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.”

Inside Doop: Absences, losses continue to pile up for Union

Inside Doop: Absences, losses continue to pile up for Union

The Union gave us a glimpse into their future as two rookies made their first MLS starts over the weekend. But, in the end, a slew of key veteran absences were too much to overcome as the Union lost their second straight to fall further out of the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Here’s a closer look at the rough past few days and what lies ahead during another busy week that, if they don't turn things around, could sink their playoff hopes.

Three thoughts about the past week
1. The biggest surprise Saturday may have come before the game in Columbus even began — when the lineups revealed the Union’s attacking four consisted of two rookies making their first career starts (Adam Najem and Marcus Epps), their backup striker (Jay Simpson) and a winger who’s been mostly deployed centrally of late (Ilsinho). That’s because regular starters Chris Pontius, Fafa Picault, C.J. Sapong and Roland Alberg, among others, were all absent due to injury, suspension or Gold Cup duty. And, well, it showed. While Najem did look comfortable on the ball at times, the chemistry was lacking up top, the team strung together very few passes moving forward, and they finished with a grand total of zero shots on target in a 1-0 loss to the Crew. Head coach Jim Curtin likes to talk about his team’s improved depth but there’s only so much you can overcome on the road.

2. Although he’s yet to win in three starts since replacing Andre Blake, who’s currently at the Gold Cup, John McCarthy has looked sharp in net. And in Columbus, he made a couple of big-time saves to keep his team in the game. Now, the Union will need him once again Wednesday when they face Columbus in the second half of a home-and-home series. That’s because Blake continued his stirring run in the Gold Cup by leading Jamaica to a huge 1-0 upset of Mexico on Sunday night and into the title game vs. the U.S. You could say that’s a tough break for the Union in the short term — Curtin has admitted part of him has been rooting for Jamaica to lose so he can get Blake back sooner — but having a player shine on such a national stage could end up being one of the high points of the year for Philly, especially given the current trajectory of the club.

3. While the Union’s offense was virtually nonexistent in Columbus, they did have a glimmer of life four days earlier in Montreal when Fafa Picault scored his fifth goal of the season. But even that moment was marred by the fact that Alberg and Ilsinho appeared not to want to celebrate with him. Afterward, Curtin revealed that there was a heated discussion at halftime with those players angry that Picault didn’t square a ball for Ilsinho that would have likely resulted in a tap-in goal. Curtin said he didn’t mind hearing that but you have to wonder if there may be some rifts growing in certain corners of the locker room.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. It’s something of a bizarre scheduling quirk that the Union meet the same Crew team Wednesday that they just played four days ago on Wednesday night at Talen Energy Stadium. But Curtin will hope that the game — and Philly’s lineup too — will look a lot different. Although Pontius and Blake will still be gone, squaring off in the U.S. vs. Jamaica Gold Cup final across on the same night, Picault and Sapong could return from their minor injuries and Alberg's set to come back from his one-game suspension. Of course, the Crew could also get some reinforcements with star playmaker Federico Higuain working to recover from a right knee sprain.

2. Even if the Union weren’t missing guys anyway, Curtin might still tinker with the lineups during a four-game-in-11-days stretch; after Wednesday’s matchup vs. the Crew, they travel to New England to take on the Revolution on Saturday. Veteran center back Oguchi Onyewu will likely be plugged back into the lineup after he was given a rest this past weekend and his fill-in, Josh Yaro, had what basically amounted to an own goal in the loss. Will Curtin opt to give any other guys a rest in either of the next two games?

3. Almost lost in the storylines of Saturday’s game was the return of captain Alejandro Bedoya, who had missed the three previous contests due to captaining the U.S. national team at the Gold Cup group stages and the birth of his second child. The true test now for the Union captain will be to see if he and fellow veteran central midfielder Haris Medunjanin can right the ship before it’s too late.

Stat of the week
With his season debut in Columbus, Charlie Davies became the 23rd Union player to play in a league game this year.

Quote of the week
“It feels amazing. As a kid when you dream of playing professional soccer in front of big crowds and stuff, it’s great to have that first start and put it in the books.”

— Union winger Marcus Epps

Player of the week
John McCarthy was one of the only bright spots in Columbus, making the kind of saves that would make Andre Blake proud.

Union's Andre Blake helps Jamaica stun Mexico to reach CONCACAF Gold Cup final

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Union's Andre Blake helps Jamaica stun Mexico to reach CONCACAF Gold Cup final

PASADENA, Calif. -- Kemar Lawrence scored on an exquisite 24-yard free kick in the 88th minute, and Jamaica advanced to the CONCACAF Gold Cup final with a 1-0 upset victory over Mexico on Sunday night.

Jamaica will face the United States on Wednesday night at Santa Clara, California. The Reggae Boyz are seeking their first championship in soccer's North and Central American and Caribbean region.

Jamaica goalkeeper Andre Blake kept the game scoreless with a series of saves while Mexico dominated possession despite missing most its top players.

Lawrence's late strike froze goalkeeper Jesus Corona. The ball rose past a five-man wall and curled into the left corner just below the bar for the New York Red Bulls defender's third career international goal and first in three years.

The Reggae Boyz have reached the final for the second straight Gold Cup tournament, but this stunning upset at the Rose Bowl ranks among their biggest international wins. Mexico has won seven Gold Cup titles, the U.S. five and Canada one.

Trying to win its second consecutive Gold Cup and fourth in five tournaments, Mexico used the deeper reaches of its player pool following the World Cup qualifiers and the Confederations Cup last month. While teams were allowed to make up to six substitutions for the knockout rounds, El Tri coach Juan Carlos Osorio said he was blocked by Mexico's clubs.

Mexico hadn't trailed in the tournament before Lawrence's late goal, but El Tri also hadn't been impressive -- no player scored more than one goal. That lack of finishing skill ultimately cost Mexico, which failed to advance to the Gold Cup final for just the second time in the last six tournaments.

The crowd was dominated by Mexico's vast Southern California fan base, but the Rose Bowl was less than half-full with just 42,393 fans. The absence of Chicharito Hernandez and other top Mexican stars, combined with El Tri's unattractive performances in the Gold Cup to date, apparently kept many of their usual faithful at home.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino watched the semifinal from the Rose Bowl stands. So did Osorio, who served the fifth game of a six-match FIFA ban for his conduct toward officials during the Confederations Cup.

Blake made two brilliant saves in succession in the 12th minute, diving twice to stop close-range chances by Jesus Duenas and Erick Torres, the Houston Dynamo star and the only player on the current roster from outside Mexico's domestic leagues.

Blake did it again in the 25th minute, stopping Torres' point-blank header from the top of the 6-yard box with improbably quick reactions.

Jesus Molina sent Blake crashing to the ground with aerial contact in the 34th minute while competing for a ball in the box, but Jamaica rallied and forced Corona to make his own diving stop in the 38th minute off a free kick.

Jesus Gallardo's 22-yard free kick also was punched away adroitly in the 65th minute by Blake for his sixth official save.

Jamaica got a chance in the 56th minute, but substitute Ricardo Morris' 14-yard shot went straight to Corona. Damion Lowe got another golden chance with a sharp header off a free kick in the 78th minute, but Corona dived to swat it away.