Philadelphia Union

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.

Union-Earthquakes 5 things: Desperate Union look for points in San Jose

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Union-Earthquakes 5 things: Desperate Union look for points in San Jose

Union vs. San Jose Earthquakes
10:30 p.m. on TCN

With the Union (8-11-5) now trailing in the race for the playoffs, the club, coming off a damaging loss to the Montreal Impact, must travel across the country to challenge Chris Wondolowski and the San Jose Earthquakes (9-10-5) on Saturday night at Avaya Stadium.

Here are five things to know.

1. Feeling the pain
The Union were devastated. With a chance to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff race last weekend, the club was instead dispatched, 3-0, by the Impact, sinking to 10th.

“It was a tough spot and really hard result for our guys,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “We’re upset in that regard but we have an opportunity to go on the road out to California, to San Jose and play against a revamped San Jose roster and try to get a result out there.”

It was a crushing defeat for the Union, who have just 10 games remaining and trail Atlanta United by six points for the final playoff spot in the East. Atlanta has two games in hand.

“It’s a hard loss to take for the guys because we knew a result there would put us back in the thick of things,” Curtin said. “Now we have to chase, which is tough.”

That tough endeavor begins Saturday against the Earthquakes, who are currently in a postseason position in a weaker Western Conference. The Earthquakes are 7-1-4 at home this season.

“We need a different mindset on the road,” Union attacker Chris Pontius said. “We’ve been tentative at times, it’s not easy playing away from home in this league but we need points now. We dropped three against Montreal so we need three against San Jose.”

2. Attack of the injury bug
Considering the Union’s current situation in the East, it’s a bad time for the club to get hit with injuries. But that’s exactly what has happened entering Saturday’s match.

Center back Oguchi Onyewu, playmaker Ilsinho, goalkeeper Andre Blake and midfielder Maurice Edu are all questionable for the game, with winger Fabian Herbers listed as out. Although the status of Edu, Blake and Herbers was expected, Onyewu, who missed last week’s match with a groin injury, hurts the Union most if he can’t make it Saturday.

“Gooch would have been in the starting lineup this past week,” Curtin said. “He’s done a really good job for us but a groin injury would have prevented him from playing. It’s just got a little too tough for him and we didn’t want to risk it.” 

Without Onyewu, the Union, like they did against the Impact, will be forced into using Josh Yaro at right center back, which would move Rookie of the Year contender Jack Elliott to his less natural left side. The scenario drew less than sterling results against the Impact, as Yaro struggled and Elliott appeared uncomfortable.

“We have decisions on the back line to make,” Curtin said.

The absence of Ilsinho, questionable with a right adductor strain, would also limit the Union’s lineup flexibility. Without the Brazilian, the Union will be forced into a combination of Roland Alberg or youngster Adam Najem at the No. 10 spot.

“He’s right in the discussion,” Curtin said of Najem. “Adam Najem is a good example of a guy who is pushing for minutes anyway, as is.”

3. Desperation Quakes
Holding the sixth spot in the Western Conference, the Earthquakes, led by Wondolowski’s nine goals and five assists, are hanging onto the playoffs by their fingernails. 

“We’re excited to be back at home,” said former Union man and current Earthquakes winger, Shea Salinas. “We’re playing well at home right now and we want to keep that momentum going.” 

Firing coach Dominic Kinnear in late June in favor of Chris Leitch, the Earthquakes have fared well of late, earning back-to-back wins before dropping a 3-0 decision to the Houston Dynamo last week.

“They’ve had an injection of life,” Curtin said. “They’re going to be an angry desperate team and we’re an angry desperate team, so you have two teams that need all three points at this stage, draws don’t do either of us any good right now. We’ll both have to be aggressive.” 

4. Keep an eye on
John McCarthy: With injured goalkeeper Blake expected to return to the lineup Wednesday against Toronto FC, Saturday could mark McCarthy’s last start of an eight game run. Despite the numbers and a 2-4-1 record, McCarthy has opened eyes with his stout play. He could make a statement against the Earthquakes. “He’s done a great job for us,” Curtin said.

Chris Wondolowski: His club’s leader in goals and assists, Wondolowski has three goals and eight shots on goal in his last seven matches. The crafty forward is the tip of the Earthquakes’ offensive spear.

5. This and that
• Between the Gold Cup and hand laceration, Blake is set to miss his eighth match Saturday. The goalkeeper did get his stitches out but remains questionable. “It’s still a noticeable cut,” Curtin said. “San Jose won’t be possible but Toronto is in the discussion for the target.” 

• The Union are 3-4-2 against the Earthquakes all-time and a respectable 1-2-1 in San Jose.

• The Union’s first-ever match in San Jose happened on Sept. 15, 2010, at Buck Shaw Stadium, which saw Wondolowski claim the game’s only goal past Brad Knighton with a header from Arturo Alvarez. Who else played in that match? New Earthquakes coach Leitch managed 90 minutes at right back.

Rookie Adam Najem hopes to prove he's the playmaker the Union need

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USA Today Images

Rookie Adam Najem hopes to prove he's the playmaker the Union need

CHESTER, Pa. -- Jim Curtin has made it clear he won’t use falling out of playoff contention as a reason to throw the team’s youngest, most untested players into the fire.

But the Union head coach also made clear Adam Najem doesn’t necessarily fall into that category, saying this week the rookie midfielder is “right in the discussion” to see more time regardless of where the team might be in the standings.

For Najem, though, just getting onto the field during Philly’s last 10 games of the 2017 season — starting with Saturday’s road tilt vs. the San Jose Earthquakes — is only a short-term goal. Long term, the 22-year-old New Jersey native hopes to emerge as the kind of attacking midfielder the Union can build their team around — in a role that’s usually been occupied by international imports.

“I want to kind of get rid of the stigma that Americans can’t be playmakers,” Najem said after Thursday’s practice. "And if they give me the opportunity to continue improving at the No. 10, I’ll try to show what I can do.”

The Union have struggled to find a consistently good option at that No. 10 spot — an important position that sits behind the striker (CJ Sapong) and in front of the two other central midfielders (Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya). Roland Alberg, a native of the Netherlands, and the Brazilian Ilsinho have both shown occasional flashes of brilliance but not nearly enough consistency, leading to speculation that both could be on their way out when the season ends.

At that point, the Union will likely chase a high-priced player, possibly from South America or Europe, to fill that void, as MLS teams are prone to do. But Najem believes he can be the guy, and that more starts as the season winds down can perhaps prove it.

“For me, I want to cement myself as the No. 10 wherever I am,” he said. “Right now, I feel if I continue improving, that can be here. I want to reward Philly for giving me the opportunity to be here. And I want to be that player they look upon to win games. If I get the opportunity, I have to continue working and show I can be the No. 10 they’re looking for.”

Although most of his game action has been with affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC, where he’s made 14 starts, Najem has seen more MLS minutes of late, playing three straight games last month, including his first career start in Columbus on July 22.

And while he felt like he showed for the ball and maintained possession well in that game, he knows he didn’t do nearly enough to help jumpstart a stagnant offense in a 1-0 loss.

“That’s something I want to improve on,” he said. “It kind of left a sour taste in my mouth.”

Najem knows there are other things he can improve upon, and he’s been trying his best to pick up little lessons from other midfielders on the team. 

Medunjanin’s quality on the ball? Bedoya’s vision and awareness? Alberg’s striking ability? Ilsinho’s dribbling moves? Najem has been paying close attention to all of it.

“The type of player I am, I like to take the best out of everyone around me,” he said. “Everyone brings their own style to the game and you try to pick up anything you can and implement your own style of play into that as well.”

Najem has seemed to do that well in training, where he often looks sharp and in control of short-field scrimmages. But as his rookie season winds down, it could be time for him to take the next step — if he’s given the chance.

“In my position, it’s obviously an important one on the field,” he said. “Being a young guy, you have to learn how to deal with that and deal with the pressures.

“If the coaches see I’m working hard enough or improving enough, I’ll be on the field. And if not, I’ll just continue working.”