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.”

Tranquillo Barnetta will not return to Union next season

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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.”

Inside Doop: Union inch closer to playoffs after tie in Toronto

Inside Doop: Union inch closer to playoffs after tie in Toronto

The Union left the country for a big game over the weekend and did not return to the United States with a win as they hoped.

But they did come back with a hard-earned point against the top team in the conference as well as the first MLS goal from their marquee summer signing, while inching closer to the playoffs. Here’s a look at Saturday’s 1-1 draw with the Toronto FC and what lies ahead with three regular-season games left.

Three thoughts about Saturday’s game
1. It took Alejandro Bedoya almost two months to score his first MLS goal … but what a goal it was. After collecting a pass from Fabian Herbers midway through the first half (just barely avoiding being offside), the U.S. national team starter took one dribble and fooled goalkeeper Clint Irwin with a clever chip over his head and into the net. You don’t see those kind of chip goals often and when you do, they’re usually delivered by big-time playmakers — the kind of guys the Union don’t usually have but do now with Bedoya. Head coach Jim Curtin’s decision to play Bedoya at the No. 10 attacking midfield spot with Tranquillo Barnetta injured also paid big dividends and showed the Union have more midfield options going into the playoffs … and into next season.

2. Coming into the game, a big storyline centered around center back Ken Tribbett, who got the start at center back about a month after getting pulled at halftime vs. Toronto. Another centered around right back Keegan Rosenberry, who was trying to bounce back from a rare off game in Portland the previous week. But, in the end, both players had some very good moments and helped limit the Toronto attack for much of the game, especially in the first half. Much of that had to do with another Curtin lineup decision as the Union head coach put two defensive-minded midfielders in front of the backline: Warren Creavalle, who also had a great hustle play that nearly led to a second goal right before halftime, and Brian Carroll, who’s now made two straight starts after missing six straight games with Plantar fasciitis.

3. Saturday’s game didn’t end without some late fireworks from the league’s hottest player, Jozy Altidore. Riding an eight-goals-in-nine-games streak coming in, the U.S. national team star struck the post in the 87th minute and was taken down in the box by C.J. Sapong in stoppage time on what initially looked to be a clear penalty. If you look at the replay from Sapong’s perspective, however, you could probably make the case that Sapong was going for the ball before getting impeded by Altidore. Either way, the idea of a ref not making a call that would likely decide a game (on a play that wasn’t a real goal-scoring opportunity) took some guts, especially as he got lambasted from the home team and its fans.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. The brutal three-game road trip ends Saturday as the Union, after a loss in Portland and tie in Toronto, take on the rival New York Red Bulls (7 p.m., The Comcast Network). As conservative as it might sound, another point would probably make it a mildly successful trip considering the caliber of opponent. Either way, the Union’s playoff hopes and seeding will likely come down to their final two home games against Orlando and the Red Bulls. At this point, the best they can likely hope for is to hold off Montreal, D.C. United and New England for the No. 4 seed in the East, which would ensure them an opening-round home game. Luckily for them, Montreal and New England both lost this weekend, and although D.C. picked up a big win, they did so against another team in the playoff hunt in Orlando.

2. Another week means another question about captain Maurice Edu’s health. It’s now been more than two months since he returned to the practice field and almost a month since he started playing rehab games with the Bethlehem Steel. With only three games left in the season, it’s hard to see him becoming a starter after being out so long with a stress fracture. It also doesn’t help his case that Carroll and Creavalle are both playing well at his position. But if Edu’s healthy, there’s no sense not utilizing him as a midfield reserve or even as an emergency defensive replacement. The question, as always: is this the week he finally makes his season debut?

3. While Curtin’s lineup decisions played well in Toronto, one interesting one was not playing Roland Alberg. With Barnetta out, many Union fans probably expected Alberg to start at the No. 10 position — or, at the very least, come off the bench. But with the Union never falling behind, Curtin probably didn’t feel the need to bring in such an offensive-minded player. It was an understandable move considering the context but one that was surely disappointing for Alberg, who despite having nine goals in just over 1,000 minutes, has played only 19 minutes over the last three games and has started only once since the beginning of August. By now, you have to wonder what role the dynamic Dutchman will have in the playoffs — if he has one at all.

Stat of the week
With his seventh assist, the rookie Herbers moved into the top 10 in franchise history in career assists. He’s tied for ninth all time with Barnetta, Alejandro Moreno and Conor Casey.

Quote of the week
“I kind of even surprised myself.”

— Alejandro Bedoya, on his first MLS goal

Player of the week
Gotta give it to the guy who scored one of the best goals of the Union’s season, right? The Union now hope there’s more to come from Bedoya during the final stretch of the 2016 season.