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 want to send off Tranquillo Barnetta with MLS Cup win

Union want to send off Tranquillo Barnetta with MLS Cup win

CHESTER, Pa. — Union head coach Jim Curtin knows it may seem like a weird situation to some.

Early on Tuesday morning, as soccer fans around the area were just waking up, the Union issued a press release that stated that Tranquillo Barnetta would be leaving the team at the end of the 2016 season (see story)

There was no trade. No sale. No contract dispute. No off-the-field issues. 

It was simply a case of a player — a really good player — deciding before the end of the season that he wanted to say goodbye to MLS and finish his pro career with his hometown club in St. Gallen, Switzerland. 

“I think it’s unique maybe to the American public and fan bases that a guy announces it and there’s still [part of] a season left to play,” Curtin said during his weekly press conference. “I think it’s strange for everyone to hear it that way. But in Europe that’s kind of the norm. To get out ahead of it shows what kind of man and leader he is. He addressed the team and didn’t want it to be a situation where something leaked out. He’s a true pro. I’m honored to have coached him and I want to prolong it as long as I possibly can.”

In other American leagues, of course, a talented but aging player with Barnetta’s pedigree might drum up a bidding war to try to get one more good contract in free agency before he retires, perhaps using a strong playoff performance to do so. But, as Curtin alluded to, global soccer is a whole different animal. And Barnetta never planned to use his 2016 performance as a launching pad to a new deal with Philly or something bigger on a different MLS team.

His plan all along was to retire for the hometown club he cheered for as a kid — and he made sure he’d have the freedom to do so when he signed with the Union last summer.

“We offered several years but he was very content and adamant about taking an 18-month deal,” Curtin said. “A lot of people say they’re not about the money but Tranquillo truly means when he says it. He came here at a very big discount to what his value was in the European market. And he had a goal of playing for his hometown club, which I respect at the end of the day.”

If there’s any knock against Barnetta, it’s that he essentially treated MLS as a short-term project, a way to try something new after an illustrious career in Switzerland and Germany, to live in a different part of the world and see different cities throughout the United States.

But make no mistake, he earned that right and he never tried to hire his future ambitions. And even if his tenure with the Union will be a short one, it’s been very beneficial for both sides.

Barnetta, for instance, learned about the grueling travel demands in MLS and the more physical nature of the league compared to ones in Europe, all while showing the sublime skill that made him a three-time World Cup veteran for Switzerland.

And the Union leaned on his talent and leadership at the end of their disappointing 2015 season and throughout the entire 2016 campaign with Curtin calling him “the best player that ever wore a Philadelphia Union jersey.”

“He’s a great example for our young guys,” the Union coach added. “He’s got a close relationship with a lot of the veteran guys. And he’s just a pleasure to have in the locker room. He comes to work with a smile on his face but when it’s time to work, he’s the hardest worker there is. A true professional. And the pedigree is the highest we’ve ever had in this club.”

You can make the case that acquiring players with great pedigrees hasn’t always worked to the Union’s benefit (see: Mbolhi, Rais), but it’s hard to find any fault in the Barnetta deal, especially when you consider Philadelphia got him at a discount and that Curtin and technical director Chris Albright orchestrated the signing at a time when the franchise was in a state of flux and sporting director Earnie Stewart had yet to join the fold. 

For someone that’s played in three World Cups, the Champions League and one of the top leagues in Europe, Barnetta may not be the biggest name out there. But getting him when they did was still something of a coup for Philadelphia. And the benefits will likely be reaped for a long time to come as the Union followed last year’s Barnetta signing with a couple of big moves in the offseason and this summer’s long-term acquisition of U.S. national team starter Alejandro Bedoya — the combination of which has them thinking about the playoffs and a whole lot more even as Barnetta’s departure looms.

“It’s something we want to celebrate rather than pity and feel bad,” Curtin said. “We’re happy for the time we’ve had him here. And now we’re gonna make it last as long as we possibly can. The rest of the games out, in the pregame talk, we’ll say, ‘Let’s extend this thing as long as possible and use it as a rallying cry.’ You don’t want it to come to an end. And when it does come to an end, you want it to be a special moment.”

What kind of special moment?

“We want his last game with the Philadelphia Union to be an MLS Cup.”

Tranquillo Barnetta will not return to Union next season

Tranquillo Barnetta will not return to Union next season

Tranquillo Barnetta is going home.

In an abrupt announcement on Tuesday, the Union declared that the skillful Swiss attacking midfielder will not renew his contract with the club and will return to Switzerland following the 2016 season to play for his hometown club, FC St. Gallen.

According to MLS Players Union, Barnetta’s exit will free the Union of $687,500 next season.

“The entire soccer community here was so welcoming and I’m so thankful to everyone at Philadelphia Union for making me feel so appreciated,” Barnetta said. “Playing in front of my friends and family and making plans for life at the end of my career where I want to live is a force I can’t resist.”

Although the timing of the announcement is a surprise, the move isn’t one. With Alejandro Bedoya now in the mix, currently playing out of position in a box-to-box midfield role, the Union will replace Barnetta with Bedoya at the center attacking midfield spot. It’s a position that Bedoya is comfortable in, playing there with his previous club, FC Nantes.

Bedoya played for the injured Barnetta in the center midfield spot last Saturday and scored his first goal of the season in a 1-1 draw with Toronto FC.

But even with Bedoya ready to take over, the Union will miss Barnetta. Since joining the Union in 2015, Barnetta, 31, has been one of the better possession playmakers in MLS, scoring six goals and seven assists in 37 games.

“Tranquillo has been a key piece in what we’re trying to build here in Philadelphia but we appreciate his decision to return to Switzerland,” said Union sporting director Earnie Stewart, whose club has three matches left in the 2016 season, and will likely make the playoffs. “We look forward to continuing to push for the postseason.”