Union roster issues open opportunities for non-starters

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Union roster issues open opportunities for non-starters

CHESTER, Pa. -- With Jeff Parke likely out and Sheanon Williams suspended for Saturday’s road match against the Chicago Fire, the Union were already looking at a substantial roster shift on the defensive line.

Throw in playing three games in the next seven days and coach John Hackworth’s roster changes might not stop with defenders.

“We have to manage our roster,” Hackworth said. “There will be multiple guys who get an opportunity that haven’t been playing a lot or haven’t played a starting role. We have to manage these three games. We feel like we have good depth and we’re ready to do that.”

Smelling a chance to get playing time, the Union players have kicked up the intensity on the practice field. Hackworth is excited by his team’s hunger to compete for playing time and feels that only good things can come from it.

“[Bakary Soumare] has looked good in training, Gabe Farfan always looks good and has been very consistent for us,” said Hackworth, who will likely play Gabe Farfan and Soumare on the defense. “Kleberson and Sebastien [Le Toux] -- Sebastien has looked particular good in finishing this week. Antoine [Hoppenot] constantly tries to push himself as someone who doesn’t just come off the bench. The competition has been really good there. Guys can sense there’s a little bit of an opportunity and that turns up the intensity and reality that they might have a shot.”

Set to fill in the defensive gaps are Soumare at center back and Farfan at left back. Other than that, the Union’s roster is up for grabs. That includes the bench.

“It certainly changes the selection for the 18 in a big way,” Hackworth said. “If something ever happened to our back line, we would move Sheanon into the middle. We don’t have him this weekend, so we’ll probably add some defensive depth to our bench. We also have guys who are versatile like Michael Lahoud, who started all over for us. He can fill in as a back.”

The Union players are well aware of the changes coming.

“People are going to have to step up, myself included,” said defender Amobi Okugo. “These games coming up are really important for us.

“It’s going to be different but we have a whole week to prepare.”

Though putting together a new lineup for Saturday could be viewed as a chemistry-buster for the 3-3-3 Union, Hackworth is serving it up as an opportunity for players to prove themselves in game action. Players like Kleberson, Le Toux, Soumare and even Chris Albright haven’t seen much or any on-field time in the opening nine games, but could be a factor moving forward.

“Jack McInerney got a chance last year to come in and be a starter,” Hackworth said. “He was ready for that opportunity and he took that opportunity. He hasn’t relinquished that role since then. Anytime a professional player, who works so hard in training, has a chance to represent himself as a starting player, it’s fantastic. In my experience, things can change once players get these chances.”

While things could change for other players on Hackworth’s short list, could it change for Soumare? The 6-foot-4 defender requested a trade after the first game of the season when he was beat out by Okugo for the position.

Now set to play for just the second time since June, 2012, Soumare is finally getting his wish.

“We’re fortunate to have Baky here and in good form,” Hackworth said. “He’s trained hard every single day that he’s been here. We don’t have a question about his fitness. It will be an adjustment because he hasn’t played game minutes, but he’s working awful hard on his own. My expectation is that he makes the most of this. Depth is very important to a team in this league.”

And depth is what the Union will lean on to get them through Saturday and beyond.

Andre Blake the Union's first MLS Best XI team member since 2010

Andre Blake the Union's first MLS Best XI team member since 2010

Andre Blake continues to rack up the accolades.

A couple of weeks after being named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, the rising Philadelphia Union star was named to the MLS Best XI team as one of the league’s top players in 2016.

The rest of the team included:

• Forwards Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC), David Villa (New York City FC) and Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls)
• Midfielders Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact), Sacha Kljestan (Red Bulls), Mauro Diaz (FC Dallas) and Giovani dos Santos (LA Galaxy)
• Defenders Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Axel Sjoberg (Colorado Rapids) and Jelle Van Damme (Galaxy)

Blake’s inclusion on the Best XI is not a surprise considering he already took home top goalkeeper honors. Even though he didn’t have the best numbers in the league, he made the spectacular look ordinary in his first full season as an MLS starter.

But it is unique for the Union, who haven’t had a player make the Best XI since Sebastien Le Toux was included for his 14-goal, 11-assist effort in Philly's 2010 expansion season.

Union winger Chris Pontius, who recently won the 2016 MLS Breakout Player of the Year award, made Best XI while with D.C. United in 2012. Former Union players to be honored on the prestigious list were Bakary Soumare with Chicago in 2008 and Justin Mapp with Chicago in 2006.

Another big honor like this will likely only increase the chatter that Blake could be sold to a big team in Europe soon. But a couple of weeks ago, the Union goalkeeper insisted his only focus for 2017 is on Philadelphia.

“From a personal standpoint, I’m hoping to have an even better season than 2016,” he said at the time. “To be able to go in and be consistent and do everything I can for the Union — and maybe be the goalkeeper to get them their first [MLS] Cup.”

Bruce Arena rehired as U.S. soccer coach to replace Jurgen Klinsmann

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The Associated Press

Bruce Arena rehired as U.S. soccer coach to replace Jurgen Klinsmann

NEW YORK -- Bruce Arena is returning to coach the U.S. national soccer team, a decade after he was fired.

The winningest coach in American national team history, Arena took over Tuesday, one day after Jurgen Klinsmann was fired. The 65-year-old Arena starts work Dec. 1.

With the U.S. 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying for the first time, the U.S. Soccer Federation wants to spark a turnaround when competition resumes March 24 with a home game against Honduras followed four days later with a match at Panama.

"We need to build the chemistry of this team and have a common goal and really work on a team concept," Arena said during a telephone news conference. "I really believe individually and positionally we have good players and we've just got to get them working together as a team.

"There are no real secrets on how you build good teams: It takes a lot of hard work, it takes communication, it takes discipline and it takes some talent, and I think we have enough talent to build a good team and end up in Russia 2018. It's going to take a little time, a little bit patience and a lot of hard work."

Arena first took over as national team coach after the 1998 World Cup and led the U.S. to a 71-30-29 record. His contract runs through the 2018 World Cup.

"I don't view it as Bruce 2, but sort of Bruce 2.0," U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said. "I think he's got far more experience than he did when he had the national team the first go-round. He's proven and reproven many times at all levels of the game in the United States that he's an extraordinarily capable and successful coach."

A wisecracking Brooklynite known for blunt talk and sarcasm, Arena coached the University of Virginia to five NCAA titles from 1978-95, then led D.C. United to titles in Major League Soccer's first two seasons before losing in the 1998 final. He guided the Americans to the team's best World Cup finish since 1930, a 1-0 loss to Germany in the 2002 quarterfinals.

Arena was let go after the team's first-round elimination by Ghana in 2006. He coached the New York Red Bulls of MLS from July 2006 to November 2007, then was hired the following August by the Galaxy. He led the team to MLS titles in 2011, 2012 and 2014.

Arena was inducted into the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2010.

"I think 10 years later I'm better prepared for this job than I was in 1998 and 2002 and ultimately 2006, so I'm hopeful the experiences I had are going to benefit the program," he said. "One of the things you learn from experience is you see things a lot clearer and a lot quicker than you did previously, and the game has slowed down a bit, where I can see as a coach in my position how things are happening on the field.