Philadelphia Union

Inside Doop: Philly kid Derrick Jones enjoys memorable MLS debut

Inside Doop: Philly kid Derrick Jones enjoys memorable MLS debut

You could say the Union traveled a long way and spent a lot of time in Vancouver to end up playing in a game without any goals.

But there are still some exciting things the Union can take from their season-opening scoreless draw with the Whitecaps -- a very promising MLS debut from one Philly youngster at the top of the list.

In the first Inside Doop of the 2017 season, we'll take a look at that debut -- and a few others -- before peering ahead to the Union's challenging home opener.

Three thoughts about Sunday's game
1. Two years ago, head coach Jim Curtin decided to take a high school senior named Derrick Jones with the Union to preseason camp in Florida. From there, the skilled 6-foot-3 midfielder who emigrated to Philadelphia from Africa graduated from YSC Academy, signed with USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel as their first-ever player, signed a Homegrown contract with the Union last year, and on Sunday, was inserted into the starting lineup in his first MLS game. And, boy, did he deliver. The best thing you could say about his performance is he didn’t look like a kid who just turned 20; he looked like a seasoned pro putting out fires in the central midfield all night. The Union have had promising young players flame out in the past, but this one sure looks like he could be a bright star.

2. Jones wasn't the only Union player to make his league debut Sunday. Haris Medunjanin joined him in the midfield in front of veteran center back Oguchi Onyewu, while Jay Simpson started at striker and Fafa Picault came in on the wing. And all in all, the Union looked like a cohesive unit with all of those MLS newcomers playing key roles -- a testament, perhaps, to how Curtin ran the preseason. Onyewu and Medunjanin were especially effective in their roles and Picault showed the kind of speed that will make him a dangerous second-half sub. Simpson didn't do much but he also didn't really get many touches in the box, either.

3. Simpson wasn't the only player to fail to get going offensively. While the Union did put five shots on target (to Vancouver's one), they didn't look especially dangerous in front of goal, aside from a couple of Alejandro Bedoya shots. Because of that, some fans might question why offensive playmaker Roland Alberg didn't come in late to push for the game's first goal. But it was clear that Curtin and company were more than happy to stay compact defensively and leave Vancouver with a well-earned road point.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. Philly's defensive backline of Keegan Rosenberry, Onyewu, Richie Marquez and Fabinho had about as solid of an opening-day performance as you could expect. But things are about to get a lot tougher for them Saturday when the Union welcome star-studded Toronto FC to Talen Energy Stadium for their home opener (4:30 p.m., CSN). Will TFC's star strikers Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore continue to torch the Union as they did last season? Or will the Union find a measure of redemption after Toronto knocked them out of the 2016 playoffs?

2. As far as injuries go, Joshua Yaro and probably Maurice Edu aren't coming back soon. But a more pressing matter is the status of Ilsinho, the Brazilian midfielder who suffered a minor hamstring injury while in Vancouver and was held out of the match. Ilsinho was pushing Fabian Herbers for the team's starting spot on the right wing and had enjoyed a good preseason, so his absence could be a tough one if he's not ready in time for Toronto.

3. Now that he got his MLS debut out of the way, there are naturally more questions about Jones. Can he continue to be a 90-minute player, as he was on Sunday? Will he remain in the starting lineup ahead of the more seasoned Warren Creavalle, Brian Carroll and even Edu when everyone is healthy? How will he perform against Toronto captain Michael Bradley, one of the best American-born soccer midfielders ever?

Stat of the week
The Union are 1-4-3 in season openers and have been outscored, 11-4, in those eight games. They've been shut out in four season openers, including the last three.

Quote of the week
"My opinion may be biased but I thought he was the best player on the field, for both teams."

- Union head coach Curtin on Jones

Player of the week
See above. We'll agree with Curtin on this one.

Union Notes: Long overdue strategy change pays off vs. Fire

usa-warren-creavalle-union.jpg
USA Today Images

Union Notes: Long overdue strategy change pays off vs. Fire

CHESTER, Pa. — It took months of mediocrity and lack of production from the No. 10 spot for Union manager Jim Curtin to finally move away from Ilsinho and Roland Alberg and try something new.

In their places Saturday, in a 3-1 win over the Chicago Fire at Talen Energy Stadium, the Union tapped the athletic Warren Creavalle to protect the back line, which allowed playmakers Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya to be more flexible in how they attack the game.

“The best thing about the formation is there can be fluidity in it,” Curtin said. “We thought, matchup-wise, he’s been in good form and with what Chicago likes to do, we thought it was important to invert the triangle a little bit in some moments to get pressure to Dax McCarty, who is the engine of that team.”

Although Curtin insisted it wasn’t a formation change, saying, “it’s still a 4-2-3-1,” it was a breath of fresh air for a 9-12-9 team that needed a change. Ilsinho, who was out with Achilles tendinitis, and Alberg, who rode the bench for 90 minutes, entered Saturday with a combined seven goals and four assists.

“I think it worked well in terms of staying compact,” Bedoya, who captured an assist, said. “They struggled all night to play balls in between the lines in the middle of us. I think we got some good goals off some good combinations in the midfield.”

Curtin called it fluidity and Bedoya mentioned combinations. Creavalle continued that theme.

“I think it’s providing that balance,” he said. “Being able to help that back line and be able to connect them so they can make the game and have everybody connected.”

Agony over for Pontius
After 27 games of pure agony, Chris Pontius finally scored.

“About six months too late,” the Union’s 2016 leading scorer said jokingly. “But no, it feels good. Nice to get a win. Came back to a nice crowd and a big three points for us.”

Snapping the curse came easy against the Fire. Pontius potted his first two goals of the season Saturday — one was a header from a Keegan Rosenberry cross in the 10th minute, the other came off a rebound in the second half.

“It comes in bunches at times,” Pontius said. “You feel like you can do everything right in a few games and then other games you’re putting in so much effort and things just aren’t falling for you. Certainly, confidence is a big key for that and it was nice to get one especially early in a game like this.”

Record (almost) broken
With a second-half goal Saturday, C.J. Sapong nabbed his franchise-record tying 14th tally of the season. The total tied Union legend Sebastien Le Toux for most goals in a season, a mark set in the Union’s expansion season of 2010.

“Well, for me, it means that I’ve been able to score,” said Sapong, who was able to tap in a left-to-right cross from Fafa Picault along the goal line Saturday. “It’s a number that shows I’m having an impact on the field for my team.”

Without a strict No. 10 on the field for the Union and with right-wing Fabian Herbers injured all season with a sports hernia, service has been tough to come by for the Union. It’s one reason Pontius struggled so mightily all year. It’s possible that if the Union can find a skilled playmaker this offseason, Sapong could be set for an even more productive 2018 if he continues this form.

“The goals are a product of the guys getting him service,” Curtin said of Sapong. “His movement on the night was good, we’re happy with him and his individual accomplishments.”

Elevated effort
All during the week, Curtin mentioned pride and jobs as two reasons the Union players would show up Saturday and compete. After crushing the Fire, 3-1, it’s clear the club doesn’t lack the proper motivation.

“If you’re not putting the effort in,” Pontius said, “you can be out of a job next year. I don’t think there’s any more motivation than you need right there.”

Rosenberry mentioned another possible factor for the elevated effort.

“I don’t think we’re used to being counted on,” he said. “Playing as an underdog is something we’re used to and we’re going to embrace that until the end and see where we can go.”

Quote of the night
“Nope,” Creavalle deadpanned after several silent seconds when asked if he was happy to see Pontius get a goal. “He’s been working all year so I’m happy to see him get on the scoresheet. Keegan dropped him that dime so he has him to thank for that.”

Stat of the night
2,024 Minutes — How long Pontius went without a goal this season (including U.S. Open Cup).

Union-Fire observations: Chris Pontius helps end 6-game winless streak

usa-union-beat-fire.jpg
USA Today Images

Union-Fire observations: Chris Pontius helps end 6-game winless streak

BOX SCORE

CHESTER, Pa. — In a battle between the bottom and top of the Eastern Conference, Chris Pontius and the limping Union stunned the Chicago Fire, 3-1, Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium. 

The lopsided victory snapped a six-game winless streak to propel the Union to a 9-12-9 record. Meanwhile, the Fire, who were riding a three-game unbeaten run, fall to 14-10-6.

The Union made quick work of the Fire defense in the 10th minute when Warren Creavalle slipped a pass to Keegan Rosenberry, who shredded his defender with a fake to find the head of Pontius to open the scoring. 

Pontius struck again in the 55th minute, cleaning up a juicy rebound resulting from a Fafa Picault strike that was fought off poorly by goalkeeper Matt Lampson.

C.J Sapong added the 64th minute insurance when he finished a tight cross by Fabinho at the top of the crease. But Luis Solignac and the Fire countered just minutes later to make it 3-1, pouncing on sloppy play and a failed clear by the Union defense.

• The weight of the world was lifted from the shoulders of Pontius on Saturday, after the veteran, who led the Union in scoring last season, potted his first goal of the year in the 10th minute. Burying a feed from Rosenberry, Pontius snapped a 27-game scoreless streak. He added a second in the 56th minute by chasing down a rebound. The two goals summed up Pontius’ irregular slump — lack of luck and lack of service. He received both Saturday.

• By adding his 14th of the season in the 64th minute, C.J. Sapong extended his career high while also tying Sebastien Le Toux for the Union franchise record set in 2010. It was also his 30th goal with the Union. Sapong was subbed in the 86th minute for Jay Simpson.

• Keegan Rosenberry’s defensive struggles continued in the 67th minute, when Solignac beat the Union right back to a Nikolic pass. It was sloppy from the Union but not a back-breaker, as the goal, which made it 3-1, only ruined Blake’s shutout. It was Solignac’s sixth of the season.

• Owners of a six-game winless streak might sound bad, but things haven’t been terrible for the Union leading up to Saturday’s win. Over those six games, the Union earned four draws — three of which were on the road.

• The Fire will kick themselves over their performance against the Union. With an opportunity to stay one point behind New York City FC in the race for the No. 2 seed in the East, the Fire leave Talen Energy Stadium four points behind NYCFC, which earned a draw Saturday.

• Coming off a respectable performance last Sunday in a shutout against the New York Red Bulls, forgotten man, Richie Marquez, earned the start at center back against the Fire. Making back-to-back starts for the first time since late April, Marquez was good again. He made his signature well-timed slide tackle to break up a strong early challenge from Michael de Leeuw in the seventh minute to save a goal.

• While it may be late in the season for rarely-utilized Warren Creavalle, things are looking up. Instead of play shoot-first Roland Alberg at their impotent No. 10 position, the Union opted for the inverted midfield triangle, where Creavalle, who made his fourth start of the season, played defensive support. The move was to allow midfielders Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya off the leash offensively, a design that paid off when Bedoya found Picault for what kicked off the Union’s second goal. Bedoya also earned a secondary assist on the Union’s third goal. 

• Though Germany was well represented in the parking lot by fans, Bastian Schweinsteiger did not make the trip to Philadelphia. Fortunate for the Union, Saturday was the German legend’s third-straight game missed with a calf injury. 

• While the Fire were missing Schweinsteiger and Juninho, the Union were without Josh Yaro and Ilsinho. Yaro has been nursing a knee injury, while Ilsinho is struggling with Achilles tendinitis. 

• Despite losing the possession battle, 58.9 percent to 41.1 percent, and passing accuracy, 89 percent to 79 percent, the Union were the dominant team. That’s a credit to the club’s rare potency in the final third. The Union earned six shots on goal a and buried three.

• Next up, the Union will be in the unenvious position of facing Atlanta United on Wednesday at the fortress known as Mercedes Benz Stadium. In its last four matches there, Atlanta has outscored the opposition, 17-3. It’s the league’s most advantageous home-field advantage at the moment.