Union return home to face 'sneaky good' Toronto FC

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Union return home to face 'sneaky good' Toronto FC

After facing a tough pair of road games in New York and Columbus, the Union return home to challenge Danny Califf’s Toronto FC on Saturday at PPL Park.

And though hosting last season's worst team in MLS appears to be fortunate scheduling for the Union, don’t tell that to coach John Hackworth.

“Toronto is sneaky good,” the coach said. “If you think they are not good, they will punish you for it. I want to make sure we’re prepared for very good players -- players who can break you down one-on-one. They are organized and can lull you to sleep at times. I don’t think you can get overconfident against a team like that.”

He may have a point. Although Toronto had little expectations coming into the 2013 season, first-year coach Ryan Nelsen has his club at 1-2-2, with a win over Sporting Kansas City and home draws against the L.A. Galaxy and FC Dallas.

“Toronto clearly is a much different team, credit to coach Nelsen and his staff, they brought in some new guys who have brought a lot to their team and changed the way they play,” said Hackworth, whose primary concern should be Toronto striker Robert Earnshaw, who is tied for second in MLS with four goals. “They are a difficult team to get a result against and they have proven that in the early stages of this season.

"I don’t think I would categorize them as a team that does anything that scares you tremendously but they are deceptively good at a lot of things and they take advantage of teams when they least expect it.”

What makes the contest interesting is that while the Union, 2-2-1, and Toronto were fighting in the Eastern Conference basement last season, both clubs are currently battling for position in the upper echelon of the conference.

“We’re close in the standings right now,” Hackworth said. “It’s a tale of two teams that weren’t considered in the mix last year. Here we both sit with Saturday being an important game for both of us.”

Because of that, Union striker Antoine Hoppenot expects Toronto to come out firing.

“They are a good team,” said Hoppenot. “It’s a completely different side from last year. We expect them to try to get forward and attack us. We’ll be ready for that. It should be a good game.”

The game also marks the first time former Union captain and fan favorite Califf returns to Philadelphia since being traded to Chivas USA by the Peter Nowak regime last season. Califf found his way to Toronto in the offseason and is a solid part of the club’s early-season success and stability.

“He’ll get a lot of respect,” Hackworth said of Califf’s reception. “He’s a class individual and he has earned that, especially from the fans here. The fans here appreciate how he handled himself here as a pro and a person on and off the field. I expect they will pay tribute to him.”

Califf told TorontoFC.ca that he is excited to make his return to PPL Park and is bringing in his family from California for the occasion.

“[Philly sports fans] are absolutely different from other sports fans, but they love their teams and they are knowledgeable," Califf told Steve Bottjer. "It is a pretty cool dynamic. I think they are going to heckle me a bit. I think it will be friendly heckling and I’m excited to see how creative they get with it. I would feel weird if they didn’t do that.”

The Union are coming off a disappointing second-half loss to the Red Bulls and a draw against the stingy Crew. While Hackworth and his club were disappointed they couldn’t come away with three points in either contest, the Union will take what they can get on the road.

“We like a lot of the things we’re doing right now and we know there are areas we have to get better at,” Hackworth said. “One of them is in our transition game. We were good at times in Columbus but in important moments, our execution between the two we have to get better on Saturday.”

Other than their transition game, one aspect that has plagued the Union in the early season has been finishing chances. With energy and confidence, the Union, and particularly leading scorer Jack McInerney, who has three goals on the year, have been in position to put teams like the Crew away. But it just isn’t happening.

“Jack is playing well and he’s not just doing it with his offense,” Hackworth said. “His work rate, his ability to steal some balls, his ability in both New York and Columbus to move him to a wide midfield position when we had to -- there is certainly a lot of trust and faith that he can play those minutes and play different roles. He’s getting the most chances and that’s what he does best. But he has to finish those chances. If we score one of those, we’re in a much different position.”

Looking for that punch, the Union could install newcomer Jose Kleberson into the starting mix on Saturday. The Brazilian was an unused sub in Columbus.

“We’re seriously deep at a lot of positions and we have to make some tough decisions,” Hackworth said. “We thought about playing him last week in Columbus and in a couple different situations he would have been on the field. But as soon as Columbus got their goal, it just wasn’t the right time to put him in the game. He certainly a guy we’re thinking about this week.”

Union's homegrown program produces latest signing Derrick Jones

Union's homegrown program produces latest signing Derrick Jones

CHESTER, Pa. — Long after most of the Union players retreated from the heat Wednesday, Derrick Jones remained on the practice field. Not even his new rookie responsibility of carrying the bag of balls could dampen the 19-year-old’s enthusiasm of participating in his first official training as a member of the Union.

“I was just excited,” said Jones, who signed a homegrown contract with the Union a day earlier. “I was just happy. I didn’t know where I was going to be four years ago.”

Jones' path to the pros was certainly an interesting one as he came from Ghana to South Philly in 2012, and at the time, “didn’t know anything about the Union.” But he soon found his way to YSC Academy, the Union-run high school in Wayne, and after graduating from there, was the first player ever signed by the Bethlehem Steel, the team’s expansion minor-league affiliate.

He then played well enough for Bethlehem this season to ink a deal with the Union on Tuesday as their first Homegrown signing since 2012 and just the fourth in franchise history.

“It's a proud moment for me as a coach, a former academy coach,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “I’d like to thank (YSC Academy head and Union part owner) Richie Graham and (academy director) Tommy Wilson for the job they did developing Derrick, and also (Bethlehem Steel head coach) Brendan Burke sprinkling in that extra polish for the half a season that Derrick put in. I'd also like to thank the players because the one thing people don't always get to see is how valuable it is with our first-team players being around Derrick in the preseason and putting him under their wing and all of those little things. 

“As a club, it's a proud moment because everybody has played a role, from our medical staff to our trainers to our equipment guys, all the way through our academy to Bethlehem to now our first team.”

Ever since the franchise’s inception, Union coaches and executives have always said how they wanted to build a team from their youth ranks with several players hailing from the Philadelphia area. But, as it turned out, it was easier said than done.

Zach Pfeffer was the first player to sign a homegrown contract (an MLS mechanism that allows teams to directly sign youth players from their own development academies) as a 15-year-old Upper Dublin High School sophomore in December of 2010. And although he showed some promise, the teenager was never able to become a regular and was traded to the Colorado Rapids this past offseason. Former manager Peter Nowak signed two other homegrown players — Jimmy McLaughlin and Cristhian Hernandez — during his tenure but neither played much and they're no longer with the club.

You can certainly argue that Pfeffer, McLaughlin and Hernandez were all victims of an old system that didn’t allow them to properly develop at such a young age. In many ways, that’s why the Union launched YSC Academy and the Bethlehem Steel: to create a more surefire pathway from high school to the pros without throwing teenagers directly into the fire.

And Jones, the only current homegrown player on the roster, is the first to truly benefit from that improved structure — and will very likely usher in a new, better era of youth development for the Union.

“Everyone likes to compare who's doing it the best, and there's a lot of really good things being done right now in the U.S. Developmental Academy and specific MLS academies, but I can say with confidence, having coached in it and lived through it and having seen it up close, our academy is the one that prepares these kids for life more so than any,” Curtin said. “So everyone wants to talk about the successful homegrowns and how many each team has, but no one writes the article about a lot of the homegrowns that are out of this league in a year and no one cares about them anymore.

“It does need to be said that our structure, in the way Richie Graham has set it up, is holistic in every way. The school and the things that they do there, it is amazing. It’s a special environment, and it’s one that is based on each individual kid and their needs, because every kid has different spurts in their development, highs and lows. And the support system that they provide at our academy is second to none in this country.”

Curtin’s glowing praise of YSC Academy is not hyperbole. The school is the first in the country to fully integrate a college-preparatory education with an MLS-affiliated youth soccer development program with practice time embedded into the school day. And although Jones is the first from the school to sign with the Union, many others in the first two graduating classes have moved on to play high-level Division I soccer (and can still sign with the Union, or the Steel, as a homegrown player if they shine at the collegiate level). 

“They helped me a lot,” Jones said of YSC Academy. “It was good. I got to train twice a day. I spent my whole day over there. In terms of working on my fitness, it really helped me.”

The school also helped Jones adapt to the United States away from the field, and even though he’s a quiet kid, his new teammates made sure to greet him with a lot of smiles this week. MLS veteran Chris Pontius said he expects Jones’ personality to come out in a few months and praised his soccer skills, calling him “a good two-way player” in the midfield.

It might be unfair to expect Jones to play right away for the Union, but the 19-year-old will certainly be ready if called upon, as early as Sunday’s home game vs. Real Salt Lake (7 p.m., CSN).

“I don’t know what that’s going to be like,” Jones said. “Maybe I’ll get nervous since it’s my first game. But I’m looking forward to it.”

Union sign prospect Derrick Jones to homegrown contract

Union sign prospect Derrick Jones to homegrown contract

Midfielder Derrick Jones has made Union history.

On Wednesday, the club announced Jones, 19, has been signed to the Union first team as a Homegrown Player. Currently playing with the Union’s USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel, Jones is the first Union Academy graduate to make the move from Union Academy to Union first team.

“Derrick’s progression through our system has been quicker than anticipated and it’s evident that he is ready for the next step of his career,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said in the team’s official release. “This is a testament to Derrick’s commitment to his trade, and it should be considered a tremendous accomplishment to become the first player to come through our Academy, to Bethlehem Steel, and finally to the first team.”

Jones, who moved to Philadelphia in 2012 from Bantana, Ghana, and worked his way through the Union Academy before joining the Steel in 2016, made his Union debut in a friendly match against Crystal Palace on July 13 at Talen Energy Stadium. 

The 6-foot-3 rangy midfielder, who doesn’t have a set position, showed well playing the entire second half, presenting his on-the-ball poise at the attacking mid position.

“Derrick has now set the benchmark for every player in our youth system,” Stewart said. “That there is a pathway to the professional level, and that it is achievable if you remain committed to your goals.”

Jones is the first Union homegrown signing since 2012. Homegrown status means the player avoids being submitted into the MLS SuperDraft. The Union Academy has been around since 2013 and is located at the YSC Center in Wayne, Pennsylvania. 

“I’m delighted that Derrick is our first and that the work of our staff has come to fruition in this way,” Academy director Tommy Wilson said. “This is a proud moment for Derrick and his family. I would like to congratulate them and everyone else who has played a part in his development.”

Inside Doop: Union limp home after brutal week

Inside Doop: Union limp home after brutal week

It’s time for the Union to get some rest — and try to forget what happened over the past few days.

On Saturday night, the Union suffered their worst loss of the MLS season just four days after getting knocked out of the U.S. Open Cup in crushing fashion.

What went wrong on the road trip? And how can they move on from such a brutal week? We’ll examine in the latest edition of the Inside Doop:

Three thoughts from the past week
1. Following last Sunday’s 2-2 draw with the New York Red Bulls, Union head coach Jim Curtin sort of dismissed the idea of “squad rotation” while several players praised the team’s fitness for being able to rally from two goals back to tie New York. And it was true that the Union had successfully managed busy weeks for much of the last two months. But even the most fit and deep team would have struggled with what followed for the Union, who lost in an Open Cup shootout in New England after playing 120 minutes before then leaving the country to face the star-studded Montreal Impact, who drubbed them 5-1. Curtin said he wouldn’t use the grueling schedule as an excuse, but it’s certainly obvious that it played a big role.

2. Before saying he would “tear up the tape” from the rout in Montreal, Curtin candidly stated the team was “beat by stars.” That’s certainly true as the ageless African legend Didier Drogba netted his second MLS hat trick and standout Argentine playmaker Ignacio Piatti assisted on two of those goals and also scored one of his own. Perhaps in the subtext of that statement is this: the Union don’t really have any true stars of their own (except perhaps a rising one in goalkeeper Andre Blake), and while they’ve won a lot of games this season by playing well as a unit, sometimes the talent gap can be too much to overcome.

3. There’s no sense analyzing too much of how the Impact were able to score five times in a single game. Everyone along Philly’s backline played poorly and even typically surefire midfielders like Tranquillo Barnetta didn’t do enough to slow down the Montreal attack as the floodgates opened. But the fact that it came just four days after the Union had a bad breakdown to leave a player wide open on a free kick and let New England score basically an uncontested goal is troublesome. And that came just three days after the team gave up two goals at home. In other words, you can be sure a defensive-minded coach like Curtin will work to correct some of these glaring issues moving forward. Speaking of which …  

Three questions for the week ahead
1.
For a team that’s worked tirelessly on its fitness, sometimes even training twice in the same day, this week will start in somewhat of a unique way: the Union will get Monday and Tuesday off. It’s certainly understandable why Curtin wants his players to get time away from soccer after an arduous 11-game-in-39-day stretch. But will it help reenergize and galvanize the group heading into Sunday’s home game against Real Salt Lake (7 p.m., CSN)?

2. One player to keep an eye on during this week is Maurice Edu. The Union captain has yet to play this season because of a stress fracture but recently returned to the training field. Curtin has stressed the midfielder still needs time to get his fitness back up to where it should be, but there’s no question his return would give the team a big boost at a time when such a thing is needed. Could we see him get on the field, perhaps off the bench, in Sunday’s game?

3. Two players that won’t be with the Union for most of the week are goalkeeper Andre Blake and right back Keegan Rosenberry — and for good reason. The team’s two young rising stars made Thursday’s All-Star Game and traveled to San Jose today to begin preparations for the contest that features the top MLS players vs. English Premier League power Arsenal. Seeing how the two players both perform — and how much playing time they get — in such a marquee matchup will certainly be fun for Union fans. But either way, the fact both players simply got there so early in their careers is quite an accomplishment.

Quote of the week
“We've been a group that's been together and has been a team all year, and that's why we've had some success. Tonight we were beat by stars. Drogba and Piatti were unstoppable.”

-- Union head coach Jim Curtin

Stat of the week
Saturday’s 5-1 loss was the Union’s worst since they lost by the same scoreline to the L.A. Galaxy on June 20, 2015.

Player of the week
It sort of got lost in the general frustration of the week but rookie Fabian Herbers did a lot of damage off the bench, scoring his first career U.S. Open Cup goal in dramatic fashion before getting a secondary assist on Philly’s only goal Saturday. Did he earn himself a start coming up?