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.

Will Keegan Rosenberry's benching spark second-year Union defender?

Will Keegan Rosenberry's benching spark second-year Union defender?

CHESTER, Pa. — Over the years, there have been few certainties for the Union, a franchise often in flux. But since the start of the 2016 season, there was at least one: Keegan Rosenberry.

The right back played every minute of his rookie season last year — the only player in MLS to do so — while earning spots in the MLS All-Star game and last January’s U.S. national team camp. And through the first six games of 2017, he once again never came off the field.

But with the team sputtering and Rosenberry not playing as well as he did as a rookie, Union head coach Jim Curtin benched last year’s MLS Rookie of the Year finalist for this past Saturday’s game vs. Montreal.

The Union defense didn’t get any better, giving up three unanswered goals in a brutal 3-3 draw with the Impact. But Curtin hopes the benching could be the spark Rosenberry needs to return to form and regain his place in the starting lineup, possibly for this Saturday’s road tilt against the star-studded LA Galaxy (10:30 p.m., TCN).

“Keegan is obviously a great player for us — a guy who played a ton of minutes, a guy who had never missed a minute since he’s been here,” Curtin said. “I thought it was important for him. He’s been a little caught in two minds between the attack and defending, and maybe lacking a little bit of confidence. At the same time, he was giving maximum effort.

“I had a talk with him. It’s a hard decision but I decided in some instances it’s good … to sit back and watch. That sounds like a coach talking, but I have been in those moments and you’re disappointed as a player to watch, but it also can re-light a little bit of a fire.”

It helps, too, when the replacement is Ray Gaddis, the club’s second longest-tenured player and someone with over 100 MLS starts to his name. And even though he was relegated to a reserve role last year after being a starter for the three seasons before that, Gaddis is never someone who needs to be reminded to stay ready.

“We have a saying in our family, ‘You stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,’” Gaddis said. “It’s not that hard when you have good teammates. It’s a testament to them. They’re pushing me every week in training, and I approach every practice session like it’s a game.”

Considering the Union allowed three goals last weekend, no defender received many plaudits after the game. But none of the goals were really the fault of Gaddis, who showed the same kind of speed and defensive ability that has made him a successful MLS player.

“Ray had a good game,” Curtin said. “Ray did a really good job in his defending, gave us some really good 1 v. 1 defending winning his duels. It’s not easy for a guy who’s been out and has not played 90 in a while to go through the physicality of that. But he emptied his tank, gave everything for the shirt, which he always does. I think he’s one of the best 1 v. 1 defenders that our league has.”

Perhaps the most interesting part of Philly’s backline setup was that Gaddis played alongside rookie Jack Elliott, marking the second time in MLS history that two West Virginia University alums started the same match. That was a cool thing for Gaddis, who’s tried to help bring Elliott up to speed after the London-born center back was taken in the fourth round of this year’s draft.

“He’s a humble kid like myself, and that’s what I like about him,” Gaddis said. “He plays hard and that’s what our university produces — hard workers.

“I’m a team-first guy,” he added. “I’m looking at my teammates. They’re looking at me and I’ve been here a while. They’re looking for a push. They’re looking for some cohesion in the back to bring us together. And i feel like I’ve been here a while, so [I can] be a leader on and off the field.”

While Gaddis is certainly an important contributor to this team, he may not stay in the starting lineup for long. Rosenberry remains one of the team’s brightest young stars and may get his job back this weekend vs. the Galaxy — a team he scored his first MLS goal on in last season’s matchup.

“If we’re going to get out of this thing — and Keegan and I have talked about it — he’s going to be a big part of us fighting our way out of it,” Curtin said. “He’s still an important player for us, a very good outside back in this league. And right now, we’re trying to find the right pieces of the puzzle to get that first win.”

Fragile Union doomed to draw with Impact by 'soft defense'

Fragile Union doomed to draw with Impact by 'soft defense'

CHESTER, Pa. -- For 46 minutes, the Union suffered in slow motion. 

After claiming an impressive 3-0 lead, the winless club allowed unanswered goals in the 41st, 69th and 87th minute, as they gradually deteriorated against the Montreal Impact on Saturday at Talen Energy Stadium (see Game Recap).

"It feels like a loss," Union captain Alejandro Bedoya said. "It's hard to stomach."

The decline started with Ignacio Piatti. With his club trailing by three, the Impact's most dangerous player sliced through the Union midfield and took advantage of sagging Union defenders, reached the top of the box and fired off a low shot that beat Andre Blake.

"We let up a soft goal with Piatti coming inside," Bedoya said. "I probably should have fouled him first. Chris [Pontius] could have fouled him. We didn't step up in time."

The goal lit a fire under the Impact. It was a momentum-turner that gave the visitors life and squashed the Union's morale, setting in motion a crushing second half. 

"Goals change games," said Union manager Jim Curtin, whose club, led by goals from C.J. Sapong and Roland Alberg dominated the early portion of the first half. "The one before half gives them a little bit of life, a little bit of hope that it's not just going to be a day where they lay down. They continued to fight."

If the fragile Union weren't panicking at the half, they certainly began to tense up in the 69th minute, when a left-side cross from Ambroise Oyongo allowed Anthony Jackson-Hamel to beat Richie Marquez to the inside for the header. 

"It was truly one where you can say they made a good play," Curtin said. "It's a very good cross, a good header where the guy gets in between the center backs. You can tip your cap and say that's a good goal."

Bedoya thought it was a case of soft defense.

"If you keep dropping back and play soft defense and allow second balls in the box, and don't put bodies on guys in the box, you get punished," Bedoya said. "That's what happened to us today."

Eighteen minutes later, the Union were crushed. Jackson-Hamel scored his second and tied the match when a Matteo Mancuso bounce shot hit the hands of Andre Blake and dribbled into the goal. The Impact attacker caught Union defender Jack Elliott ball watching and punished Blake for the gaffe with an easy goal off the rebound.

The collapse was complete.

"We had enough guys in the box, you can see there was five defenders in the box," Curtin said. "The guy shoots from outside the box, it takes a skip and it's a tough hop for Andre. We had enough guys behind the ball, it's about making individual plays. That is killing us right now."