Philadelphia Union

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.

Inside Doop: Blowing a lead ahead of toughest game of the season

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Inside Doop: Blowing a lead ahead of toughest game of the season

The Union traveled all the way across the country, scored a couple of goals, and came within seconds of pulling off a huge win over a team that rarely loses at home.

In the end, of course, that will only make Saturday’s 2-2 draw with the San Jose Earthquakes even more frustrating as Union coaches and players are well aware that stringing together wins is the only way to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive.

In this week’s Inside Doop, we’ll take a look at how a win turned into a draw and the brutally tough week that lies ahead.

Three thoughts about Saturday’s game
1. Anyone who’s watched the Union for the last eight seasons knows one-goal leads are never safe in the final minutes, especially on the road. And in San Jose, some of those old ghosts came back to haunt the Union again as a late penalty called on Josh Yaro allowed Chris Wondolowski’s 95th-minute PK to tie the game and spoil an otherwise positive performance. Afterwards, Haris Medunjanin threw his arms up in the air and stormed off the field, the team’s first-year midfielder perhaps learning some of the many frustrations that comes along with being a Union player.

2. Yaro has now made critical mistakes in each of his last three starts, all filling in for Oguchi Onyewu. That’s surely a tough thing for Union fans to swallow considering Yaro was the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft and is not really progressing as well as he should be, injuries aside. Contrast that, meanwhile, with Jack Elliott, the 77th pick in the 2017 draft. Elliott continued to build his case for Rookie of the Year with maybe his pest performance yet, scoring his first MLS goal and looking far more comfortable defensively than Yaro, his center back partner.

3. Questions certainly remain about Roland Alberg’s consistency and chemistry with teammates, but we can’t forget that he’s one of the better ball strikers this team has ever had. He showed that again Saturday with a very nice goal that put the Union ahead 2-1 early in the second half. With Ilsinho hurt, some may have thought promising rookie Adam Najem would assume the No. 10 role. But until the team is eliminated from the playoff contention, Alberg will likely still get the chance to show just how dangerous he can be and perhaps keep racking up the goals.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. Any time a team has to play games Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday, it’s a rough stretch. This one is even harder for the Union considering they had to fly back to Philly from San Jose before they quickly turn around to head to Toronto and face the league’s best team Wednesday, and then come back home to host upstart expansion side Atlanta United FC on Saturday. As always, there will be questions as how head coach Jim Curtin deals with minute management to keep everyone fresh. It might be especially interesting to see if he’d consider resting anyone in Toronto considering even a full-strength Union team has little chance of knocking off Toronto FC, who are currently 9-0-3 at home and maybe even one of the best MLS teams ever assembled. That said, if the Union can pull off the upset, it would be a huge boost toward their playoff push and a moment they’ll remember for a long time.

2. Remember Maurice Edu? The Union midfielder hasn’t played an MLS minute in nearly two years but suited up for USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel on Sunday, playing just over 30 minutes vs. Louisville City. Does that mean he’s ready to play for the Union? Not necessarily. Last year, he made three rehab appearances with Bethlehem, before then getting hurt as he was set to play for the Union. So the coaches may still want to give it a bit more time with the Steel, meaning a trip to Toronto is unlikely.

3. Another player who’s probably closer to returning is Andre Blake, who’s now missed eight straight games because of the Gold Cup and hurting his hand in the tournament final. John McCarthy continues to play well in his absence, but getting Blake back in time to face a star-studded Toronto attack could make a huge difference north of the border.

Stat of the week
With his goal Saturday, Alberg is tied for second on the team in goals this season with five. He also finished second on the team last season in that category, and his 14 total goals in nearly two seasons ranks fifth all time.

Quote of the week
“Both teams needed three points to be honest, so a tie kind of doesn’t do much for either of us at this stage.” — Union head coach Jim Curtin, after Saturday’s 2-2 draw

Player of the week
On top of his goal, Elliott also helped set up the team’s second goal and made a couple of huge clearances in the box. The rookie was, by far, the team’s best player on the night.

Union squander late lead in San Jose, finish with draw against Earthquakes

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Union squander late lead in San Jose, finish with draw against Earthquakes

BOX SCORE

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Chris Wondolowski scored on a penalty kick in stoppage time to give the San Jose Earthquakes a 2-2 tie with the Philadelphia Union on Saturday night.

Shea Salinas drew a foul on Joshua Yaro in the penalty area to set up the penalty kick in the 95th minute. With his 10th goal, Wondolowski became the first player in MLS history with eight straight double-digit seasons.

Roland Alberg scored in the 55th to put Philadelphia (8-11-6) up 2-1.

Valeri Qazaishvili scored three minutes for San Joe (9-10-6). He eluded two defenders before punching it between two more defenders.

Jack Elliott tied it in the 35th with his first goal of the season, knocking the ball in on the left side of the net.