Philadelphia Union

Union to open 2013 at home; host Mwanga, Califf

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Union to open 2013 at home; host Mwanga, Califf

For the first time in four seasons, the Union will open their season at home.

The MLS on Wednesday released its full 2013 schedule, which has Sebastien Le Toux and the Union opening their 34-game season against Sporting Kansas City on March 2 at PPL Park. One week later, the Union will see their first road action, when Union striker Conor Casey takes on his old team, the Colorado Rapids, at Dicks Sporting Goods Park.

The Union play one of 10 nationally-televised battles on March 30 when they face the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena in the rivals first meeting of the year. With the MLS continuing its unbalanced scheduling from last season, the Union will travel to Red Bull Arena twice in 2013, while the Red Bulls coming to PPL Park on June 23.

Similarly, the Union will take on rival DC United twice at RFK Stadium but will only host coach Ben Olsen and the United in a late-night matchup on Aug. 10 at PPL Park.

In other notable matches, the Union will welcome back former captain and current Toronto FC player Danny Califf on April 13, as he makes his first return to Philadelphia after being unceremoniously traded to Chivas USA midway through the 2012 season.

The Union will also lay out the welcome mat for Danny Mwanga and the Portland Timbers on July 20 at PPL Park. Mwanga, the Unions first-ever draft selection and first overall pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, was traded to the Timbers in 2012.

Jeff Parke and the Union will play host to the high-flying Seattle Sounders on May 4 and challenge reigning MLS Cup champion LA Galaxy on May 15, both at PPL Park.

In addition, the Union will celebrate the Fourth of July in tough fashion, when they face always-stingy Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium on July 3, before traveling directly to BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston to battle the Dynamo on July 6 in what could be the Unions toughest two-game stretch of the season.

E-mail Ryan Bright at RyanBright13@gmail.com

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 vs. Fire
7 p.m. on TCN

Home for the first time in over a month, the Union (8-12-9) 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 (14-9-6) on Saturday night (7:00 p.m., TCN) 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 on 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 on 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.”