dividends and showed the Union have more midfield options going into the playoffs … and into next season.

2. Coming into the game, a big storyline centered around center back Ken Tribbett, who got the start at center back about a month after getting pulled at halftime vs. Toronto. Another centered around right back Keegan Rosenberry, who was trying to bounce back from a rare off game in Portland the previous week. But, in the end, both players had some very good moments and helped limit the Toronto attack for much of the game, especially in the first half. Much of that had to do with another Curtin lineup decision as the Union head coach put two defensive-minded midfielders in front of the backline: Warren Creavalle, who also had a great hustle play that nearly led to a second goal right before halftime, and Brian Carroll, who’s now made two straight starts after missing six straight games with Plantar fasciitis.

3. Saturday’s game didn’t end without some late fireworks from the league’s hottest player, Jozy Altidore. Riding an eight-goals-in-nine-games streak coming in, the U.S. national team star struck the post in the 87th minute and was taken down in the box by C.J. Sapong in stoppage time on what initially looked to be a clear penalty. If you look at the replay from Sapong’s perspective, however, you could probably make the case that Sapong was going for the ball before getting impeded by Altidore. Either way, the idea of a ref not making a call that would likely decide a game (on a play that wasn’t a real goal-scoring opportunity) took some guts, especially as he got lambasted from the home team and its fans.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. The brutal three-game road trip ends Saturday as the Union, after a loss in Portland and tie in Toronto, take on the rival New York Red Bulls (7 p.m., The Comcast Network). As conservative as it might sound, another point would probably make it a mildly successful trip considering the caliber of opponent. Either way, the Union’s playoff hopes and seeding will likely come down to their final two home games against Orlando and the Red Bulls. At this point, the best they can likely hope for is to hold off Montreal, D.C. United and New England for the No. 4 seed in the East, which would ensure them an opening-round home game. Luckily for them, Montreal and New England both lost this weekend, and although D.C. picked up a big win, they did so against another team in the playoff hunt in Orlando.

2. Another week means another question about captain Maurice Edu’s health. It’s now been more than two months since he returned to the practice field and almost a month since he started playing rehab games with the Bethlehem Steel. With only three games left in the season, it’s hard to see him becoming a starter after being out so long with a stress fracture. It also doesn’t help his case that Carroll and Creavalle are both playing well at his position. But if Edu’s healthy, there’s no sense not utilizing him as a midfield reserve or even as an emergency defensive replacement. The question, as always: is this the week he finally makes his season debut?

3. While Curtin’s lineup decisions played well in Toronto, one interesting one was not playing Roland Alberg. With Barnetta out, many Union fans probably expected Alberg to start at the No. 10 position — or, at the very least, come off the bench. But with the Union never falling behind, Curtin probably didn’t feel the need to bring in such an offensive-minded player. It was an understandable move considering the context but one that was surely disappointing for Alberg, who despite having nine goals in just over 1,000 minutes, has played only 19 minutes over the last three games and has started only once since the beginning of August. By now, you have to wonder what role the dynamic Dutchman will have in the playoffs — if he has one at all.

Stat of the week
With his seventh assist, the rookie Herbers moved into the top 10 in franchise history in career assists. He’s tied for ninth all time with Barnetta, Alejandro Moreno and Conor Casey.

Quote of the week
“I kind of even surprised myself.”

— Alejandro Bedoya, on his first MLS goal

Player of the week
Gotta give it to the guy who scored one of the best goals of the Union’s season, right? The Union now hope there’s more to come from Bedoya during the final stretch of the 2016 season.

Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya's 1st MLS goal not enough in draw with Toronto FC

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Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya's 1st MLS goal not enough in draw with Toronto FC

TORONTO -- Justin Morrow scored in the 70th minute and Toronto FC salvaged a point with a 1-1 draw with the Union on Saturday night.

Morrow made a run from his left back position, and midfielder Jonathan Osorio laid the ball off to Morrow for a tight-angle shot. Toronto (13-8-9) had its second straight home tie,

Alejandro Bedoya scored for Philadelphia (11-11-9) in the 25th minute. Bedoya took a pass from Fabian Herbers with his back to the Toronto goal, quickly spun past the Toronto back line and chipped a shot that looped over goalkeeper Clint Irwin.