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.

Union suffer 1st loss of season to Cyle Larin, Orlando City

Union suffer 1st loss of season to Cyle Larin, Orlando City

BOX SCORE

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Cyle Larin scored twice, including the game-winner in the 73rd minute, and Orlando City won its second straight to open the season 2-1 over the Union on Saturday.

With the score tied at one with 15 minutes left, Larin found his way behind the middle of the Union defense thanks to a streaking pass from Carlos Rivas and beat goalkeeper Andre Blake for the game-winner. The forward has accounted for all three Orlando City goals this season.

After Larin gave Orlando City (2-0-0) the lead in the 39th minute, C.J. Sapong found the back of the net with a header to tie the score in the 52nd minute. The Union (0-1-2) had a final opportunity to tie it in the 93rd minute, but Alejandro Bedoya's header was denied by Joe Bendik.

The Union are winless in their last 10 matches dating back to last season.

Orlando, whose March 11 game against New England was postponed due to extreme cold, was playing its first game without injured captain Kaka. Kaka injured his hamstring in the season opener with New York City FC.

Union-Orlando City 5 Things: Bracing for the Kaka-less Lions

Union-Orlando City 5 Things: Bracing for the Kaka-less Lions

Union at Orlando City SC 
Saturday 7:30 p.m., The Comcast Network

After two straight draws to start the 2017 season, the undefeated and winless Union (0-0-2) hit the road to face an Orlando City SC (1-0-0) team that will be missing one of the league's marquee players. 

Here are five things to know:

1. Striker status
After starting striker Jay Simpson scored 11 minutes into his home debut last week, he was forced to the locker room with an injury -- and then to the hospital after he frighteningly began coughing up blood. 

Luckily for the Union, head coach Jim Curtin says the injury -- a bruised lung -- doesn't appear to be serious. But considering he hasn't practiced most of the week, it seems doubtful he'll play in Orlando.

"He's a tough kid," Curtin said. "He probably had another goal or two in him, so that was disappointing. But injuries are part of the game and he'll have to recover now."

The Union are fortunate to have a more-than-serviceable replacement in C.J. Sapong, who came in for Simpson and scored the game-tying goal in last week's 2-2 draw with reigning MLS Cup finalist Toronto FC. 

"I'm happy with where C.J. is," Curtin said. "We know what he's all about. He'll fight for the Union badge, he'll give everything he has every day in training, whether he's starting or coming off the bench."

2. No Kaka
Just like Simpson, Orlando City SC star Kaka exited in the 11th minute of his home debut two weeks ago. But his situation is more serious as the Brazilian midfielder will miss a few weeks with a hamstring injury.

It's naturally a tough blow for Orlando but the Lions have an interesting option to replace him in Giles Barnes, a proven MLS player who assisted on Orlando's only goal in their season-opening 1-0 win over New York City FC. 

"He brings an element of speed," Curtin said. "He's a dynamic player, dangerous. And he's at a new club so he's looking to impress his head coach."

Midfielder Matias Perez Garcia will likely also see an expanded role with Kaka out, teaming with Barnes, Carlos Rivas and 2015 Rookie of the Year Cyle Larin in a dangerous four-man attacking front.

"Cycle is a great presence," Curtin said. "Twelve yards in, he's as good of a finisher as we have in our league."

3. No Mickey Mouse environment
Due to a weird scheduling quirk, the Lions will play their second straight game in their sparkling new stadium without having yet to leave Orlando. That's because their scheduled game in New England last week was postponed due to extreme cold.

It's hard to know if having a week off will hurt their momentum or if staying home will prove to be an ideal start to their 2017 campaign. Either way, Curtin is expecting a daunting atmosphere in Orlando -- even if the team is excited to get away from the cold.

"Everyone thinks about Disney and thinks it's a happy, smiley, kid-friendly place," the Union coach said. "I can tell you the Orlando fans are an intimidating group -- nothing Mickey Mouse about their group of supporters, that's for sure. 

"It's one of the few places where I get a police escort in and out of the building, I'll just put it that way. The police officers are actually very friendly, which is good."

4. Keep an eye on
Joe Bendik:
Aside from Larin and maybe new center back Jonathan Spector, no one was better in Orlando's opener than Bendik, who made a few sparkling saves, including the top one of the week. Between him and Union standout Andre Blake, we could be looking at a game with a few highlight-reel stops.

Derrick Jones: The 20-year-old defensive midfielder has had a terrific start to the season in his first two MLS games. But this will be another stiff test for Jones, who Curtin said is drawing praise from around the league, including coaches and execs from Toronto. "He's an exciting player in a position where I think the work sometimes goes unnoticed," Curtin said. "He's doing it in a way where a lot of people are taking notice in a position that maybe isn't the most glamorous."

5. This and that
• After missing the first two games with a hamstring injury, Ilsinho is expected to be available to make his season debut. He'd likely come off the bench with Fabian Herbers cementing his role on the right wing.

• Both of the Union's previous two games in Orlando have ended in draws but Philly leads the all-time series, 2-1-2. 

• Dating back to last season, the Union are winless in their last nine regular-season matches.

• Sarpong's goal last week was his fourth off the bench for the Union. Only four Union players have ever scored more off the bench with former super-sub Antoine Hoppenot leading the way with seven.