Five ways for Union to improve next season

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Five ways for Union to improve next season

CHESTER, Pa. – For the Philadelphia Union, it’s been hard not to look back at all the points they left on the table over the past eight months.

Those missed opportunities, after all, prevented the club from making the playoffs and caused its season to end on Saturday with a disappointing 2-1 loss to Sporting Kansas City at PPL Park.

But while the Union probably could have gotten a couple of better breaks, finished with a few more points and made the postseason, the harsh truth is this was always a middle-of-the-road MLS team that was never really a championship contender.

So instead of looking back at all of the what-ifs, it’s time to look ahead to what the Union can do to become a championship contender and join the ranks of some of the other elite teams in the league.

Here’s a five-point offseason plan:

1. Keep coaching staff, young core in place
When a team wins only twice in its last 10 games to fall from near the top of the standings into seventh place, it’s natural for fans to want changes. And the axe usually falls on the coach. But while Union manager John Hackworth made some mistakes this season and was painfully stubborn with some of his lineup decisions (hardly playing Kleberson at all until October remains a tough pill to swallow for many fans), he deserves another year as he continues to bring the club forward from the mess that former manager Peter Nowak left behind.

Hackworth’s offseason moves last year to bring in veterans Jeff Parke, Conor Casey and Sebastien Le Toux were good ones, and the team’s young core -- eight of the top 12 players are 26 or younger -- have been mostly thriving under his guidance. And that young core, led by rising stars Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo, Zac MacMath and Sheanon Williams, should only improve next season. The biggest priority should be to keep those players for the long term.

2. Open up wallet for star playmaker
The good thing about the makeup of this Union team is that wholesale changes aren’t necessary. As mentioned above, they have some of the league’s top young talent, which mixes nicely with a few reliable MLS veterans. But all of those players would be so much better if the Union had a premier attacking midfielder. Too often this season the Union relied on crossing and blind runs to try to create offense, lacking creativity in the final third.

What they need is a big-time playmaker that can take on defenders, take shots from distance and have the vision to make the right passes. Naturally, these kinds of players cost a lot of money. Freddy Adu was supposed to be that guy and Kleberson was supposed to be that guy, but in the end, Hackworth had issues with both of those high-priced midfielders. With some more salary cap flexibility, will he bring in someone he likes for that role? Or will the Union try to steer clear of bringing in another Designated Player?

3. Make the draft count
Here’s something to look forward to: Because of a trade that sent Gabriel Farfan to Chivas USA, the Union will have two of the top-six picks in the upcoming MLS SuperDraft, including the second overall selection. And just like the 2010 draft, when the Union landed McInerney, Okugo and the since-departed Danny Mwanga in the first round, the draft will be held in Philadelphia. The MLS draft can certainly be hit or miss, but if the Union are able to land another one-two punch like McInerney and Okugo, they’ll have a lot to look forward to over the next few years.

4. Be flexible and creative
While Hackworth won’t want to trade some of his top players, there are certainly a couple of positions where the Union have the numbers to make some moves. At right back, they’re stacked with Williams and fellow youngster Ray Gaddis, so Hackworth will have to decide whether he wants to trade one of them or make the right-footed Gaddis the permanent left back.

And then there’s the defensive midfield spot, where captain Brian Carroll played all but the final game of the season. Carroll is a great leader, an even better person and an underrated player, but the Union might be better off with Okugo, a natural midfielder, in that spot. Yes, Okugo played well at center back all season, but if they move him into the midfield they could either pick up another center back in the draft, get 2012 captain Carlos Valdes back from his Colombian loan, or move Williams over to center back. For Hackworth, it should at least be a move worth considering.

5. Shed the underdog label
For most of the season, Hackworth and the players talked about not getting enough respect, not being picked to make the playoffs and playing better in an underdog role. While that’s all well and good for a team in Philly -- we do love “Rocky,” after all -- it might be time for them to stop worrying about what other people think about them. If they want to be an elite team, they have to act like it.

'I've never seen that' - Rare violation works in Union's favor vs. Colorado

'I've never seen that' - Rare violation works in Union's favor vs. Colorado

CHESTER, Pa. -- The situation was growing dire for the Union.

With the game tied at one in the second half and facing a Colorado Rapids team that happily parked the defensive bus in order to grind out an ugly draw, the Union got a break when Rapids forward Caleb Calvert received a red-card ejection for entering the field illegally.

Five minutes later, the Union claimed the 2-1 lead and eventual victory (see game story).

“I’ve never seen that to be honest with you,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “Where you reenter the field like a sneak attack from behind the goal. You knew something was wrong with it when you saw it, just the eyeball test. But the laws of the game, that’s a violation.”

How it all happened was unique. In the 69th minute, Calvert went down injured on the Union goal line and remained there, writhing in pain. Not buying his injury, referee Jose Carlos Rivero went over to the player, held a conversation and immediately threw up the yellow card for dissent.

“The second yellow and yellows in that quick succession,” Curtin said, “it was probably in the referee's mind that something verbal was said and he was upset.”

With a warning on his name and with a trainer now at his side, Calvert, who scored his first MLS goal in the 15th minute but was unavailable to the media after the match, got to his feet and left the playing field behind the Union goal. Confused as to whether he could or couldn’t reenter the match, the 20-year-old forward hesitated briefly before sneaking back onto the field.

“They told me they were trying to tell him to stay off the field,” Rapids left back Eric Miller said. “But how many people were here tonight? 20,000? 20,000 people and the referee was 60 yards away, it’s gonna be tough to hear him probably.”

Calvert was carded again, this time with Rivero showing red, ejecting the youngster from the game.

“You don’t just quickly send a guy off for two dumb things in a row,” Miller said. “I’m sure he thinks he made the right call.”

Rapids assistant coach and former Union striker Conor Casey was also ejected. Head coach Pablo Mastroeni didn't make himself available to the media after the game.

“It’s tough when a referee has such a massive impact on the outcome of the game,” Miller said.

But the Union feel like the game was decided even before Calvert's ejection. While it did change the contest and made taking the lead with a Haris Medunjanin free kick goal a bit easier, Union attacker Chris Pontius believes C.J. Sapong’s game-tying penalty kick minutes before the incident is what stole momentum.

“I think they were rattled when we got the first goal,” said Pontius, who said he’s never witnessed anything like what happened Saturday. “I don’t think they knew what to do. I think even if they had 11 men, we were still getting another goal.”

Union battle back to beat Rapids for club record 4th-straight win

Union battle back to beat Rapids for club record 4th-straight win

BOX SCORE

CHESTER, Pa. -- With a second-half flurry and some help from referee Jose Carlos Rivero, Haris Medunjanin and the Union overcame a one-goal deficit to take down the Colorado Rapids, 2-1, Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium.

The victory pushes the Union's win streak to a club record four games.

“Confidence is a heck of a thing,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “If you could bottle it up and sell it, you could make a heck of a lot of money. You see a group now that previously when we gave up a goal, we might lay down. We might panic. I don’t think we handled it perfectly, but we did push the game in the second half.” 

Playing their third match in eight days, the now 4-4-4 Union weren’t at their best Saturday against a Rapids team who are sitting dead last in MLS at 2-1-8. 

“Not all wins are going to be pretty,” Union attacker Chris Pontius said. “The first half definitely wasn’t us at all, we weren’t connecting passes, we were a little late with everything and played right into their hands.”

But trailing for the first time in four matches after a Caleb Calvert fast-break goal in the 15th minute, the hosts persisted and began to climb back into the game in the second half.

“I want to speak about the first 45 minutes. It was not us. It was very bad,” Medunjanin said. “We need to know that we can’t play arrogant and think we can easily beat every team. If we don’t fight for every yard, we are nothing.” 

From the right side of Rapids territory, Ilsinho fired a cross into the box that was pounced on by Jay Simpson, who entered for Fafa Picault just three minutes earlier. The forward’s shot hit Kortne Ford, who fell and practically hugged the ball, earning the in-box handball call and penalty kick. 

“We spoke with each other at halftime and we knew we had to stick with each other,” Medunjanin said. “We knew if we scored the first goal, we were going to win this game.” 

C.J. Sapong lined up at the spot and launched a high shot that found that first goal to tie the game at one. It was Sapong’s eighth of the season.

“The guy clearly made a hand ball and we got the PK,” Sapong said. “I tried to keep it on goal and it went in. It gave us a little bit of life.”

Then things got crazy. 

Embellishing an injury in an attempt to waste time, Calvert received a yellow card for dissent and was forced off the field as the trainer was called out. A confused Calvert then reentered the game without permission and received a second yellow and red-card ejection. In protest, former Union striker Conor Casey, now an assistant coach with the Rapids, was ejected in the 70th minute.

“Nothing’s going our way right now,” Rapids’ Eric Miller said. “So I think we’re pretty used to calls like that.”

Up a man, the Union rolled. Alejandro Bedoya suffered a foul just outside the box, allowing Medunjanin to lace the free kick over the Rapids’ defensive wall and inside the right post for the 2-1 Union lead.

“I know I can shoot from there and when I hit the ball, I knew it was going to go in,” Medunjanin said. “We don’t have star players. We need to fight with each other and take the three points with each other, even the bench and everybody out of the squad.” 

Having played Wednesday, the Union shifted their roster to stay fresh. Most notable was the absence of Fabinho, who was replaced in favor of Giliano Wijnaldum, who made his MLS debut. Fabian Herbers also made the start for Pontius on the right side of the midfield but was forced out in the 26th because of a hip injury.

“It was an opportunity for him,” Curtin said of Herbers. “Unfortunately, he could be out for some time.”