Union make tough cuts, but keep Anding & Fernandes

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Union make tough cuts, but keep Anding & Fernandes

With the Union’s preseason drawing to a close, the club’s opening match roster has tightened, leaving touted youngsters Damani Richards, Eric Schoenle, Alex Mendoza and Stephen Okai seeking employment elsewhere.

“We still have a number of decisions to make in terms of players that we think will make us the most competitive team we can be on the field,” Union manager John Hackworth said from the team’s preseason camp in Deltona, Fla. “Those are tough decisions but they are ones you want to have because it means we’re having good competition for spots.”

Knowing that their camp would be a competitive one, the Union’s coaching staff was ready to make tough roster decisions. And even though the Union only have one exhibition game left to play on Saturday before returning back to Philadelphia on Sunday, releasing Okai, the 31st pick in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft, Schoenle and two young recruited talents, left many observers wondering.

“Stephen Okai is simple, we go through an MLS draft and we have his rights. But if that player is not going to make your roster, you release him,” Hackworth explained. “That’s the case with Okai, he’s a good player. All these guys are good players and there is a reason they were here in the first place. Our job is to take a large number of players and narrow it down in compliance with roster spots and salary cap constraints. That process is extremely competitive.”

That noted competition also pushed defender Richards, 18, who signed a contract with the Union on Jan. 19, off the club’s roster and into more of a developmental path.

“He brings some qualities that every coach looks for,” Hackworth said. “But he’s very young, very inexperienced -- in fact no experience as a professional athlete at all. It was very difficult for him to make this roster, which is very competitive and has very few spots. That doesn’t mean we’re totally giving him up. We have an affiliation with Harrisburg [City Islanders] and we hope he will still be under our watchful [eye] and can develop.

“The reality is there are better players here.”

The biggest surprise however may be the release of Schoenle, a 2013 Supplemental Draft selection out of Yardley, Pa. The defender was considered a sleeper prospect. He just missed the cut.

“We have released Eric Schoenle,” Hackworth said. “He’s a guy we really like and he’s a fantastic soccer player, and if we had a way to keep him we would certainly keep him. He’s a guy we want to put on a developmental path. It’s important for him to grow and continue developing.”

The Union also released 34-year-old Greek international, veteran and trialist, Pantelis Kafes.

“He’s a guy we wanted to look at and he’s had a fantastic and illustrious career,” Hackworth said. “He’s a good player but he’s a little older and doesn’t really fit what we were trying to do. So he will not be with us and is not with us any longer.”

Though the Union have released some noticeable talent, the young players looking to make the Union’s final roster for the March 2 opener against Sporting Kansas City are just as intriguing.

Drafted 26th overall, 21-year-old Don Anding has impressed Hackworth and is penciled in on the left-back depth chart behind Gabe Farfan and Ray Gaddis. Leo Fernandes, another Supplemental Draft pick, also is expected to make the team in the midfield.

“I don’t know if you watched the game [1-1 draw versus DC United] last night, but Don Anding started at left back probably made one of the best plays of any game I’ve seen,” Hackworth said. “We have had excellent competition at left back and we start this season, this moment, with three very qualified players. In our humble estimation as coaches, we have elected the three best guys for us to be successful heading into the season.”

One battle still playing out is between former Real Madrid youth, 21-year-old
Jordi Vidal and other depth forwards on the Union roster. Shrugging aside the tough transition from Europe to the MLS, Vidal has the Union very intrigued.

“Jordi is with us and we really like him,” Hackworth said. “He has a really tough job of trying to beat out a guy who is currently under contract at one of our forward spots but he is currently doing very well.

“Jordi is a good player, technically he’s sound. He came through a very famous youth academy at Real Madrid. The one thing I think is tough for a guy coming from abroad, they have to make an extremely quick transition to a very different culture and different environment. But he’s still here with us and he’s giving us an extremely tough decision to make.”

For Hackworth this offseason, it wouldn’t be the first.

Jim Curtin downplays Ken Tribbett benching, considers it learning experience

Jim Curtin downplays Ken Tribbett benching, considers it learning experience

CHESTER, Pa. -- Ken Tribbett had a bad night. 

The rookie defender was tabbed for three first-half goals against, causing Union manager Jim Curtin to pull him at halftime for Josh Yaro, in the club’s eventual 3-1 loss to Toronto FC at Talen Energy Stadium (see game story).

“It’s hard, it’s a hard decision,” Curtin said. “Obviously, three goals is unacceptable at home. It’s not all on Ken, we’re a team and we’re together, but at the same time, I think he had a tough half.”

In his club suit, sitting alone in his locker room stall, Tribbett didn’t run from the situation.

“He didn’t say too much, but to just keep my head up,” he said, of Curtin’s halftime response. “[Toronto FC players] are fast, they’re strong and had good finishes. The situation called for a quicker type player in Yaro.” 

Although Tribbett has been mistake-prone since taking over the starter spot from Yaro in late March, Curtin has stuck with his player throughout almost any matchup. But on Saturday, the manager hit a breaking point, leaving the quicker Yaro, another rookie, in charge of marking Toronto FC’s speedy forward Sebastian Giovinco, who scored his club’s first goal of the match. 

“With the speed of Josh, I thought maybe that was a better matchup dealing with Giovinco,” Curtin said. “It’s a hard decision but it’s a young back line that’s still learning every day, getting better every day.”

If Yaro was the better match for Giovinco’s speed, then why wouldn’t Curtin have gone with that lineup for Saturday? The manager's thought process began with the 4-0 shutout win over the New England Revolution last weekend.

“It’s tough to change my thinking after a 4-0 performance,” Curtin said. “It’s tough to change the lineup. It would be over-tinkering, I think. Tonight it didn’t work out. At the same time, we learn from it. We will watch the tape, there’s things we can do better.”

But while the result was poor for Tribbett, the ask was astronomical. Tribbett couldn’t contain Giovinco on Toronto FC’s first goal, lost his mark on the club’s second goal and was unable to dispossess Jozy Altidore on the third goal. Not many people can stop Giovinco and Altidore, which is why Curtin is building up, not beating down his fresh-faced defender.

“As hard as the night was for Ken, you still learn from it,” he said. “You have to. He’ll be fine. You learn in these big games against top forwards.” 

But in the end, Tribbett’s night wasn’t all gloom. Getting on the end of a Tranquillo Barnetta free kick, the 23-year-old buried his second goal of the season off a strong header. That, not the benching, is what he’ll remember most. 

“It felt good, the ball was whipped in with pace so I was able to whip it in as well,” he said. “It was a special one, special for me, the first one at home.”

Tribbett, Union out-classed by Toronto FC in 3-1 loss

Tribbett, Union out-classed by Toronto FC in 3-1 loss

CHESTER, Pa. -- What was supposed to be a memorable home debut for Alejandro Bedoya and Charlie Davies ended in a bitter and lopsided loss, as the Union were steamrolled by high-powered Toronto FC on Saturday, 3-1, at Talen Energy Stadium.

“It just wasn’t our night,” said Union manager Jim Curtin. “Credit to Toronto, they are a very good team. Organized, tough to break down. They have guys that punish you if you make a mistake. They were clinical with their chances.”

The loss drops the Union, now 9-9-7, six points behind second-place Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference standings. The Canadian side moves to 11-7-7.

“We still know we’re doing a lot of things the right way,” Curtin said. “We’ve earned 34 points in this league, which is good. We’ll continue to pick up points down the stretch and get into the playoffs.” 

It was an eventful first half for Ken Tribbett that ended in the center back being pulled in favor of Josh Yaro at halftime. 

“The situation called for a quicker type player in Yaro,” Tribbett said.

With one sub down, Curtin tapped Roland Alberg and Fabian Herbers as his final two subs, leaving Davies on the bench, while Bedoya played the full 90.

“I didn’t think I would go 90 tonight but with the circumstances of the situation, I did,” Bedoya said. “It’s good I was able to go 90, get my fitness up.” 

In the 18th minute, Marco Delgado found Sebastien Giovinco with a lead pass that placed the Italian along with Tribbett in the Union box. With ease, Giovinco flew by by the Union defender and fired off a shot that deflected off the right post and in for the 1-0 Toronto lead. 

“It’s easy to play with good players,” said Toronto forward Jozy Altidore. “Seba’s first touch is nothing short of sublime, he puts himself in a good position to make the finish.” 

It was his league-leading 16th goal this season.

“You don’t want to get beat by one pass, but that pass Delgado plays is an unbelievable ball,” Curtin said. “And the way Giovinco handles it without breaking stride is next level stuff.” 

Then it was Tribbett’s turn. In the 24th minute, Tranquillo Barnetta absorbed a foul just yards from the Toronto FC box, giving himself a golden opportunity at goal. The Swiss playmaker placed a perfect free kick that found the head of streaking, 6-foot-2, Tribbett for the equalizer. 

“I’d give more credit to Tranquillo because he put it in the absolute perfect place,” Tribbett said. “All I did was run and put my head on it. Perfect goal.” 

Yet, the match would change for good in the 30th minute, when a Michael Bradley free kick found net off a diving header from Drew Moor, who beat Tribbett and squeaked his attempt between Blake and the right post for the 2-1 advantage. The visitors made it 3-1 in the 44th minute, when Jozy Altidore out-muscled Tribbett, then the entire Union defense before placing a shot past Blake.

“The second and third for me are unacceptable,” Curtin said. “As a back line, we need to do a good job but everyone needs to do a good job, as well.”

Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Alejandro Bedoya, Charlie Davies make home debuts

Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Alejandro Bedoya, Charlie Davies make home debuts

Union vs. Toronto FC

7:00 p.m. on TCN

Feeling good after a slump-stopping win over the New England Revolution, Alejandro Bedoya and the Union (9-8-7) prepare for an Eastern Conference challenge when they host Sebastian Giovinco and powerful Toronto FC (10-7-7) on Saturday (7:00 p.m., TCN) at Talen Energy Stadium.

Here are five things to know:

1. Bedoya & Davies coming home
With Bedoya and Charlie Davies coming home for the first time since being acquired two weeks ago, the Union are eager to show the two what home-field advantage at Talen Energy Stadium is all about.

“It’ll be good for our fans to show love to them and embrace them like I know they will,” said Union manager Jim Curtin. “Charlie and Alejandro just need to do what they do best. I’m excited for them to get their first opportunity to play in front of this crowd. It’s a special place and it’s been a very good place for us to play this year. The fans have made it a real home-field advantage for us and we need to continue that.”

The pair got off to a flying start in a 4-0 win over the Revs, with Davies collecting an assist. But while Bedoya had a quiet match on the scoresheet, Curtin still noticed game-influencing play. Bedoya was steady and poised, and the Union dominated.

“I thought Alejandro brought a real calming presence to the group in possession,” he said. “He did the little things that don’t show up on the stat sheet. Just to get us out of some tight spots, connect us from front to back.”

And that calmness is all part of the skill set Union fans can expect to see on Saturday.

“He’s a guy that wants the ball under pressure,” Curtin said. “He has the ability to pick his head up, run with the ball when he should run with it, play a forward pass with confidence. He was able to calm us down a little bit in the run of play in New England in a hostile environment.”

Still, Curtin isn’t satisfied quite yet.

“Alejandro is a guy who we’re incredibly happy with,” he said. “It was one game, though.”

2. Red-hot Sapong, Pontius
Much of the Union’s success this season has come from up top in the form of Chris Pontius and C.J. Sapong. The pair, who are both two goals away from tying career highs, have combined for six goals in the club’s last five games.

“We’re looking the strongest we’ve looked all season,” Sapong said. “We hope to be firing on all cylinders heading toward the playoffs.”

For Pontius, the production is something the Union expected, even after the dropoff with his former club, D.C. United. The forward maxed out at 12 goals in 2012, and only managed six in the three years before joining the Union.

He currently has 10 goals and five assists.

“Chris is a great professional, a great person and has fit in very nicely with the group,” said Curtin, who mentioned Pontius’ target of 10 goals, 10 assists to end the year. “Down this stretch of the last ten games, he can surpass what his goal was from the beginning of the season. That’s what I want him to do.”

Sapong is in a similar position. With a career high of nine goals, the athletic forward currently has seven, including the opening goal against the Revs on Saturday. However, Sapong, who said he felt good on Wednesday, was forced to leave that match with a possible concussion, putting his eligibility for Saturday in question.

“First and foremost, you only get one brain,” Curtin said. “We don’t mess around with head injuries. It looks like he’ll be fine for the weekend and cleared to play. We were smart with it, I thought. Hopefully he’s ready for the weekend.”

3. Stopping Giovinco
To stop Toronto FC, any club must first stop Giovinco, who leads MLS with 15 goals. The Italian, widely considered as the best player in the league, can destroy the opposition easily and without breaking a sweat.

“I’m glad I didn’t play when he was in the league,” Curtin said. “He’s a handful and as dangerous a guy as there is right now. You try to be physical with him and he can draw a foul, he’s strong enough to hold the ball and go by you. He can beat you in so many different ways and that’s what makes dealing with him so tough.”

Yet, while Giovinco may be the best scorer in the league, the Union have a potential equalizer in goalkeeper Andre Blake, who has been known to steal games for his club.

Giovinco leads MLS with 128 shots. Blake is tied for seventh in saves with 74.

“Giovinco is a great player, we know that,” Blake said. “It’s going to take a team effort to shut him down, the guys know that. We’ll have to work together to do that job.”

4. Keep an eye on
Toronto FC - Jozy Altidore: It would be easy to say Giovinco here, but Altidore is on fire with three goals and an assist in his last four games. That includes an absolute stunner of a goal against the Houston Dynamo this past Sunday.

Union - Tranquillo Barnetta: Moving from the No. 8 to No. 10 position on Saturday, Barnetta flourished on the ball, suffering seven fouls. That’s 13 in his last two games, accompanied by a goal and six shots over the same span. He hasn’t just been good, he’s been a game-changer for the Union. “He’s our engine,” Curtin said. “When he gets on the ball, he’s dangerous. He deserves a heck of a lot more credit than he gets in this league.”

5. This and that
• The Union are 6-5-4 against Toronto FC all time and a dominant 4-1-2 at home.

• Momentum of a lopsided win hasn’t helped the Union much in 2016. The Union are 0-1-2 after wins of two-plus goals this season. Of course, they defeated the Revs, 4-0, last weekend.

• Brian Carroll (foot) and Maurice Edu (knee) are both on the cusp of returning to the Union midfield. But they aren’t quite there yet. “Brian is bouncing back quicker than we thought, which is good,” Curtin said. “He’ll hopefully be back on Monday in training. [Edu] is fully involved in training now, it’s just a matter of time.”

• If the Union want to contend for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, a win on Saturday is crucial. Toronto FC has 37 points in 24 games, while the Union have 34 in 24 games. A Union win would also give the two clubs an identical record of 10-8-7.