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-Impact 5 things: Back to MLS grind after Open Cup ouster

Union-Impact 5 things: Back to MLS grind after Open Cup ouster

Philadelphia Union at Montreal Impact
7:30 p.m. on TCN

After getting eliminated from the U.S. Open Cup in crushing fashion Wednesday night in Boston, the Union (8-6-6) remain on the road for an MLS clash with the Montreal Impact (6-5-8) on Saturday. Here are five things to know about the Eastern Conference matchup north of the border:

1) Bouncing back
There’s no denying that missing out on the chance to win the 2016 U.S. Open Cup will sting. The Union have come so close to winning the trophy, getting knocked out in each of the last two finals, including a shootout loss in the 2015 title game. And on Wednesday against the New England Revolution, the Union once again suffered through the cruelty of losing in a shootout — an especially difficult result after they battled back to send the game to extra time with a dramatic 90th-minute equalizer from rookie Fabian Herbers.

But if there’s good news it’s that the Union no longer need to worry about the tricky endeavor of navigating through the Open Cup while also preparing for regular-season games. And unlike in the past two seasons, where they needed a deep Open Cup run to validate a year where they struggled in MLS play, this season’s team is right in the thick of the playoff race, currently sitting in second place in the East — four points up on fourth-place Montreal.

“There’s obviously disappointment but the silver lining is we can focus on the league and what we want to achieve at the end of the year — and that’s winning the MLS Cup,” rookie right back Keegan Rosenberry said. “So hopefully we can put more of our focus on that and it will pay off for us.”

2) Road woes
Although the Union have the second best record in their conference, they’ve done most of their damage at home. In fact, the team has only won once on the road in 2016 — in the second game of the season.

That’s something the Union are working to correct with head coach Jim Curtin saying earlier in the week that they’ve talked about “improving our road mentality.” At the same time, the team has had a few good draws away from home, including one at league-leading Colorado and another the last time they went to Montreal back in May.

That gives the Union confidence for their return trip.

“If you look at it, we haven’t won on the road since Columbus in Week 2,” Rosenberry said. “For us, that’s something of a challenge. Can we do better than that? We’ve been so good at home but it really shouldn’t change how we play when we go on the road. I think we put in a decent performance in Montreal the last time we played there and we were unlucky to give up a goal early. We’ll do our best to prevent that this time and hopefully we’ll come away with a result.”

3) Hey now, you’re an All-Star
The quick turnaround will naturally be a challenge for the Union, who will be playing their third game in seven days and 11th in 39 days leading into Thursday’s MLS All-Star Game. But the good news it that Rosenberry, who will be playing in that All-Star Game, was rested for all of Philly’s 120-minute affair vs. New England on Wednesday.

After returning from Montreal, Rosenberry will then quickly fly to San Jose to meet up with his fellow All-Stars, a group that includes teammate Andre Blake, who’s coming off a sensational game vs. New England.

“He’s playing in top form,” Curtin said of Blake. “There’s no surprise that he is an All-Star this year and will be starting against Arsenal. I’m happy for him, obviously.”

Before he goes to San Jose to begin preparations for Arsenal, Blake will need to be in top form again vs. Montreal, which boasts an attack that features Didier Drogba and Ignacio Piatti, both of whom will join Impact defender Laurent Ciman in the All-Star Game.

Yes, that’s five total All-Stars that will potentially be playing in Saturday’s game.

4) Keep an eye on
Union: Sebastien Le Toux: Ilsinho will have to miss Saturday’s game due to a red-card suspension, which is perhaps not the worst thing in the world considering he put in a grueling 120-minute shift Wednesday. But that still puts some pressure on Le Toux, the franchise stalwart who will likely be inserted into the starting lineup as he looks to put a PK miss in the Open Cup shootout behind him.

Impact: Harry Shipp: While the Impact have a lot of star power, including one of the most well-known players in the world in Didier Drogba, they also have a very talented young player in Shipp. Traded from Chicago in the offseason, Shipp got off to somewhat of a slow start in Montreal but has now scored goals in two of the Impact’s last three games.

5) This and that

  • Before Montreal’s 3-1 loss to New York City FC this past Sunday, they were unbeaten in their last six games
  • In the last Union-Impact game, Drogba and C.J. Sapong both scored first-half goals in a 1-1 draw at Stade Saputo on May 14.

  • The visiting team has only won once all-time in the series — a 1-0 Union win last August. Le Toux scored the only goal of that game to spoil Drogba’s MLS debut.

  • Piatti is second in the Golden Boot race with 11 goals (behind only New York City’s David Villa). The Union’s Chris Pontius is currently tied for 11th in the scoring lead with seven goals.

Union hire analyst Janusz Michallik to replace recently-fired Peter Pappas

Union hire analyst Janusz Michallik to replace recently-fired Peter Pappas

The Union have found a replacement for recently-fired analyst Peter Pappas

Replacing Pappas will be former U.S. Men's National Team player Janusz Michallik. 

Michallik, 50, will call the July 23 and July 31 matches alongside play-by-play man JP Dellacamera. The match on July 23 against the Montreal Impact will be on TCN and the July 23 match against Real Salt Lake will be on CSN. Michallik is an ESPN soccer analyst and was an ESPN Radio analyst during the 2014 World Cup. 

He began his pro career in Poland before moving to the United States when he was 16. While playing for the U.S. National Team from 1991-94, he earned 44 caps and won a CONCACAF Gold Cup in 1991 and a US Cup in 1992. 

Brad Knighton, Revolution eliminate Union from U.S. Open Cup in penalty kicks

Brad Knighton, Revolution eliminate Union from U.S. Open Cup in penalty kicks

The Union’s U.S. Open Cup magic ran out in penalty kicks on Wednesday at Harvard University’s Jordan Field, as they were eliminated in the quarterfinals by Brad Knighton and the New England Revolution, 1-1 (4-2).

“It’s a tough way to end the game,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “Credit to New England, their guys stepped up, hit their PKs and they’re moving on. It’s difficult for us right now, our locker room is upset. There’s only two trophies you can lift in this country and we’re out of the competition for one of them.” 

For the first time since 2013, the Union will not be in the Open Cup championship game. Meanwhile, the Revs advance to the Open Cup semifinals on Aug. 10, when they will face the Chicago Fire at a location to be determined.

“You have to tip your cap to New England, they had a good game tonight,” Curtin said. “Jay (Heaps) does a good job with them.”

It wasn’t a strong night of penalties for the typically game Union, as Sebastien Le Toux and C.J. Sapong were stuffed by Knighton on weak attempts. On the other side, Andre Blake was able to stop Scott Caldwell but unable to keep Je-Vaughn Watson from winning it for the hosts.

“You work on them in training, but nothing can really recreate a crowd here and the pressure,” Curtin said. “We’re disappointed for Seba, he’s one of our best at that. At the end of the day, it’s a crapshoot. We weren’t the better team today.”

The conclusion may have been just for the Union, who trailed the entire match.

Staring down elimination in the 90th minute, Ray Gaddis, on the right side, pushed it to Le Toux in the box. With a defender draped on him, the Frenchman shielded possession before tapping a pass to Fabian Herbers, who collected it and bounced a shot through Knighton and in, tying the match at 1-1 and sending it to added extra time.

Blake was the player of the game for the Union, finishing the match with seven saves. 

He kept the match tied in the first half of added extra time with back-to-back stops — an aggressive diving stop on Andrew Ferrell, followed by a stunning right-hand save off Kelyn Rowe’s rebound.

“He’s good at soccer,” Curtin said. “He’s a good goalkeeper. He’s special, he can make a big save that can win you a game. When we do get broken down, he’s there to bail us out. He’s playing in top form.”

Watson caught the Union sleeping in the 44th minute, when he snuck past an unset Union back line and accepted a set piece pass from Diego Fagundez. With time, Watson’s shot easily beat Blake to the right post for the early lead.

“At the end of the first half, we fall asleep on restart,” Curtin said. “It’s disappointing to give up a goal like that when we have numbers back. Two guys switched off for a second. For me, that’s the centerback’s job to be screaming and organizing. Ilsinho may have fallen asleep for a second, they played short and caught us.”