Philadelphia Union

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.

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

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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.

Union-Fire thoughts: Union playing for pride as they host potent Fire

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Union-Fire thoughts: Union playing for pride as they host potent Fire

Union (8-12-9)  vs. Fire (14-9-6)
7 p.m. on TCN

Home for the first time in over a month, the Union will rely on that home cooking to try and break up a six-game winless run as they host Nemanja Nikolic and the Chicago Fire on Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium.

Here are five things to know:

What to play for
With five matches remaining in the season for the Union, miles from the playoff picture and sitting five points from the bottom of the Eastern Conference, motivation is scarce. But according to Union manager Jim Curtin, his club has two reasons to show up Saturday and compete.

“We're playing for pride and we’re playing for positions for next season," Curtin said. "There's still a lot on the line in that regard. Pride plays a big role as professional athletes. You have to look yourself in the mirror and realize this year wasn't good enough. I think we know that. Now, you're playing for positions on the team next year.”

Expected to go on a shopping spree in the offseason, the Union will use the final five matches to evaluate talent, especially when things get tough. Of the bubble players, Curtin wants to know which players are willing to fight for the badge with nothing to play for.

He also wants some momentum.

“We have had guys who have had good seasons and we need them to continue that,” Curtin said. “Any positive momentum you can take has to be with wins. I think that will really build equity back in the fanbase and confidence in the group. How you finish is still very important.”

Elevated Creavalle
Since beating out Derrick Jones to replace suspended Alejandro Bedoya on Sept. 9 against Minnesota United, midfielder Warren Creavalle has forced himself onto the field with strong play. Even with Bedoya’s return last Sunday, Creavalle found himself coming off the bench for a solid 45 minutes.

“Warren falls into the category of a guy who could be pretty frustrated with the minutes he received this year,” Curtin said. “But when he was called upon, he really stepped up and did a good job for us.”

Creavalle has done such a good job in the midfield that Curtin, notoriously stubborn with formation changes, is kicking around the idea of adding Creavalle as the more defensive player in a triangle with Haris Medunjanin and Bedoya, freeing up both players to take chances. 

Curtin hinted we could see that change as early as Saturday.

“It’s something, moving forward, where we can invert that triangle and have Warren there with Ale and Haris, so when we have the ball it gives other teams a different look,” Curtin said. “It’s something you could see down the stretch, it plays to their skillsets a little bit. 

Fire on fire
Saturday will be a tale of teams headed in different directions. While the Union haven’t won in six tries, the Fire, who are 3-7-4 away from home this season, haven’t lost in their last three. 

“They are a very confident team right now,” Curtin said. ‘They have a strong group of attacking players.”

But that doesn’t mean the Fire, who will be without seven players, including Bastian Schweinsteiger and Juninho on Saturday, are overlooking the Union. Sitting third in the East with 48 points, the Fire, led by Nikolic's 18 goals, are three behind New York City FC and 14 behind league-leading Toronto FC.

“Being second is better than third always, and being first is better than anyone else,” Fire manager and former Union player Veljko Paunovic told the media. “Right now we have to chase second place. We don’t know what will happen so we have to do our job. We're looking at who is our next opponent and preparing the team every possible way.”

That makes the match against the Union a crucial one for the Fire’s playoff outlook.

“Until we get there mathematically and get the best possible spot, we’re approaching our next game,” Paunovic said. “In this case, Philly on Saturday is very, very important. We have to put everything we have there and try to get three points.”

Keep an eye on …
Andre Blake: Coming off one of the best outings of the season, an eight-save scoreless draw with New York Red Bulls, Blake was the star of the night. If the Fire want three points against the Union, they’ll have to get through a red-hot Blake first.

Dax McCarty: The veteran midfielder doesn’t put up the points needed to jump off the page but he’s an important cog in the Fire machine. "Everyone will always talk about their attack, but I think the key acquisition in the offseason was Dax," Curtin said. "I think Dax is a really good player in our league, a two-way player. His passing doesn't get enough credit. He's been their most important guy.”

This and that
• The Union are 6-7-5 against the Fire all time and 4-2-2 at Talen Energy Stadium.

• Union defender Josh Yaro (knee sprain) and midfielder Ilsinho (Achilles tendinitis) are both listed as questionable for Saturday's match.

• Union center back Richie Marquez made his first start in nearly five months Sunday. Though the club will likely go back to either Oguchi Onyewu or Josh Yaro, Curtin liked what he saw from Marquez. “I thought two guys had performances that were at the level they would expect and above,” Curtin said. “Andre was one of those guys and Richie was the other. He’s a true professional and deserves a lot of credit. He had a solid performance.”

• Although Fire coach Paunovic played one season with the Union in 2011, the experience made an impression. "I loved the time I was there," he said. "They really made me feel at home, it was fantastic. It was a special time for me."