Union refuse to overlook last-place DC United

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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's Alejandro Bedoya called up to U.S. national team for key World Cup qualifiers

Union's Alejandro Bedoya called up to U.S. national team for key World Cup qualifiers

Throughout their seven-year history, the Union have had very few active players called up for U.S. national team duty.

That’s about to change now that Alejandro Bedoya is on the team.

On Sunday, it was announced that Bedoya — Philly’s marquee summer acquisition — is one of 26 players selected for important World Cup qualifiers vs. St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad & Tobago.

The U.S. travels first to face St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Sept. 2 (3:30 p.m., beIN SPORT) and will close out Group C action against Trinidad & Tobago on Sept. 6 (8 p.m., FS1).

That means Bedoya — who’s started the last four games for the Union, helping the club to a 3-1 mark in that stretch — will miss Philly’s road game vs. the Chicago Fire on Saturday (8:30 p.m., TCN). 

All-star goalkeeper Andre Blake also won’t be available for that contest, traveling with Jamaica for their World Cup qualifiers.

That will leave the Union, who are also managing injuries to midfielders Maurice Edu, Brian Carroll and Ilsinho, a little bit thin as they look to extend their winning streak to three games this weekend. 

But Bedoya’s inclusion on the USMNT roster is something the Union expected. The midfielder has been one of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s steadiest players over the past couple of years, as a starter in the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Copa America Centenario. 

He’s already made 53 appearances with the U.S. national team and figures to make his first as a member of the Union on Friday.

If he does, he’ll be the second active Union player ever to play for the USMNT, following a Maurice Edu appearance in April 2014 in the buildup to the World Cup (he was later cut from the preliminary roster, along with Landon Donovan, before the U.S. left for Brazil). Prior to Edu’s appearance, the closest a Union player had come to earning a USMNT cap was when Jack McInerney was selected to the 2013 Gold Cup squad but didn't play in any games.

Super sub Roland Alberg putting on potent show for Union

Super sub Roland Alberg putting on potent show for Union

CHESTER, Pa. -- Roland Alberg has been a terror for opposing teams. 

The latest attack from the Dutch bomber happened Saturday, while the Union were gridlocked in a scoreless draw with Sporting Kansas City. Alberg entered the match in the 65th minute and ended it in the 67th, when he launched a volley that beat goalkeeper Alec Kann. 

“I have to be patient, but when I come on the field, I have to do my thing,” Alberg said. “It’s a great team performance. We did a great job, got three points and we are happy with it.”

He added an assist for the 2-0 win (see game story)

“He’s a wonderful player,” said Union left back Fabinho, who assisted on Alberg's goal. “He came on and changed the game. I saw him and I know what he likes. I give the ball to him and he scores. He has nine goals. It’s nice for him. I hope he scores more.” 

That type of impact hasn’t been irregular for Alberg. With nine goals on the season in just 925 minutes played, the 26-year-old leads MLS in goals-per-90 minutes with 0.88. Only New York City FC’s Frank Lampard is close with .85.

“He’s far and away the leader in our league,” said Union manager Jim Curtin, who originally cited Alberg’s goals-per-90 stat. “He has a special quality.”

Yet, despite that “special quality,” Alberg remains a super sub, buried behind Tranquillo Barnetta at the center attacking midfield spot. He has two goals in his last four games — all coming off the bench.

“I have to show it every training, and then it’s the coach’s decision,” he said. “If [Curtin] uses me as a sub, I’ll do 100 percent my best. And if it’s as a starter, it’s the same thing for me. Of course every player wants to play as a starter, and me too. But it’s a long season. Playoffs, they are coming. So I’m patient.”

Alberg’s potency isn’t lost on Curtin, even if the manager doesn’t switch his winning formula. Though Alberg is pushing for a starting spot, the Union might just be more dangerous with him off the bench.

“He’s a starter on most MLS teams,” Curtin said. “It’s just a matter of having depth at that spot. He’s a very valuable player to our team and shows we have a deep squad. I can’t say enough about how well he’s played in any role. As a starter for us, he’s won us a bunch of games, and his role off the bench, he’s won us some games now, too.”

Roland Alberg's goal, assist propel Union past Sporting Kansas City, 2-0

Roland Alberg's goal, assist propel Union past Sporting Kansas City, 2-0

BOX SCORE

CHESTER, Pa. -- Roland Alberg entered the game at the perfect time.

With his club holding the man advantage as a result of Jimmy Medranda’s second yellow card in the 57th minute, Union manager Jim Curtin tapped Alberg off the bench to replace Fabian Herbers in the 65th minute. 

Two minutes later, the Union took the lead. From the left side, Fabinho found Alberg at the top of the box, where he teed off a shot at that ripped past Alec Kann to open scoring in the eventual 2-0 Union win over Sporting Kansas City on Saturday at Talen Energy Stadium.

It was Alberg’s ninth goal of the season.

The Union now have wins in back-to-back games for the first time since March, pushing their record to 11-9-7 and temporarily jumping them over the New York Red Bulls for third in the Eastern Conference. SKC falls to 11-12-5.

Facing Sporting Kansas City at Talen Energy Stadium for the first time since the 2015 U.S. Open Cup title game, the Union, who lost that game in penalty kicks, wanted to dictate tempo. However, the club was unable to break down SKC’s stout midfield until the red cards started flying.

Already down a man, things began to unravel for SKC in the 87th minute, when Roger Espinoza was shown a straight red for tossing what appeared like an inadvertent elbow to the midsection of Alberg. 

In stoppage time, up two men, the Union put the exclamation point on the win. Alberg found Tranquillo Barnetta in an open pocket of the SKC defense, and with space, the Swiss veteran placed his shot to the right and in, sealing the 2-0 win.