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 have no answer for Didier Drogba, Impact in 5-1 loss

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Associated Press

Union have no answer for Didier Drogba, Impact in 5-1 loss

MONTREAL  -- Didier Drogba broke out with a hat trick to lead the Montreal Impact to a 5-1 victory over the Union on Saturday night.

The 38-year-old Ivorian striker hadn't scored since May 28. He returned last week after missing three games with a thigh injury.

Ignacio Piatti returned after sitting out a one-game suspension to score a goal and add two assists. Recent signing Matteo Mancuso, who went in for Drogba in the 79th minute, got his first MLS goal in added time.

Montreal improved to 7-5-8.

Chris Pontius scored for Philadelphia (8-7-6).

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.