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-Red Bulls 5 things: Playoff implications as Union visit Red Bulls

Union-Red Bulls 5 things: Playoff implications as Union visit Red Bulls

Union vs. New York Red Bulls
7:00 p.m. on TCN

Riding a four-game winless run and with just three matches remaining in the season, Alejandro Bedoya and the Union (11-11-9) look to alter their recent misfortune when they take on the powerful New York Red Bulls (13-9-9) on Saturday (7:00 p.m., TCN) at Red Bull Arena, in an Eastern Conference showdown with playoff implications.

Here are five things to know.

1. Playing for Position
With three games left in the season and currently sitting fourth in the East, the Union are closing in on the organization’s second-ever playoff berth.

“Every point matters,” said Union manager Jim Curtin. “We need to take care of business and get as many points as possible down the stretch. We know we have a good team, we know our fans deserve to be back in the playoffs and that is our singular focus at this point."

Though making the playoffs is the club’s singular focus, the Union have their eye on positioning. In MLS, the third and fourth seeds earn home-field advantage in a play-in game against the fifth and sixth seeds. Prior to Saturday, the Union, who have 42 points, are just two points ahead of D.C. United and one point ahead of the Montreal Impact.

All three clubs have played 31 games.

“We recognize it’s going to be a tough task but at the same time, we’ve set ourselves up nice where we control our own destiny,”Curtin said. “That hasn’t been the case in past years.”

But while you’d expect the Union to simply be satisfied making the playoffs and even hosting a game, the club isn’t content with a play-in game -- they want a top-three finish. The Red Bulls are second in the East with 48 points -- six more than the Union, who play them twice, including Saturday.

“It’s certainly realistic,” said Curtin, about claiming a top-three seed in the East. “The fact that we play Red Bull twice, you control your own destiny. But it’s going to be difficult.”

2. Bedoya and Barnetta
Earlier in the week, Tranquillo Barnetta made headlines when the the Union announced that the potent midfielder, who is out of contract after this season, will not return to the club next year.

That news overshadowed the fact that Barnetta might not play a major role on Saturday, after missing last week’s match with an injured knee suffered against the Portland Timbers.

“His injury is one that is manageable,” Curtin said. “We hoped to have him back for [Toronto FC last Saturday] but it just didn’t feel right, so we decided to hold him. I think he’ll play a role in the New York game, whether that’s as a starter or off the bench still remains to be seen.”

With five goals and four assists this season, Barnetta has been the engine that has the Union propelling toward the post-season. And with knee issues, that sidelined him early in the season, now bothering him again, the Union want to be extra careful.

“We have to have an eye on what’s best for him, his body and the club,” Curtin said. “Obviously, getting the most points we can and using him the best way.”

But if Barnetta can’t go on Saturday, the Union will be in decent hands. Last week, while filling in at the center attacking midfield spot for Barnetta, Bedoya scored his first MLS goal, when he chipped a beauty past the goalkeeper. The Union ended up tying the match, 1-1.

“It was a special goal,” Curtin said. “It was a special play from a very talented individual and a heck of a way to open your goal-scoring account for the club.”

3. Streaking Red Bull
The Union take on the Red Bulls in two of their final three matches of the season. And the way the Red Bulls are playing, that’s not a good thing for the Union. Saturday’s hosts are on a 13-game unbeaten streak.

“Red Bull hasn’t lost since early July so to think that you’re just going to take two games from them, there’s no guarantee in that,” Curtin said. “It’s going to be difficult.”

Even while riding the streak, the Red Bulls are still pushing. The club is three points behind New York City FC for tops in the East, with a game in hand.

“We’re full throttle right now,” said Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch. “It’s exciting and it’s at the right time.”

That poses a tougher challenge for the Union, who weren’t the dominant team in a 2-2 draw with the Red Bulls earlier in the season. But if Curtin’s club learned anything, it’s that they have to beat the Red Bulls’ energetic press, if they want a result on the road.

“We have to bypass their press,” Bedoya said. “We need to be calm on the ball, don’t panic and play through it. We can be a high energy, high press team as well, we have great players. Hopefully, we go there and take it to them.”

But the Red Bulls will be ready.

“They’ve done well breaking our pressure at times and establishing themselves as the game has gone on,” Marsch said. “We know the game will be different at Red Bull Arena, we can put it on our terms. This is a rivalry game, it’s a playoff team. We’re going to get their best and we’ll be ready for them.

4. Keep an eye on
• Sacha Kljestian: One of the better playmakers in MLS, Kljestian leads the league with 16 assists. And while it doesn’t hurt that he’s passing to MLS scoring leader, Bradley Wright-Phillips, who has 20 goals, the Union need to stop Kljestian if they want to stop the Red Bulls.

• Fabian Herbers: The rookie has three assists in his last three games for a team-leading seven helpers on the season. As long as Ilsinho is sidelined with a foot injury, the Union will look to Herbers, at right attack midfield, for consistent production. There’s no reason to believe he won’t deliver it.

5. This and that
• For the first time in 2016, Maurice Edu was on a Union game roster last week against Toronto FC. He didn’t play, though Curtin said that day isn’t far off. “He’s getting up closer to the numbers that we want him to get to each day,” the coach said. Mo is working toward getting to those numbers that we see fit for that position in MLS, and what it takes to play a game.”

• While Josh Yaro was suspended last weekend for earning a red card against the Timbers, he also suffered a concussion. He has fully recorded, but still might not make the start at center back after Ken Tribbett’s strong game on Saturday in Yaro’s place. “He was cleared this morning so he’s a good option to  have back in the lineup. It needs to be said that Ken did a really great job for us.”

• The Union are 5-9-3 against the Red Bulls all-time, but are 0-0-1 this season.

Union want to send off Tranquillo Barnetta with MLS Cup win

Union want to send off Tranquillo Barnetta with MLS Cup win

CHESTER, Pa. — Union head coach Jim Curtin knows it may seem like a weird situation to some.

Early on Tuesday morning, as soccer fans around the area were just waking up, the Union issued a press release that stated that Tranquillo Barnetta would be leaving the team at the end of the 2016 season (see story)

There was no trade. No sale. No contract dispute. No off-the-field issues. 

It was simply a case of a player — a really good player — deciding before the end of the season that he wanted to say goodbye to MLS and finish his pro career with his hometown club in St. Gallen, Switzerland. 

“I think it’s unique maybe to the American public and fan bases that a guy announces it and there’s still [part of] a season left to play,” Curtin said during his weekly press conference. “I think it’s strange for everyone to hear it that way. But in Europe that’s kind of the norm. To get out ahead of it shows what kind of man and leader he is. He addressed the team and didn’t want it to be a situation where something leaked out. He’s a true pro. I’m honored to have coached him and I want to prolong it as long as I possibly can.”

In other American leagues, of course, a talented but aging player with Barnetta’s pedigree might drum up a bidding war to try to get one more good contract in free agency before he retires, perhaps using a strong playoff performance to do so. But, as Curtin alluded to, global soccer is a whole different animal. And Barnetta never planned to use his 2016 performance as a launching pad to a new deal with Philly or something bigger on a different MLS team.

His plan all along was to retire for the hometown club he cheered for as a kid — and he made sure he’d have the freedom to do so when he signed with the Union last summer.

“We offered several years but he was very content and adamant about taking an 18-month deal,” Curtin said. “A lot of people say they’re not about the money but Tranquillo truly means when he says it. He came here at a very big discount to what his value was in the European market. And he had a goal of playing for his hometown club, which I respect at the end of the day.”

If there’s any knock against Barnetta, it’s that he essentially treated MLS as a short-term project, a way to try something new after an illustrious career in Switzerland and Germany, to live in a different part of the world and see different cities throughout the United States.

But make no mistake, he earned that right and he never tried to hire his future ambitions. And even if his tenure with the Union will be a short one, it’s been very beneficial for both sides.

Barnetta, for instance, learned about the grueling travel demands in MLS and the more physical nature of the league compared to ones in Europe, all while showing the sublime skill that made him a three-time World Cup veteran for Switzerland.

And the Union leaned on his talent and leadership at the end of their disappointing 2015 season and throughout the entire 2016 campaign with Curtin calling him “the best player that ever wore a Philadelphia Union jersey.”

“He’s a great example for our young guys,” the Union coach added. “He’s got a close relationship with a lot of the veteran guys. And he’s just a pleasure to have in the locker room. He comes to work with a smile on his face but when it’s time to work, he’s the hardest worker there is. A true professional. And the pedigree is the highest we’ve ever had in this club.”

You can make the case that acquiring players with great pedigrees hasn’t always worked to the Union’s benefit (see: Mbolhi, Rais), but it’s hard to find any fault in the Barnetta deal, especially when you consider Philadelphia got him at a discount and that Curtin and technical director Chris Albright orchestrated the signing at a time when the franchise was in a state of flux and sporting director Earnie Stewart had yet to join the fold. 

For someone that’s played in three World Cups, the Champions League and one of the top leagues in Europe, Barnetta may not be the biggest name out there. But getting him when they did was still something of a coup for Philadelphia. And the benefits will likely be reaped for a long time to come as the Union followed last year’s Barnetta signing with a couple of big moves in the offseason and this summer’s long-term acquisition of U.S. national team starter Alejandro Bedoya — the combination of which has them thinking about the playoffs and a whole lot more even as Barnetta’s departure looms.

“It’s something we want to celebrate rather than pity and feel bad,” Curtin said. “We’re happy for the time we’ve had him here. And now we’re gonna make it last as long as we possibly can. The rest of the games out, in the pregame talk, we’ll say, ‘Let’s extend this thing as long as possible and use it as a rallying cry.’ You don’t want it to come to an end. And when it does come to an end, you want it to be a special moment.”

What kind of special moment?

“We want his last game with the Philadelphia Union to be an MLS Cup.”