Five ways for Union to improve next season

hackworthusa.jpg

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-D.C. United 5 things: Slumping Union look to end slide against D.C. United

Union-D.C. United 5 things: Slumping Union look to end slide against D.C. United

Union vs. D.C. United 
7:00 p.m. on 6ABC
 
Looking to avoid four-straight losses for the second time this season, the last-place Union (4-7-4) aim to prey on vulnerable D.C. United (5-8-3) in a battle at the bottom of the Eastern Conference Saturday night (7:00 p.m., 6ABC) at Talen Energy Stadium.
 
Here are five things to know:
 
1. Back to slump-busting
The Union are a streaky team. After losing four-straight matches earlier this season, the club claimed two draws then went on a four-game winning streak. Things were looking up until the Union stumbled again and dropped their last three matches, including a 2-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls last Sunday.
 
“We had a tough start, a hot run and a little bit of a dip,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “We can not allow this to be a long-term thing.”
 
Although the potential of another four-game losing streak will loom large over Saturday’s match, the Union will have to shrug it off if they want to turn their season around. The weekend tilt features the two lowest ranked teams in the Eastern Conference. 
 
“It’s a weird run of form,” said Curtin, who pointed out the Union’s recent losing streak was more about bad luck than poor play. “Streaks get longer and can get problematic or we can step up on Saturday night and put an end to it.”
 
To do that, the Union need more on both sides of the ball. Over that four-game winning run, the Curtin’s outscored their competition 11-1. They took the lead and locked the game down.
 
“It’s a league of runs,” Curtin said. “The strong teams are the ones that aren’t conceding a lot of goals. If you start with that foundation, which is something we believe in and something we’ve improved on but that hasn’t been perfect, it at least gives you a chance to get results in every game. We showed glimpses of that through the four-game stretch of winning.” 
 
2. Looking for a fix
To get back to those winning ways, the Union need a quick fix. But as Curtin explained Wednesday, the defense, which has allowed five goals in its last three matches, has been unlucky rather than poor.
 
“If you look at our last eight games as a team defensively we’ve conceded six goals, which isn’t bad,” he said. “Four of them are without [Alejandro] Bedoya in the last two games. Two of the goals were down a man and two were on restarts. We have a team that needs to do a little better offensively and is a little cleaner defensively decisions as well. But overall I don’t think there’s a real problem with us conceding a ton of goals.” 
 
But while leaning away from putting all of the losing weight on his defense, which has recently included Ray Gaddis, Jack Elliott, Oguchi Onyewu and Fabinho, Curtin, a defender at heart, didn’t let his team’s defensive effort go unscathed. 
 
“We need to continue work on things, to build on that,” Curtin said. “It does start with defense in this league. If you at the team at the top of standings and they defend their butts on for 90 minutes. We’ve been able to do that in patches of games but it’s been too inconsistent.”
 
One solution? Score more. The Union have only managed one goal in their last three games. Curtin stated that it’s not for lack of chances but missing finish that has caused the trouble.
 
“You want to try to get into the situations where you get to [Chris] Pontius comes to life, that’s where [C.J.] Sapong comes to life. In short, we need more crosses.”
 
3. Basement battle
Although Saturday’s match against D.C. United is technically just another early-summer game, it will tell a lot about where the two clubs are headed. It’s a battle of teams trying to climb out of the East basement.
 
“If we can [get a win], we put ourselves in a good spot moving up the table,” D.C. United manager Ben Olsen said. “Philly is right around us so it’s an important match at this point in the season.” 
 
The Union are leaning on previous success against United as navigation through Saturday. On May 13, they dismantled their rivals, 4-0, at RFK Stadium.
 
“We were good with the ball, possession was strong,” Curtin said. “We were clinical with our finishing. When you take your chances in this league it’s everything. That day we finished everything and that’s what it comes down to. Hopefully, we have a sharp day in front of goal, we’ve proven we can do it.”
 
Olsen is expecting a familiar contest.
 
“We know them very well and they know us very well,” he said. “There will be no secrets on what our teams are about, it’s always a physical matchup, it’s a rivalry game for us. It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s never an easy place to get points but we’ve done it before.” 
 
4. Keep an eye on
Deshorn Brown: The United newcomer, who was acquired this week from the Tampa Bay Rowdies, made his debut Wednesday for United and will likely play a factor on Saturday. He’s a speedster that the Union know well. “Tough timing,” Curtin said. “It’s speed, that’s what he is. He looks to get in behind, he’s a guy who creates chances and he’s dangerous. We’ll see him for sure. That’s my belief at least. I think we’ll see Deshorn one way or another. It was a good acquisition for them.”

Alejandro Bedoya: After missing two games with a lower-body injury, the midfielder is expected to return Saturday against United. That should give the Union a boost on both ends of the ball, as the club found chemistry and settled nicely with Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin working together in the center.

5. This and that
• The Union will be without Derrick Jones, who is suspended after receiving a red card last Sunday against the New York Red Bulls. It puts Curtin is a tough position as Warren Creavalle (out with a right hamstring strain) would be the primary depth behind Bedoya at the No. 8 spot.

• The Union will also be without Fabian Herbers and potentially Jay Simpson, who is questionable with a left hamstring strain. United will miss Nick DeLeon, Bobby Boswell, Sean Franklin and Patrick Mullins. 

• The Union are 8-8-4 against D.C. United all time and 6-3-0 at home.

Is it time to reshuffle the Union's back line?

Is it time to reshuffle the Union's back line?

On Tuesday night, the Union's promising back four of Giliano Wijnaldum, Joshua Yaro, Richie Marquez and Keegan Rosenberry all took the field together and led their team to a shutout.

The only problem: that team was the Union's USL affiliate, Bethlehem Steel FC. And they did it at a baseball complex in Harrisburg.

How did it happen that such a talented group of young MLS players have essentially been relegated to the minor leagues to get game minutes? It was only last season, after all, that Rosenberry was the MLS Rookie of the Year Runner-Up, Marquez was being viewed as a potential US national team center back, and Yaro was perhaps the best player in the entire 2016 draft. And adding some offseason pop, Wijnaldum was certainly an intriguing left back prospect from the Netherlands.

But what looked to be the Union’s starting defense in the preseason is now Bethlehem’s starting defense as Ray Gaddis, Oguchi Onyewu and Jack Elliott charged their way into the lineup a few weeks back while Fabinho has refused to let go of his long-standing left back role.

And the backline may not be changing anytime soon, even as the Union’s three-game losing streak has sent them tumbling to the bottom of the Eastern Conference ahead of Saturday’s game vs. rival D.C. United at Talen Energy Stadium (6ABC, 7 p.m.).

“I don’t think we have a back four issue,” Union head coach Jim Curtin insisted during his weekly press conference. “We have a team that needs to do a little bit better offensively and be a little bit cleaner with some defensive issues as well. But overall I don’t think there’s a real problem with us conceding a ton of goals.”

As proof, Curtin pointed to the fact the Union have allowed only six goals in their last eight league games, four of which have come over the last two contests with influential midfielder Alejandro Bedoya out of the lineup (and two coming in last week’s loss to the Red Bulls while the Union were down a man).

One of the big reasons for the team’s stinginess has been the surprisingly steady play of Elliott, a rookie from England who in the past few months has gone from late-round draft pick to preseason afterthought to stalwart starter.

And he’s well aware that two of the team’s most hyped prospects — Marquez and Yaro — are waiting in the wings behind him, ready to take their jobs back.

“That doesn’t add pressure,” Elliott said. “It’s good to have that competition there to always keep you on the top of your game. It’s the same with all of the center backs here. We all push each other to be better players and we just have to keep the team going. We know if one of us went down, another one can step in.”

Injuries did in fact force Marquez and Yaro to enter the game on June 3 at New York City FC, but Elliott and Onyewu regained their spots the following game vs. the Red Bulls.

It’s a unique pairing with an unheralded rookie (Elliott) teaming up with a one-time American soccer legend creeping up in age (Onyewu), but it has been working well.

“We have a good understanding of how each other plays and our strengths,” Elliott said. “We’ve played a good seven, eight games together and we found a balance. You see over the last eight games, we haven’t conceded many.”

While the Onyewu-Elliott pairing certainly has been effective, it always seemed like a short-term fix to help stabilize a defense that got off to a rough start this year. The same can be said with Gaddis supplanting Rosenberry, who brings more of an attacking presence to the flank.

So even though the back four as currently constructed might not be the team’s biggest issue at the moment, it’s fair to ask why they’d get the benefit of the doubt when at least some may not be a big part of the team’s future? If three straight losses don't put the team’s top young players back into the lineup, what will? And how will continuing to come off the bench or play in Bethlehem affect their development?

For now, it seems, like Curtin is putting everyone on equal footing, regardless of age, where they were drafted, or which guys were the most hyped last year.

“I don’t think there’s a big drop-off or difference with all eight [defenders], to be honest,” the Union coach said. “It’s good to have these issues, to have a lot of good players to draw from. We had a hard film session but concluded in our last eight, we’ve given up six goals. We can build on that.

“And it does start with defense in this league. You look at teams at the top of the standings in each conference and they defend their butts off for 90 minutes. We’ve been able to do it in patches in games but we’ve just been too inconsistent.”

Maybe, then, it’s time for another change.