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-Real Salt Lake 5 things: Rolling Union carry 4-game win streak to Utah

Union-Real Salt Lake 5 things: Rolling Union carry 4-game win streak to Utah

Union vs. Real Salt Lake
8:00 p.m. on CSN
 
Hitting the road with a club record four-game win streak at their back, the streaking Union (4-4-4) will face a cross-country test Saturday, as they take on Albert Rusnak and inconsistent Real Salt Lake (3-8-2) at Rio Tinto Stadium.
 
Here are five things to know.
 
1. Keeping momentum
With four-straight wins and six unbeaten to catapult them up the Eastern Conference standings and nearly in playoff position, the Union are rolling. 
 
But despite the hot streak, Union manager Jim Curtin doesn’t want his club’s demons returning.
 
“The biggest thing we’ve tried to stress how hard we had to work to get out of that hole and the feeling we had while we were in that hole, we don’t want that back ever against,” Curtin said, with regards to the Union going winless in their first eight games of the season. “The good run of games helps that and the performances have been really good, but you’re guarding against that ever creeping back in and kicking it down when it does.”
 
Curtin shouldn’t have to worry about that. His players have proven to possess a steady mental quality, one they put on display throughout the eight-game winless streak to start the season. There wasn’t infighting or finger-pointing, the club went to work and are now fighting for a playoff position.
 
“We’re not going to get too high or get too low,” Curtin said. “We’re going to stick with what we believe in.”
 
Along with mental strength, Union leading scorer C.J. Sapong, who has eight goals on the season, believes it’s positive vibes that will help the team continue its streak in Utah.
 
“It’s the collective energy of the group,” he said. “Through our rough spell, we still had belief in ourselves. We finally got that one win and have been flying high since then.”  
 
2. Haris on fire
Playing quarterback of the Union’s offense and spearheading his club’s recent hot streak, Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin is quickly warming up to MLS.
 
“Haris has been excellent for us,” Curtin said. “There’s a couple statistics now where we’re at the top of the league and he has one — it’s called usage percentage. Fourteen-percent of our touches are distributed by him, so if you want him to be a quarterback, point guard, he’s third in the league in that. We want him on the ball as much as possible and that’s including restarts where he’s proven to be lethal.”
 
Lethal is right. After registering three assists in his first nine MLS games, the veteran defensive midfielder is pacing the Union’s attack, scoring two goals and two assists over the Union’s last four wins. That includes the game-winner against the Colorado Rapids last Saturday, where he ripped a free kick through the Rapids’ defensive wall to beat Tim Howard from just outside the box.
 
And while Medunjanin is known as an adept playmaker, it’s that free-kick scoring ability that takes his game, and the Union offense, to another level.
 
“He has an ability to serve a ball to get an assist and the shooting he possesses to win a game for you, it’s huge,” Curtin said. “Other teams have to be cautious in and around the box which leads to us being more dangerous around the box.” 
 
3. Trusting the process
The Union and RSL have a lot in common this season. Both teams went winless from August onward to finish the 2016 season and both clubs suffered losses in the early going of 2017, falling to the bottom of their respective conferences.
 
The difference is while the Union have recovered from that depressing ordeal, RSL hasn’t.
 
“The process is going,” said RSL coach Mike Petke, who took over the team in late March. “It takes a while and you have to be willing to go over a lot of speed bumps. We’re working through some stuff and we’ll be better off in the end.” 
 
While RSL has five losses in their last six matches, the players do feel that tide turning. 
 
“You gotta keep pulling out the positives of every game we play and keep building on them,” RSL’s Luke Mulholland said. “We have to keep working on the positives, shooting and hopefully we’ll find the back of the net here.” 
 
With a 2-1 home win over New York City FC on May 17, RSL traveled to CenturyLink Field last weekend, where they stood toe-to-toe in a 1-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders. They were not outmatched, which should give the Union pause. 
 
“I consider it a loss on paper but we gained so much in there,” Petke said. “To look at the game and rewatch it again, the players did 95% of what we wanted. It was ugly, we dumbed it down because that’s what we had to do. We were bleeding goals so we wanted to limit certain things. It’s an incredible stepping stone. But it’s all for nothing if they don’t carry it into the Philadelphia game.” 
 
4. Keep an eye on …
Albert Rusnak: While RSL doesn’t have much going for it offensively, it’s not for lack of trying from Rusnak. The 22-year-old first-year MLS midfielder has three goals and four assists in 11 games. He’s the player the Union will have to stop Saturday.

Haris Medunjanin: The midfielder will look to keep his hot streak alive Saturday, as he goes for his fifth point in five games. It’s becoming abundantly clear that as Medunjanin goes, so does the Union.

5. This and that
• In the Union’s history, they have never defeated RSL. The club is 0-3-6 all-time against the Western Conference side.

• During the Union’s 4-0-0 streak, they have outscored opponents, 11-1. The lone goal against came in the first half of the Union’s come-from-behind win over the Rapids on Saturday.

• Despite a very success past few weeks, the Union are picking up injuries. Midfielder Fabian Herbers strained his hip/groin against the Rapids. He’s out two-to-four weeks. Roland Alberg is also expected to be out with a quad injury. Defender Josh Yaro is healthy and training with the team but is a conditioning track. 

• For the hosts, MLS veteran Tony Beltran is expected back in the lineup against the Union. The defender missed 10 matches with back and calf injuries.

'I've never seen that' - Rare violation works in Union's favor vs. Colorado

'I've never seen that' - Rare violation works in Union's favor vs. Colorado

CHESTER, Pa. -- The situation was growing dire for the Union.

With the game tied at one in the second half and facing a Colorado Rapids team that happily parked the defensive bus in order to grind out an ugly draw, the Union got a break when Rapids forward Caleb Calvert received a red-card ejection for entering the field illegally.

Five minutes later, the Union claimed the 2-1 lead and eventual victory (see game story).

“I’ve never seen that to be honest with you,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “Where you reenter the field like a sneak attack from behind the goal. You knew something was wrong with it when you saw it, just the eyeball test. But the laws of the game, that’s a violation.”

How it all happened was unique. In the 69th minute, Calvert went down injured on the Union goal line and remained there, writhing in pain. Not buying his injury, referee Jose Carlos Rivero went over to the player, held a conversation and immediately threw up the yellow card for dissent.

“The second yellow and yellows in that quick succession,” Curtin said, “it was probably in the referee's mind that something verbal was said and he was upset.”

With a warning on his name and with a trainer now at his side, Calvert, who scored his first MLS goal in the 15th minute but was unavailable to the media after the match, got to his feet and left the playing field behind the Union goal. Confused as to whether he could or couldn’t reenter the match, the 20-year-old forward hesitated briefly before sneaking back onto the field.

“They told me they were trying to tell him to stay off the field,” Rapids left back Eric Miller said. “But how many people were here tonight? 20,000? 20,000 people and the referee was 60 yards away, it’s gonna be tough to hear him probably.”

Calvert was carded again, this time with Rivero showing red, ejecting the youngster from the game.

“You don’t just quickly send a guy off for two dumb things in a row,” Miller said. “I’m sure he thinks he made the right call.”

Rapids assistant coach and former Union striker Conor Casey was also ejected. Head coach Pablo Mastroeni didn't make himself available to the media after the game.

“It’s tough when a referee has such a massive impact on the outcome of the game,” Miller said.

But the Union feel like the game was decided even before Calvert's ejection. While it did change the contest and made taking the lead with a Haris Medunjanin free kick goal a bit easier, Union attacker Chris Pontius believes C.J. Sapong’s game-tying penalty kick minutes before the incident is what stole momentum.

“I think they were rattled when we got the first goal,” said Pontius, who said he’s never witnessed anything like what happened Saturday. “I don’t think they knew what to do. I think even if they had 11 men, we were still getting another goal.”