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.”

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.

Union-Sporting Kansas City 5 things: Looking for back-to-back wins

Union-Sporting Kansas City 5 things: Looking for back-to-back wins

Union vs. Sporting Kansas City
7 p.m. on TCN, Pregame Live at 6:30

The Union kept afloat in the Eastern Conference playoff race last weekend by completing the season sweep of the Columbus Crew. Now, they have an opportunity to do something they’ve only done once this season — win back-to-back games. The Union (10-9-7) face Sporting Kansas City (11-11-5) Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium.

Here are five things to know for the matchup.

1. Rookie power
In a surprising move, Union manager Jim Curtin tapped Josh Yaro and Fabian Herbers to accompany Keegan Rosenberry as starters on the road against the Crew. 

And the 2016 MLS SuperDraft trio, starting for the first time together, didn’t disappoint. 

“If you were to tell me before the game started that we’d get goals from Herbers and Rosenberry, I would probably tell you you were a little crazy,” Curtin said. “But we’re happy for them. I think it’s a big step in a tough atmosphere.”

Herbers opened the scoring for the Union by powering home a deflection off his own original shot. The goal was followed by a Rosenberry game-winning goal from a Tranquillo Barnetta pass into the box. 

“For Keegan, for Josh, for Herbers to step up the way they did in what I would call a big boy game, I think it shows them growing as players,” Curtin said. “It’s a real game out there where a team is fighting and is desperate to make a playoff push, we had to be alert for 90 minutes.”

The three had such an impact on last Saturday’s match that Curtin is likely to go to the kids again against SKC. Herbers made the start in place of Ilsinho, who is currently fighting off a foot injury.

“We’re a club that trusts young players and believes in playing young players,” Curtin said. “They rewarded us.” 

2. Bedoya’s impact
Although he won’t make the scoresheet, in three games, Alejandro Bedoya has impressed Curtin with his poise in the midfield and big-game calmness with the ball. 

“To think he’s in his preseason now is a scary thing,” said Curtin, who has played Bedoya 90 minutes in his last two games. “Three great performances and it’s only going to get better. I can’t say enough positives about him.”

What Curtin likes the most is Bedoya’s ability to keep possession and relax the game, something that helps a club overflowing with young players. 

“He has been a great influence on us keeping possession,” Curtin said. “It’s the simple balls that don’t show up in the stat sheet, where he catches it and just plays it to our outside back. That gives us time to catch our breath — it’s so valuable.”

SKC has noticed it, too. 

“They added a very good player, someone with a lot of experience and commitment to the game, especially in the midfield” SKC coach Peter Vermes said. “He poses a problem for any team they play against. For us, we have to be compact, we have to be smart and we have to take our chances really well.”

3. Tired SKC
The Union are catching Sporting Kansas City at the right time. Vermes’ club is winded after just one home match in its last seven. 

“We’ve had a lot of travel these last couple weeks, so going into this Philly game we want to conserve as much energy as possible,” SKC’s Benny Feilhaber said. “They are a really good team this year, so we’ll have our hands full. But we’re confident we can go in and get something out of it.” 

And the club has a right to be tired. In 11 days from Saturday’s match, SKC will have played in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago, home at Children’s Mercy Park, then away at BC Place against the Vancouver Whitecaps, before traveling cross-country to face the Union.

“Every game is very important, so we have to be able to give everything we’ve got, even though we’re running on fumes a little bit here,” Vermes said. “We’re going to have to dig down deep and muster up something with Philadelphia being as good as they are.” 

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: It doesn’t appear that Ilsinho will return in time for Saturday’s match, leaving Herbers as a starter on the right side of the midfield. He has two goals and four assists in five starts this season.

SKC: Although Dom Dwyer has four goals in his last five matches, Feilhaber has the ability to get everyone involved. The veteran midfielder has a goal and three assists in his last four matches.

5. This and that
• The Union are 4-5-4 against SKC all-time and an even 2-2-2 at home. 

• Despite being in playoff position, the Union have yet to win back-to-back games more than once this season. The only time they’ve claimed consecutive wins was on March 12 and March 20. And that started with a win over the Crew. 

• Each scoring a goal against the Crew, Rosenberry and Herbers were the first two rookies to score in a match since Colorado Rapids’ Deshorn Brown and Dillon Powers did it in 2013.