Union hope offense covers up issues against Fire

slideshow-050913-union-mcinerney-uspresswire.jpg

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.”

Will Keegan Rosenberry's benching spark second-year Union defender?

Will Keegan Rosenberry's benching spark second-year Union defender?

CHESTER, Pa. — Over the years, there have been few certainties for the Union, a franchise often in flux. But since the start of the 2016 season, there was at least one: Keegan Rosenberry.

The right back played every minute of his rookie season last year — the only player in MLS to do so — while earning spots in the MLS All-Star game and last January’s U.S. national team camp. And through the first six games of 2017, he once again never came off the field.

But with the team sputtering and Rosenberry not playing as well as he did as a rookie, Union head coach Jim Curtin benched last year’s MLS Rookie of the Year finalist for this past Saturday’s game vs. Montreal.

The Union defense didn’t get any better, giving up three unanswered goals in a brutal 3-3 draw with the Impact. But Curtin hopes the benching could be the spark Rosenberry needs to return to form and regain his place in the starting lineup, possibly for this Saturday’s road tilt against the star-studded LA Galaxy (10:30 p.m., TCN).

“Keegan is obviously a great player for us — a guy who played a ton of minutes, a guy who had never missed a minute since he’s been here,” Curtin said. “I thought it was important for him. He’s been a little caught in two minds between the attack and defending, and maybe lacking a little bit of confidence. At the same time, he was giving maximum effort.

“I had a talk with him. It’s a hard decision but I decided in some instances it’s good … to sit back and watch. That sounds like a coach talking, but I have been in those moments and you’re disappointed as a player to watch, but it also can re-light a little bit of a fire.”

It helps, too, when the replacement is Ray Gaddis, the club’s second longest-tenured player and someone with over 100 MLS starts to his name. And even though he was relegated to a reserve role last year after being a starter for the three seasons before that, Gaddis is never someone who needs to be reminded to stay ready.

“We have a saying in our family, ‘You stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,’” Gaddis said. “It’s not that hard when you have good teammates. It’s a testament to them. They’re pushing me every week in training, and I approach every practice session like it’s a game.”

Considering the Union allowed three goals last weekend, no defender received many plaudits after the game. But none of the goals were really the fault of Gaddis, who showed the same kind of speed and defensive ability that has made him a successful MLS player.

“Ray had a good game,” Curtin said. “Ray did a really good job in his defending, gave us some really good 1 v. 1 defending winning his duels. It’s not easy for a guy who’s been out and has not played 90 in a while to go through the physicality of that. But he emptied his tank, gave everything for the shirt, which he always does. I think he’s one of the best 1 v. 1 defenders that our league has.”

Perhaps the most interesting part of Philly’s backline setup was that Gaddis played alongside rookie Jack Elliott, marking the second time in MLS history that two West Virginia University alums started the same match. That was a cool thing for Gaddis, who’s tried to help bring Elliott up to speed after the London-born center back was taken in the fourth round of this year’s draft.

“He’s a humble kid like myself, and that’s what I like about him,” Gaddis said. “He plays hard and that’s what our university produces — hard workers.

“I’m a team-first guy,” he added. “I’m looking at my teammates. They’re looking at me and I’ve been here a while. They’re looking for a push. They’re looking for some cohesion in the back to bring us together. And i feel like I’ve been here a while, so [I can] be a leader on and off the field.”

While Gaddis is certainly an important contributor to this team, he may not stay in the starting lineup for long. Rosenberry remains one of the team’s brightest young stars and may get his job back this weekend vs. the Galaxy — a team he scored his first MLS goal on in last season’s matchup.

“If we’re going to get out of this thing — and Keegan and I have talked about it — he’s going to be a big part of us fighting our way out of it,” Curtin said. “He’s still an important player for us, a very good outside back in this league. And right now, we’re trying to find the right pieces of the puzzle to get that first win.”

Fragile Union doomed to draw with Impact by 'soft defense'

Fragile Union doomed to draw with Impact by 'soft defense'

CHESTER, Pa. -- For 46 minutes, the Union suffered in slow motion. 

After claiming an impressive 3-0 lead, the winless club allowed unanswered goals in the 41st, 69th and 87th minute, as they gradually deteriorated against the Montreal Impact on Saturday at Talen Energy Stadium (see Game Recap).

"It feels like a loss," Union captain Alejandro Bedoya said. "It's hard to stomach."

The decline started with Ignacio Piatti. With his club trailing by three, the Impact's most dangerous player sliced through the Union midfield and took advantage of sagging Union defenders, reached the top of the box and fired off a low shot that beat Andre Blake.

"We let up a soft goal with Piatti coming inside," Bedoya said. "I probably should have fouled him first. Chris [Pontius] could have fouled him. We didn't step up in time."

The goal lit a fire under the Impact. It was a momentum-turner that gave the visitors life and squashed the Union's morale, setting in motion a crushing second half. 

"Goals change games," said Union manager Jim Curtin, whose club, led by goals from C.J. Sapong and Roland Alberg dominated the early portion of the first half. "The one before half gives them a little bit of life, a little bit of hope that it's not just going to be a day where they lay down. They continued to fight."

If the fragile Union weren't panicking at the half, they certainly began to tense up in the 69th minute, when a left-side cross from Ambroise Oyongo allowed Anthony Jackson-Hamel to beat Richie Marquez to the inside for the header. 

"It was truly one where you can say they made a good play," Curtin said. "It's a very good cross, a good header where the guy gets in between the center backs. You can tip your cap and say that's a good goal."

Bedoya thought it was a case of soft defense.

"If you keep dropping back and play soft defense and allow second balls in the box, and don't put bodies on guys in the box, you get punished," Bedoya said. "That's what happened to us today."

Eighteen minutes later, the Union were crushed. Jackson-Hamel scored his second and tied the match when a Matteo Mancuso bounce shot hit the hands of Andre Blake and dribbled into the goal. The Impact attacker caught Union defender Jack Elliott ball watching and punished Blake for the gaffe with an easy goal off the rebound.

The collapse was complete.

"We had enough guys in the box, you can see there was five defenders in the box," Curtin said. "The guy shoots from outside the box, it takes a skip and it's a tough hop for Andre. We had enough guys behind the ball, it's about making individual plays. That is killing us right now."