Union look to finally end curse at Red Bull Arena

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Union look to finally end curse at Red Bull Arena

CHESTER, Pa. -- For the fifth time since entering MLS in 2010, the Union will try to conquer the rival New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena.

But it’s going to take something special.

With an all-time record of 0-4-0 at Red Bull Arena, history is certainly not on the Union’s side come Saturday.

“The guys don’t talk about it too much,” Union forward Aaron Wheeler said about the losing streak at Red Bull Arena. “We have a lot of confidence in our group and we’ve outperformed expectations so far [this season]. The expectation is to go in there and get a result. We’re not going in there preparing to lose or playing for a 0-0 draw. We want to score goals.”

Yet, expecting a result isn’t out of the question, as both clubs are currently situated in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Also, with a 3-2-0 record against the Red Bulls at PPL Park, the Union have found the formula to defeating the conference heavyweights.

So why the sudden change at Red Bull Arena? Wheeler suspects the Red Bulls’ top players simply play better in front of their home crowd.

“It starts with the atmosphere they have there,” he said. “Then, of course, it’s the team they put on the field, starting with [Thierry] Henry and [Tim] Cahill. They are always a force in the league and they have played a very high level for a long time.”

On paper, the Union have a legitimate shot of ending the streak. With 10 games left in the season, the Union are in third place with 37 points while the Red Bulls are in second with 38. Both teams have scored 36 goals in 24 games, with the Union allowing 32 goals against to the Red Bulls’ 31.

“It’s an arena and team that hasn’t been that hospitable to us when we’ve gone up there,” Union coach John Hackworth said. “We feel like we’re in a good way right now and can only control what we can. We want to go up there and put on the kind of performance to get us a result in New York.”

All-time series history at Red Bull Arena

Red Bulls 2, Union 1 -- April 24, 2010
The Union’s first-ever trip to Red Bull Arena was defined by defender Michael Orozco Fiscal’s handball in the 67th minute. The error gave Juan Pablo Angel an easy penalty kick as the Red Bulls took the 2-1 victory. The Union’s lone goal came from Sebastien Le Toux in the 59th minute.

"We played well, we just have to fix mistakes," Le Toux said. "We come back and after there is a mistake, there was a handball. It's unfortunate and we're a little bit frustrated."

Red Bulls 1, Union 0 -- October 20, 2011
In the final match of the 2011 season, the playoff-bound Union went out with a whimper, allowing the Red Bulls to clinch a playoff berth with three points. Dane Richards’ goal in the eighth minute proved the difference maker, as the Red Bulls wiped out Faryd Mondragon’s Union, 1-0.

Red Bulls 2, Union 0 -- July 21, 2012
The third meeting between the rivals could be summarized as two teams headed in much different directions. Kenny Cooper scored twice and Connor Lade had two assists for the dominant Red Bulls, as they defeated Josue Martinez and the lifeless Union, 2-0.

Red Bulls 2, Union 1 -- March 30, 2013
The Union’s first adventure to Harrison in 2013 wasn’t a fruitful one. Despite Conor Casey’s equalizer in the 63rd minute, late dominance from Henry saw the Red Bulls once again prevail over the Union at home.

“I don’t think we did what we needed to do, but in the end it’s still tough to swallow,” Hackworth told PhiladelphiaUnion.com. “We are going to be attack-oriented, we are going to go for wins on the road and unfortunately we fell behind before we made a couple changes. It’s a frustrating loss.”

Is it time to reshuffle the Union's back line?

Is it time to reshuffle the Union's back line?

On Tuesday night, the Union's promising back four of Giliano Wijnaldum, Joshua Yaro, Richie Marquez and Keegan Rosenberry all took the field together and led their team to a shutout.

The only problem: that team was the Union's USL affiliate, Bethlehem Steel FC. And they did it at a baseball complex in Harrisburg.

How did it happen that such a talented group of young MLS players have essentially been relegated to the minor leagues to get game minutes? It was only last season, after all, that Rosenberry was the MLS Rookie of the Year Runner-Up, Marquez was being viewed as a potential US national team center back, and Yaro was perhaps the best player in the entire 2016 draft. And adding some offseason pop, Wijnaldum was certainly an intriguing left back prospect from the Netherlands.

But what looked to be the Union’s starting defense in the preseason is now Bethlehem’s starting defense as Ray Gaddis, Oguchi Onyewu and Jack Elliott charged their way into the lineup a few weeks back while Fabinho has refused to let go of his long-standing left back role.

And the backline may not be changing anytime soon, even as the Union’s three-game losing streak has sent them tumbling to the bottom of the Eastern Conference ahead of Saturday’s game vs. rival D.C. United at Talen Energy Stadium (6ABC, 7 p.m.).

“I don’t think we have a back four issue,” Union head coach Jim Curtin insisted during his weekly press conference. “We have a team that needs to do a little bit better offensively and be a little bit cleaner with some defensive issues as well. But overall I don’t think there’s a real problem with us conceding a ton of goals.”

As proof, Curtin pointed to the fact the Union have allowed only six goals in their last eight league games, four of which have come over the last two contests with influential midfielder Alejandro Bedoya out of the lineup (and two coming in last week’s loss to the Red Bulls while the Union were down a man).

One of the big reasons for the team’s stinginess has been the surprisingly steady play of Elliott, a rookie from England who in the past few months has gone from late-round draft pick to preseason afterthought to stalwart starter.

And he’s well aware that two of the team’s most hyped prospects — Marquez and Yaro — are waiting in the wings behind him, ready to take their jobs back.

“That doesn’t add pressure,” Elliott said. “It’s good to have that competition there to always keep you on the top of your game. It’s the same with all of the center backs here. We all push each other to be better players and we just have to keep the team going. We know if one of us went down, another one can step in.”

Injuries did in fact force Marquez and Yaro to enter the game on June 3 at New York City FC, but Elliott and Onyewu regained their spots the following game vs. the Red Bulls.

It’s a unique pairing with an unheralded rookie (Elliott) teaming up with a one-time American soccer legend creeping up in age (Onyewu), but it has been working well.

“We have a good understanding of how each other plays and our strengths,” Elliott said. “We’ve played a good seven, eight games together and we found a balance. You see over the last eight games, we haven’t conceded many.”

While the Onyewu-Elliott pairing certainly has been effective, it always seemed like a short-term fix to help stabilize a defense that got off to a rough start this year. The same can be said with Gaddis supplanting Rosenberry, who brings more of an attacking presence to the flank.

So even though the back four as currently constructed might not be the team’s biggest issue at the moment, it’s fair to ask why they’d get the benefit of the doubt when at least some may not be a big part of the team’s future? If three straight losses don't put the team’s top young players back into the lineup, what will? And how will continuing to come off the bench or play in Bethlehem affect their development?

For now, it seems, like Curtin is putting everyone on equal footing, regardless of age, where they were drafted, or which guys were the most hyped last year.

“I don’t think there’s a big drop-off or difference with all eight [defenders], to be honest,” the Union coach said. “It’s good to have these issues, to have a lot of good players to draw from. We had a hard film session but concluded in our last eight, we’ve given up six goals. We can build on that.

“And it does start with defense in this league. You look at teams at the top of the standings in each conference and they defend their butts off for 90 minutes. We’ve been able to do it in patches in games but we’ve just been too inconsistent.”

Maybe, then, it’s time for another change.

Union on Derrick Jones' red card: 'It killed our game'

Union on Derrick Jones' red card: 'It killed our game'

CHESTER, Pa. -- Without hesitation, referee Allen Chapman changed Sunday’s match.

“It killed our game,” Union captain Haris Medunjanin admitted.

Looking to put out a New York Red Bulls fast break caused by a turnover in the 53rd minute at Talen Energy Stadium, rookie midfielder Derrick Jones sliced in on Felipe with the intention of separating the ball from the player.

The attempt led to a screaming Felipe crashing to the grass. 

“Derrick has to leave his feet for the tackle,” said Union manager Jim Curtin, whose club has lost three straight games (see game story). “Derrick does tackle over the ball, but he doesn’t really touch Felipe. You can get into all kinds of different arguments on the call, but obviously, red cards change games.”

And it changed Sunday’s game in a big way. Chapman immediately whipped out the straight red card for what was deemed violent conduct, ejecting Jones, who was unavailable for comment after the game.

“You would like to see the referee maybe pause, take a deep breath and think about it,” Curtin said. “Not just be so quick to show the red.”

Despite tilting the field against the Red Bulls in the first half, the Union were forced on their heels in the second as a result of the call. And with the temperature exceeding 90 degrees on the field, it was a bad mix for a Union team looking for points.

As a result, Bradley Wright-Phillips eventually wore the Union defense down, scoring twice in the 87th and again in stoppage time for the 2-0 victory.

“When you play with 10 men against Red Bull, it’s always difficult,” Medunjanin said. “We kept defending until they scored the goal and after that, it was difficult to come back.”

Union defender Jack Elliott felt the same.

“It’s a hot day and the sending off really hurt us,” he said. “We were keeping the ball well in the first half and created a few chances. Even with 10 men, we could’ve nicked a goal but in the end, the heat really got to us with 10 men.” 

Because of how the call dramatically changed the match, Medunjanin spoke clearly about what he saw. He was one of the few Union players who admitted to watching a replay of the red card. 

“I just saw it and I don’t think it’s a red card,” he said. “Jonesy went for the ball and with a player like Felipe who likes to jump, I think everybody saw it was not a red card. It was the first card in the game and he gave directly a red card. It was not even on the leg. He went for the ball and I don’t think he even touched him.”