Philadelphia Union

Union hope offense covers up issues against Fire

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Union hope offense covers up issues against Fire

CHESTER, Pa. -- After dropping a two-goal loss to the New England Revolution only to earn a controversial draw with the Seattle Sounders the following week, the Union have reason to worry about their poor fortune and defensive issues.

But don’t talk to coach John Hackworth about his team’s negative trends as the club heads to Toyota Park on Saturday to face the struggling Chicago Fire.

“It’s in the rear-view mirror,” said Hackworth, who was fined for losing his cool in the postgame press conference following a clear handball in extra time. “The good news for us is that we felt like we played so well [against the Sounders] for long stretches and played our most committed and executed a game plan. We have to build upon that effort and try to keep going.”

Despite Hackworth’s positive spin, last Saturday marked the third consecutive game the Union allowed two goals. The Union have allowed 10 goals in their last six games and hold a 1-2-3 record during that span. On the other side, the Fire have the third-lowest scoring offense in the Eastern Conference with six goals in eights games.

For Hackworth, success is a matter of defensive basics.

“There’s always room for improvement and we have to do a better job of staying connected,” the coach said. “That’s something we’ve emphasized all week long. We’ve gone back to basics to try and make sure we’re more connected and that our communication is better. We don’t want to solve problems individually. We want to do it collectively.”

Compounding the Union’s defensive issues is an injury to star defender Jeff Parke, who left last Saturday’s match with a strained hamstring. Parke is unlikely to make an appearance against the Fire.

“It’s a hamstring but it’s not as bad as we first thought,” Hackworth said. “It will probably be a much quicker recovery but it’s unlikely he’ll be available Saturday. Our medical staff is working hard to get him back as quickly as possible, but it’s not worth one game to potentially lose him for three or four. We’ll be conservative with him, but the good news is it’s not as bad as we first thought.”

The Union will also be without steady right back Sheanon Williams, who received a red card against the Sounders and will be suspended for the match in Chicago. Without Williams to move inside to replace Parke at center back, the Union will use Bakary Soumare on the inside -- the same disgruntled player the Union were working to trade just weeks prior. It will be Soumare’s first game of the season and second game since he faced the Fire in August of 2012.

“Baky [Soumare] played a lot of minutes for us it the preseason with the first team. He’s ready for it,” Hackworth said. “Our team and staff has total confidence, and we all want this game to be good for him and good for all of us.”

Aside from injuries and suspensions, the Union are also being pressured by playing three games in the next seven days. After facing the Fire on Saturday, the club comes home to take on the LA Galaxy on Wednesday before hosting the Fire again, next Saturday at PPL Park.

“We have to manage our roster,” Hackworth said. “There will be multiple guys who get an opportunity that haven’t been playing a lot or haven’t played a starting role. We have to manage these three games. We feel like we have good depth and we’re ready to do that.”

Of those players, Hackworth mentioned that Sebastien Le Toux and Kleberson have stood out on the offensive side. Yet, no matter who Hackworth picks to attack alongside Jack McInerney, it’s going to be an all-out assault on the 2-5-1 Fire, who have allowed 14 goals in eight games this season. By comparison, the Union are 3-3-3 on the season and have allowed 14 goals in nine games.

“We’re going to go there and attack,” said Hackworth, who received a pair of goals from Danny Cruz versus the Sounders. “We’re going to try and keep our foot on the gas. In all of our games so far, we’ve had a god mentality about going to goal and creating opportunities."

The Fire, who have been shut out four times in 2013, will be without midfielder Jeff Larentowicz, who is serving a red-card ban. They will also likely be without star defender Arne Friedrich, who has been fighting a hamstring injury. But regardless of the Fire’s record or roster setbacks, Hackworth isn’t pulling punches.

“Their back line is settled because they haven’t had Friedrich for so long this season,” Hackworth said. “And I think they are better than people give them credit for. Like a lot of teams, there has been struggles. A lot of people thought Chicago would be one of the top teams in the league and their talent level hasn’t changed. We have to be very mindful of that we’re going into a tough environment.”

Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Facing the league's best team

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Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Facing the league's best team

Union at Toronto FC
8 p.m. on TCN

Fresh off a frustrating draw in San Jose, the Union (8-11-6) have an even tougher road game as they face first-place Toronto FC (14-3-8) at BMO Field on Wednesday night.

Here are five things to know:

1. Road woes
The Union have only won once on the road this season — one of five teams in MLS with less than two away wins in 2017. And of all those results, perhaps none were as disheartening as Saturday’s 2-2 draw with the Earthquakes, as a penalty in the final minutes caused them to blow a very late lead.

The result spoiled an overall good performance, including the first career goal from rookie Jack Elliott, and did little to help them in their playoff chase. With 30 points, the Union currently sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, six points out of the final playoff spot.

“It was a good team performance and a heartbreaking ending to the game,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “Guys put a ton into it. I thought it was one of our better road performances, so there are positives in that regard.”

They’ll need an even better road performance to get a result against a Toronto side that’s a whopping 9-0-3 at home. 

2. The league’s best ever?
With 50 points in 25 games, Toronto FC is not only comfortable in the Supporters’ Shield lead but also on pace to become just the third MLS team this millennium to reach the two-points-per-game plateau and finish with the best record in league history.

So is this the best team Curtin has ever seen?

“I know with the Twitter world, you have to talk about best ever everything, best eclipse, best whatever,” Curtin said. “I don’t like comparing generations because it’s always challenging to do. But I do think they’re a special team.”

And the reason they’re special, he said, is not only because of Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley but the effective role players they’ve filled out around their star trio. Curtin shouted out last week’s MLS Player of the Week Justin Morrow, midfielders Victor Vasquez and Marky Delgado and defender Drew Moor as just a few examples.

“Toronto has three key guys but then people forget about the pieces they have around them now,” Curtin said. “They’ve done a heck of a job assembling their roster.”

3. Blake set to return
The good news for the Union is that they’ll have a big weapon to try to slow down Altidore, Giovinco and the rest of TFC’s star-studded attack.

Curtin announced that reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Andre Blake, who missed the last eight games because of the Gold Cup and a hand injury, is set to once again man the net.

“It’s good to have him back,” Curtin said. “I think Johnny [McCarthy] did an excellent job in his absence. But to have Andre back in net is a good thing for the group.”

With Blake returning and even Maurice Edu finally on the mend, the Union are quite healthy for their upcoming stretch that includes a home game vs. Atlanta on Saturday. Only Fabian Herbers is out with Curtin saying that Ilsinho (right adductor strain) and Oguchi Onyewu (left groin strain) will be available for selection. 

4. Keep an eye on …
Jack Elliott: The Union center back and MLS Rookie of the Year hopeful had arguably his best game of the season in San Jose and is now set for his toughest test yet. Curtin thinks he’ll be up for the challenge, though he does want to see the rookie improve his defensive heading. “He’s playing way behind the years,” the Union coach said. “He’s playing against some of the top forwards in the league and has been our most solid guy back there.” 

Sebastian Giovinco: Curtin thinks the Italian playmaker is maybe the best player the league has ever seen. And Giovinco often shows that against the Union, scoring in his first five games vs. Philly before that streak ended earlier this year when he left a game with an early injury. “Giovinco can beat you 100 different ways,” Curtin said. “You give him a free kick and it’s all but a certainty that it will at least be a scare for Andre. You have to be smart, have to be disciplined.”

5. This and that
• Keegan Rosenberry, last year’s Rookie of the Year runner-up, made his first appearance since May on Saturday after Giliano Wijnaldum was forced to exit with an injury. And he might see some more action this week. “Whether it’s Toronto or Atlanta, he will play a role in these games moving forward,” Curtin said.

• TFC are unbeaten in their last 13 regular-season home games, winning 10 of them and drawing three. 

• Toronto’s scored four goals in each of their last two home games. They’ve never scored four goals in three straight home games.

• The Union are averaging 16.2 aerials won per game this season, the most of any MLS team.

• In 17 regular-season meetings, the Union and Toronto have each won six times to go along with five draws.

Union's Maurice Edu embracing adversity in 1st-team comeback

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Union's Maurice Edu embracing adversity in 1st-team comeback

Away from MLS game action for nearly two years, Maurice Edu has learned a little something about himself.

“I’ve always felt like I’ve been a pretty strong-minded person and I’ve dealt with other adversity throughout the course of my career,” he told the media on Tuesday. “It’s another challenge. But when put in situations that are unexpected, it brings out parts of you that you maybe didn’t even know you had.”

The veteran midfielder, moving from one year-long leg injury to another, hasn’t played an MLS match since Sept. 20, 2015. But the road back hit a milestone on Sunday, when Edu made a start for the Union’s minor-league club, the Bethlehem Steel. 

He logged 32 minutes and completed all 17 attempted passes in a defensive midfield position.

“It doesn’t make sense to dwell on things that have happened in the past because it takes the energy I need to put into other things,” he said. “So I’m just focused on what’s happening here and now for me, focusing on conquering every challenge that’s put in front of me every day.”

Though he never wavered, no one could blame Edu for losing his spark. The 31-year-old’s mental mettle was thoroughly tested over the last two seasons as he was hampered with leg injuries. In late 2015, Edu suffered a stress fracture that abruptly ended his season. One year later, just as he was ready to make his long-awaited return, he broke his left fibula. He’s been out ever since.

“I felt I’ve always been mentally strong but this has definitely challenged me in ways that are slightly different,” he said. “I’ve kind of had to play a waiting game and just be patient and be smart and also be smart with the thoughts I have in my head and how I channel my energy.”

On Sunday, Edu’s comeback began. And for him, it was just the beginning of something big.

“I’m happy because this year’s been hell,” Edu said. “Definitely happy with that. But the real excitement will be when I walk out on the pitch with the first team. Baby steps. A longer process than maybe I anticipated. Pleased with that but at the end of the day, my focus and my goal is to play with the first team. It’s not to be content to just be back fit, be back training or be back playing with the Steel.”

But that plan won’t be a given. The Union are currently stacked at the No. 6, No. 8 and center back spots, forcing Edu, currently in less-than-preseason form, to work through a number of players on the depth chart to make his dream first-team debut.

“He has some real competition,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “Haris (Medunjanin), (Alejandro) Bedoya, (Warren) Creavalle, Derrick Jones, Brian Carroll, you can go through the list of guys he’s behind on the depth chart because they’re on Week 24 of the season and he’s on Week 1. He has still some work to do to get over that next barrier.”

Getting over that barrier means getting fit and up to game speed. 

“He has to work his way back to 90 minutes of fitness, which is hard for a guy who’s missed almost going on two seasons now worth of games,” Curtin said. “It’s great for him to get that first 30 minutes under his belt, connect his passes, gain the confidence he can do it again. Now he has to work his way to start for 90 minutes for the Steel. From there, we can then talk about being in the 18 for us.”

After two years away from meaningful soccer, Edu is ready for the challenge.

“These are all steps along the way,” he said. “To get to the bigger picture.”