Philadelphia Union

Union hungry for more against lowly D.C. United

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Union hungry for more against lowly D.C. United

CHESTER, Pa. -- Just two weeks ago, the struggling Union created the tough goal of earning seven points in their final five games. It was a magic number they believed would get them into the highly-congested Eastern Conference playoff picture.

But with back-to-back shutout wins and six of their seven desired points already in hand, the Union want more when they face D.C. United on Saturday night at RFK Stadium.

“I think if we can still achieve that goal it would be good,” Union captain Brian Carroll said. “But there are so many teams in the mix right now, who's to say that would be enough? So we’re going to try and get everything we can from every game.”

And that should come easy against a bad D.C. United team.

Ben Olsen’s club, despite coming off an impressive US Open Cup championship win, is just 3-22-6 on the year and reeling from a 3-0 loss to the Chicago Fire and 4-1 loss to Toronto FC. And though the United are in complete roster transition, like usual, the Union aren’t counting their result just yet.

“It’s one of those scary scenarios again,” Union manager John Hackworth said. “No matter where they are in the table right now, they just won the Open Cup, they are an opponent that no matter who we put on the field, we’re always going to go at it and we’re going to go at it very hard. It’s going to be an interesting game down there, and certainly we need to continue to accumulate points and that’s what our goal is.”

D.C. United -- 0-2 against the Union this season -- are in an interesting position as they ride out a nightmarish season. And that roster unpredictability puts the Union at a disadvantage. Against Toronto FC, just prior to the Open Cup final, Olsen played all reserve and bench players and conceded the loss. Facing the Fire, DCU held some of its players back, but brought known starters Chris Pontius and Dwayne De Rosario off the bench.

“I know Ben, and Ben is a competitor,” Hackworth said. “That is evident in how he played the game and how he coaches the game. So there is no question in my mind that he is going to have the guys ready to play. I know that they’ll try to win the game, they’ll put a team on the field that they think can win the game, and mixed in there there’ll probably be some changes and some young players. They have to figure out going forward into next year who makes sense for them. And that I think is what tells me as a coach that this is going to be a very competitive game, one that we should not take lightly at all.”

Yet while United’s roster is in transition, the Union’s starting lineup is also a question.

Losing right back Sheanon Williams to yellow-card accumulation and Fabinho to red-card suspension in last week’s 1-0 win over Toronto FC, the Union’s full back combo will consist of Ray Gaddis and one of Matt Kassel, Chris Albright, Michael Lahoud or even Sebastien Le Toux.

“You never know,” Union defender Amobi Okugo said about what the defensive line will look like on Saturday. “We have guys who are ready, whether it’s Keon [Daniel], Kassel, Albright, Greg Jordan, [Aaron] Wheeler we have a lot of depth. Hopefully guys are going to be ready to step up.”

Playing hero last Saturday against Toronto FC, rarely-used Kleberson entered the game late and cashed in with a dramatic free kick in the 95th minute. And though the Brazilian midfielder didn’t hurt his chances at more playing time, Hackworth still sees him as a secret weapon to only be used for special occasions.

“It depends on the opponent a little bit,” Hackworth said. “Going into Toronto, we thought that that would be a really good situation for Kleberson to come in, just tactically with what we thought Toronto would try to do in that game. So everything is a little dependent on the tactics of the opponent and the situation. But to be fair, he still is working extremely hard. He has some great qualities, and we’re going to try to put the best team on the field against D.C.”

With Kleberson’s heroics, the Union’s winning streak has reached two games. The team currently sits at 12-10-9 -- two points ahead of the Fire and one behind the Montreal Impact for the fourth playoff slot. But despite the recent success, they aren’t getting full of themselves.

“We’ve still got to keep it in perspective,” Okugo said. “We’ve only won two games. Right now we’re above the red line but it can all change after the week. We’ve got to keep getting these wins until we’re officially in the playoffs.”

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."

Earnie Stewart denies report Union received European offers for Andre Blake

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Earnie Stewart denies report Union received European offers for Andre Blake

Since Andre Blake emerged as a game-changing goalkeeper for the Union in 2016, he’s been considered the club’s top candidate to graduate to European soccer, via either transfer or sale.

But on Wednesday, Union management threw cold water on any reported interest.

“What does it help us as a club, if there was an offer, to say absolutely nothing?” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said to the media on Wednesday, when asked if the club is keeping quiet about any movement surrounding Blake. “If you want to sell a player, you throw it out there and get as much interest as you can. I can only look in my email box, my telephone and that hasn’t happened.”

The topic of Blake to Europe sparked questions early in the week when it was reported by Goal.com that the 26-year-old goalkeeper was a subject of interest from English Premier League clubs, Crystal Palace and Brighton. But the multi-million dollar deal never materialized as a result of Jamaica’s low FIFA ranking, which blocked United Kingdom work permit availability.

Union manager Jim Curtin wasn’t impressed with the widely circulated report.

“It’s kind of a non-story because there haven't been any formal offers made to us,” Curtin said. “Different things come up, agents come up with different ideas to benefit their players. Nothing concrete came from the clubs that were listed. Nothing to them. It’s talk.”

Stewart also shrugged off the notion that Blake was being seriously targeted.

“There has been no offer so it’s hard to comment on that,” he said. “It happens a lot, there’s a lot of rumors out there about a player moving. In this case, it’s not the case.”

Blake, who is coming off one of his best outings of the season — an eight-save shutout of New York Red Bulls — is out of contract after the 2017 season, but is bound by a team option which the club will activate for the 2018 campaign. If he’s not moved, the reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, who helped propel Jamaica to the 2017 Gold Cup final, will be happily welcomed back to the Union.

Blake is 18-25-17 in his career as Union starter with 16 shutouts.

“I can only look how we view Dre,” Stewart said. “Dre is an import part of our group and he’s been tremendous. I can’t look at other club's philosophy and how they go about their transfers. We’re very happy with Dre and we’d love to keep him longer.”

Whether they move Blake or not, the struggling Union are expected to have an active offseason. But if they decide to do so, selling Blake, along with the added resources from both the league and Union owner Jay Sugarman, could provide Stewart enough financial ammunition to significantly alter his roster.

“We want some difference makers,” Stewart said. “You have to go out and spend money because good players are never free.”