Five ways for Union to improve next season


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.

Union emotional after Maurice Edu's season-ending injury

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Union emotional after Maurice Edu's season-ending injury

CHESTER, Pa. — On the eve of his comeback after missing nearly 13 months with a left tibia stress fracture and other related injuries, Union midfielder Maurice Edu fractured his left fibula on Saturday, keeping him out for the 2016 playoffs and beyond.

“I was trying to take the shot on goal and my foot got stuck in the turf,” Edu said Sunday, in his blue Union-issued suit and supported by crutches. “My ankle rolled and twisted and it kind of snapped a little bit. I heard it crack, and a lot of pain from there. I got a scan afterward, and there was a break.”

There's no timetable his return.

Edu, 30, has spent over a calendar year fighting various injuries that have kept him out of game action. His trouble began on Sept. 30, 2015, when he played through the U.S. Open Cup final with a partially torn groin and sports hernia. It was during Edu’s recovery from those injuries that he developed a stress fracture.

"A little bit frustration. A lot of frustration, to be honest," he said. "But all I can do now is get back to work, focus on the positives and make sure that my situation isn’t a distraction from the team."

Edu’s teammates were equally devastated by the news. Edu, the Union captain when healthy, is popular and well-respected in the locker room.

"I feel so bad for him," said Alejandro Bedoya, who wore a dedication to Edu under his jersey on Sunday. "He’s one of my good friends, so I was looking forward to playing alongside him. I know how hard he’s worked to get back, and to see him go out like that, it’s heartbreaking. I’m sad for his loss and I hope he stays strong."

Edu, who has been with the Union since 2014, returned to training in July and played three conditioning appearances with the Union’s USL team, Bethlehem Steel FC. He was on the bench for the Union’s last three games and was set to make his first appearance in over a year against the New York Red Bulls on Sunday, a game the Union eventually lost, 2-0 (see game story).

"We’re gutted for Mo," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "He was slated to start today. It’s real upsetting because he’s worked so hard to get back on the field. It’s been a tough 2016 for him, but I know he’ll come back stronger."

While he was visibly shaken by recent injury, Edu is driven to return.

"What happened, happened," Edu said. "I have no control over that. The only thing I do have control over is my next steps from here, how I prepare myself mentally and emotionally and how I continue to support this group."

Union drop season finale, but still clinch playoff spot

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Union drop season finale, but still clinch playoff spot

CHESTER, Pa. -- With little to gain in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, the Union went into Sunday’s match looking for a spark.

Instead, they found more of the same.

Bradley Wright-Phillips continued his scoring dominance over MLS, as the Red Bulls easily dispatched the lifeless Union, 2-0, in the regular season finale at Talen Energy Stadium.

“We are going through a bad patch right now,” Union goalkeeper Andre Blake said. “It’s obvious to everyone, but I still think and I hope the guys think that we can turn this thing around and do well in the playoffs.”

The Union, who have clinched a playoff spot for the first time since 2011, enter the postseason riding a seven-game winless run and three-game losing streak. They will face Toronto FC in a one-game playoff at BMO Field on Wednesday or Thursday.

“We’ve had a difficult end to the season,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “We’re not happy about it. Having said that, I do want to congratulate the players, although it does have a strange feeling because we’re in a bit of a dip of form.”

They will face Toronto FC in a one-game playoff at BMO Field on Wednesday, while the Red Bulls clinched a first-round bye and the No. 1 seed in the East.

“It’s win or lose or go home,” said Alejandro Bedoya, who wore the captain’s arm band. “Hopefully everybody gets their head on their shoulders and pull their socks up and is in there for the battle.”

With the playoffs practically clinched heading into the match, Curtin selected to start Roland Alberg for Tranquillo Barnetta, Fabian Herbers for C.J. Sapong and Eric Ayuk for Chris Pontius.

But the fresh legs wouldn’t help the Union, as Wright-Phillips notched his 24th goal of the season in the 26th minute. Aurelien Collin split the Union defense with a brilliant pass that broke the MLS leading scorer on a breakaway. Chipping the ball over an aggressive Andre Blake, Wright-Phillips followed up the volley for the 1-0 Red Bulls lead.

“It’s frustrating,” Union center back Ken Tribbett said. “The play he scored was a lack of communication. Some of us stepped, one of us dropped and he was onside by quite a bit when he should have been offside by about five yards. It’s a miscommunication and he punished us.”

Alex Muyl doubled the Red Bulls’ lead in the 57th minute.

Though he didn’t need the scoring effort on Sunday, for the second time in three seasons, Wright-Phillips won the MLS Golden Boot for the most goals, edging out New York City FC’s David Villa. Luis Robles earned the five-save shutout.

“It isn’t everything,” Wright-Phillips said. “Because I’ve won it before and the team didn’t win the MLS Cup. At the end of it, all I had was the Golden Boot. The goals didn’t [matter] for anything unless you win the MLS Cup.”