Union refuse to overlook last-place DC United


Union refuse to overlook last-place DC United

In one of the more surprising storylines of the early 2013 MLS season, DC United is sitting in the Eastern Conference basement and scrambling for answers.

But regardless of where Ben Olsen’s club may fall in the standings and whatever their struggles may be, the Union are preparing for a high-quality and tense bout on Sunday at RFK Stadium.

“We’re not even looking at their record right now,” Union defender Sheanon Williams said. “It’s early in the season and it looks like they’re a little slow out of the gates. But they’re definitely a good team. We know what they’re all about. We play them three times a year. They’re a team that if we take them for granted then they can come out and do some damage. Us knowing them so well, we know they’re a good team and we expect their best. They’re definitely going to be hungry for points.”

Competition is not the only thing the Union are expecting. With a combined 16 yellow cards and five red cards in four games against United in 2012, Hackworth wants his team to focus on the game and not get caught up in the typical emotion of playing bitter rivals (see story).

“We concentrate on the things we work on in training, we concentrate on our game plan and what we need to focus on to be successful versus DC,” Hackworth said. “We know each other really well. They’re a team that’s having a tough time right now but is much better than their record shows. We know how tough this is going to be. From the outside they might not be getting respect but we’re giving them a lot of respect.

“There’s a lot of emotion around it. You have to remind guys to keep that in check and use it in a positive way. We try to treat this like any other game. We have an opponent and we want to prepare for that opponent, and we’ll wait a little while longer before we let the emotions play into it.”

Yet, masking emotion might not be the Union’s biggest on-field worry. Although United, 1-4-1, has scored just two goals in six games this season, Hackworth has his team prepared for former Union strikers Lionard Pajoy and Carlos Ruiz to try and break the slump.

Pajoy has one goal on the season while Ruiz is still looking for his first.

“We know them really well,” Hackworth said. “When you look at Lio, he’s been really good against us. He’s had some frustrations this year and that’s a little scary because a player of his quality could be due. Carlos is the same way. He came in and is slowly ramping up. I expect him to play a big role on Sunday and he’ll be motivated. You have to prepare for those guys and the fact that we know them is good.”

Williams agreed.

“They’re good guys,” he said. “And on the field, they’re hard to play against. Pajoy does a lot of the hard work and the running and finding different channels to get the ball. And Carlos is a big body. He holds the ball up extremely well and links guys into play when he’s on. So definitely two challenges. If we see them both at the same time, I don’t know. But I’m sure at some point in the game we will see them.

“We know some of their tendencies but that doesn’t mean we can lock them down for the whole game. That’s obviously the objective but things happen during the course of a game. They’re good players, so they’re going to find ways to get behind us and do things to disrupt our defense.”

On the other side, the Union have clutch in their corner. After a frustrating stop-and-go contest against Toronto FC at home last Saturday, leading scorer Jack McInerney, who is tied for third in MLS with four goals, scored in stoppage time to preserve the tie.

The Union are 0-1-2 in their last three games and 2-2-2 overall.

“Any time you have a game like the one against Toronto, the first thing you think of is who’s next,” Hackworth said. “How can we rectify what we didn’t do well today? When’s our next chance to play? When you let points slip away, you have to get some back, you have to do that in this league. You’re going to lose some points when you don’t think you will and you have to find some when it’s not in your advantage to do so.”

While McInerney is the constant, Kleberson could be the wild card on Sunday. Brought in at the end of last Saturday’s match, the newly acquired Brazilian midfielder nearly scored the tying goal before setting up Antoine Hoppenot on a stoppage time breakaway. It was a brilliant start to his MLS career.

However, Hackworth is still not convinced Kleberson is starting material.

“Kleberson has put himself in a position where he’s definitely deserving of being selected,” Hackworth said. “At the same time, we need to make sure we’re putting the best possible team on the field. In the time that he played, Kleberson was good. He came on, lifted us up and created a couple chances. Those are things he does well. We still need to be patient and try to judge whether it makes sense for him to be a starter or come off the bench. I don’t think we’re ready to make that decision yet.”

No matter who Hackworth selects for the starting lineup, the Union players sound ready.

“They don’t like us and we don’t like them,” Williams said.

“Obviously you get a little bit more excited for these games. Also, it’s an Eastern Conference game, so any time you can try to grab points from somebody else and put yourself in a better position in the rankings, it’s definitely important.”

Union-Red Bulls 5 things: Aim to finish strong against streaking New York

Union-Red Bulls 5 things: Aim to finish strong against streaking New York

Union vs. New York Red Bulls
4 p.m. on TCN 

Having all but officially made the postseason for the first time since 2011, the Union, who are already locked into a first-round road match, could rest players Sunday in the season finale against the New York Red Bulls (15-9-9). But that doesn’t mean the Union (11-13-9) will be mailing it in.

Here are five things to know.

1. Playoff recovery
The Union had hope that last Sunday’s home match against mathematically eliminated Orlando City SC would work as a slump buster, breaking the club’s five-game winless run. 

Instead, with a 2-0 loss, it just extended the Union’s slump to six.

“We had a good meeting with the group, we talked a lot about accountability,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “Everybody does have to look in the mirror.”

With their last win coming in late August, the Union seem fresh out of ideas. Passing up the ripe opportunity to gain confidence against Orlando City, the club must now host the best team in the Eastern Conference as a pre-playoff test.

“We shot ourselves in the foot in a big spot and we came up a little short,” said Curtin, whose club flubbed an outside chance to host a first-round game and will be on the road regardless of Sunday’s outcome. “It’s the past, though. We have to look forward to the challenge that Red Bulls will present. They are the perfect team to play in terms of a tuneup, to get up to speed with the tempo of a playoff game. It’ll be good for our guys, we’ll use that to get prepared.”

2. Refreshing the lineup
Because Sunday’s match comes just days before the Union’s midweek postseason game, Curtin could look to rest some starters against the Red Bulls, especially the injured ones.

“There are discussions,” he said. “You have to do what’s best. Maybe it’s a new face, a change or a tweak. We won’t change our formation, we won’t change the style that we play but maybe there’s a new body that comes out on the field and gives us a little bit of a lift.”

But Curtin’s team doesn’t just need a lift, it needs healthy bodies. C.J. Sapong suffered a concussion against Orlando City and will likely sit out Saturday. If he does, Charlie Davies could see a chunk of playing time. Davies has only played 81 minutes in eight games since being acquired by the Union in August.

Tranquillo Barnetta and Chris Pontius are also banged up with lower-body ailments.

“Charlie’s been a little bit sharper each day in training,” Curtin said. “It’s tough to forget that he as recently as a month and a half ago was beating cancer so, the sharpness and the fitness is starting to come back. He wants to start, he wants to play, like any striker does, but we have to be smart about what makes the most sense for the team to get a result this weekend.”

3. Mighty Red Bulls
With the Red Bulls already locked into a first-round playoff bye, claiming the top seed in the East, they could float into Sunday’s match like it’s an exhibition — resting starters and providing minimal effort. 

But while riding an unbeaten streak that dates back to early July, the Red Bulls aren’t likely to pull their foot off the gas just yet.

“It’s a challenging game for us,” Curtin said. “It’ll be a high tempo, playoff atmosphere. With Red Bull already securing their bye, I envision them playing their full-strength lineup because they don’t want to rest guys for two weeks, and then you could have some rust. We expect their best.”

Though the Red Bulls want to keep things moving Sunday, the Union also want to finish the season strong. Although the match doesn’t hold the importance it could have for either club, Curtin’s team, winless since late August, is grasping for anything it can to catapult itself into the postseason with momentum. 

“We want to finish the season the right way for our fans,” Curtin said. “We want to come out with some confidence after the game.”

4. Keep an eye on …
Union: With Sapong hobbled from a concussion, Sunday’s match could put Charlie Davies’ effort on display. The forward, who has been seldom used as he regains conditioning after beating cancer earlier in the year, was acquired by the Union for this exact scenario — providing quality attacking depth.

Red Bulls: Although the match is practically meaningless for the Red Bulls, it could mean something for Bradley Wright-Phillips. The 31-year striker could claim his second golden boot in three seasons. He currently leads MLS with 23 goals — one ahead of David Villa. He has a goal and an assist against the Union this season and 11 goals in his last nine games.

5. This and that
• The Union are 0-1-1 against the Red Bulls this season but did score a win in the U.S. Open Cup round of 16.

• The result of Sunday’s match will leave the Union with one of three postseason road opponents — New York City FC, Montreal Impact and D.C. United. The match will be played the following Wednesday or Thursday.

• With a win on Sunday, the Union would match a club-high in wins with 12 — a record set in 2013.

Union offering great deals on field level seats ahead of MLS Cup Playoffs

USA Today Images

Union offering great deals on field level seats ahead of MLS Cup Playoffs

Playoff soccer is returning to Chester for the first time in five years, and while fans prep for the Union’s first postseason games since 2011, there is no shortage of seating options for Union tickets on the primary market.

Perhaps most importantly, fans won’t have to break the bank to be on hand as the Union compete for their first MLS Cup in franchise history. Union field level seats are available for both the team’s final home regular season game against the New York Red Bulls and the Eastern Conference Semifinal on October 30 should they advance past the knockout round.

The team’s official website lists feet-on-the-pitch seating starting from $155 per ticket for this weekend’s game against the Red Bulls. The first-place Red Bulls head to Talen Energy Stadium with a first-round bye secured, but Union head coach Jim Curtin expects them to bring the pressure with them on Sunday. Fans can look on up close – and for relatively cheap - as the Union look to hand the Eastern Conference leaders their final loss of the regular season.

The Union will take on either New York City FC or Toronto FC in the knockout round either next Wednesday or Thursday. Pending a victory on the road, they’ll return to Talen Energy Stadium to host an Eastern Conference Semifinal game on October 30. Field level seating is still widely available for the team’s first home playoff game since 2011 and start from $178 per ticket.

2016 marks the franchise’s second MLS Cup Playoffs berth in its seven-year existence. They clinched a first-round bye in 2011 but fell to the Houston Dynamo by a 3-1 aggregate in the Conference Semifinals. The Union bring a much different vibe into the playoffs this season, however, after a formidable stretch from September on nearly drowned their postseason hopes. The team won its last game on August 27 against Sporting Kansas City, losing four games and drawing in two others since. 

Despite the team’s recent struggles, there is a sense of renewment that will carry them into the MLS Cup Playoffs. Records are cast aside and the slate is wiped clean, beginning a new path on the long and often tumultuous road to a national championship.