Union view Saturday's friendly as chance to stay sharp

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Union view Saturday's friendly as chance to stay sharp

CHESTER, Pa. -- Between Freddy Adu being traded, Bakary Soumare’s request to leave and a road test against rival New York Red Bulls the following week, an International Friendly against Club Universidad Nacional A.C. on Saturday at PPL Park has taken a back seat in terms of club importance.

But that doesn’t mean the Union won’t try to make the most of it.

“We’re focused on New York,” Union coach John Hackworth admitted. “Normally, I would have done some scouting on Pumas to this point but I haven’t even done that. I’ve let my assistant handle that because a couple things have come up that require my attention. The reality is that our focus is on New York, but this game allows us a competitive situation to play in and see if what we’re doing in training is working on the game field.”

In the past, the Union’s international friendlies have landed in the dead middle of the season, disrupting whatever flow the team possessed. And though facing Mexico City-based club Pumas comes early in 2013, the 2-1-0 Union aren’t afraid.

“From where I’m sitting, I think it’s good for us. It allows us to push through the week but still keep in the rhythm with a game,” said Hackworth, whose club is on a two-game winning streak. “In the past, when you get out of rhythm and you have a big break, it can throw things off. With us playing well you want to continue along the same process and that’s what we’re doing.”

Hackworth noted that the friendly allows his club to still prepare for a game without the late-week stress. He was also excited about getting non-starters, about 10 to be exact, a chance for playing time.

“It allows us to keep in a rhythm and allows us to take pressure off our preparation,” Hackworth said. “Normally, if we were playing a league game, our Thursday and Friday is dedicated to preparing for that opponent. We don’t necessarily have to do that this week. It’s an international friendly and we want to stay in the same rhythm, get a bunch of guys an opportunity that haven’t been on the field a lot yet. It’s good competition and you will see that on Saturday.”

Trying to dissect what the Pumas are bringing to PPL Park wasn’t an interest for Hackworth, who would rather see what his team brings than strategize around a friendly. Giving playing time and evaluating players like Roger Torres, Leo Fernandes, Antoine Hoppenot, Matt Kassel, Jimmy McLaughlin, Aaron Wheeler and Cristhian Hernandez, is what Hackworth is looking for.

Similarly, Pumas, who currently sit sixth in Liga MX, are expected to field a team of mainly academy players.

“They are a good team, they’ve always been a good team,” Hackworth said of Pumas. “It’s an honor and privilege to play against them at PPL. We’ll treat this the way we’ve treated all of our other international friendlies, we’ll go out and try to win the game. But our focus is providing opportunities and improving on things we need to work on. We’ll focus on that more than preparation for what they will be like.”

Although the young Union players will be seeing a bulk of the time, injured team starters might make an appearance. Players like Gabe Farfan and Conor Casey, who have injured hamstrings, could use Saturday as a step back from rehab.

Yet, whether he plays or not, Farfan sees the friendly as a great chance for everyone in the match to prove something.

“Anytime you get to spend time on the field it’s a quality time,” Farfan said. “You can always impress the coaches, whether it’s in training or in a friendly like this. There’s always an opportunity like this that comes along to help your chances at playing time.”

Union want to send off Tranquillo Barnetta with MLS Cup win

Union want to send off Tranquillo Barnetta with MLS Cup win

CHESTER, Pa. — Union head coach Jim Curtin knows it may seem like a weird situation to some.

Early on Tuesday morning, as soccer fans around the area were just waking up, the Union issued a press release that stated that Tranquillo Barnetta would be leaving the team at the end of the 2016 season (see story)

There was no trade. No sale. No contract dispute. No off-the-field issues. 

It was simply a case of a player — a really good player — deciding before the end of the season that he wanted to say goodbye to MLS and finish his pro career with his hometown club in St. Gallen, Switzerland. 

“I think it’s unique maybe to the American public and fan bases that a guy announces it and there’s still [part of] a season left to play,” Curtin said during his weekly press conference. “I think it’s strange for everyone to hear it that way. But in Europe that’s kind of the norm. To get out ahead of it shows what kind of man and leader he is. He addressed the team and didn’t want it to be a situation where something leaked out. He’s a true pro. I’m honored to have coached him and I want to prolong it as long as I possibly can.”

In other American leagues, of course, a talented but aging player with Barnetta’s pedigree might drum up a bidding war to try to get one more good contract in free agency before he retires, perhaps using a strong playoff performance to do so. But, as Curtin alluded to, global soccer is a whole different animal. And Barnetta never planned to use his 2016 performance as a launching pad to a new deal with Philly or something bigger on a different MLS team.

His plan all along was to retire for the hometown club he cheered for as a kid — and he made sure he’d have the freedom to do so when he signed with the Union last summer.

“We offered several years but he was very content and adamant about taking an 18-month deal,” Curtin said. “A lot of people say they’re not about the money but Tranquillo truly means when he says it. He came here at a very big discount to what his value was in the European market. And he had a goal of playing for his hometown club, which I respect at the end of the day.”

If there’s any knock against Barnetta, it’s that he essentially treated MLS as a short-term project, a way to try something new after an illustrious career in Switzerland and Germany, to live in a different part of the world and see different cities throughout the United States.

But make no mistake, he earned that right and he never tried to hire his future ambitions. And even if his tenure with the Union will be a short one, it’s been very beneficial for both sides.

Barnetta, for instance, learned about the grueling travel demands in MLS and the more physical nature of the league compared to ones in Europe, all while showing the sublime skill that made him a three-time World Cup veteran for Switzerland.

And the Union leaned on his talent and leadership at the end of their disappointing 2015 season and throughout the entire 2016 campaign with Curtin calling him “the best player that ever wore a Philadelphia Union jersey.”

“He’s a great example for our young guys,” the Union coach added. “He’s got a close relationship with a lot of the veteran guys. And he’s just a pleasure to have in the locker room. He comes to work with a smile on his face but when it’s time to work, he’s the hardest worker there is. A true professional. And the pedigree is the highest we’ve ever had in this club.”

You can make the case that acquiring players with great pedigrees hasn’t always worked to the Union’s benefit (see: Mbolhi, Rais), but it’s hard to find any fault in the Barnetta deal, especially when you consider Philadelphia got him at a discount and that Curtin and technical director Chris Albright orchestrated the signing at a time when the franchise was in a state of flux and sporting director Earnie Stewart had yet to join the fold. 

For someone that’s played in three World Cups, the Champions League and one of the top leagues in Europe, Barnetta may not be the biggest name out there. But getting him when they did was still something of a coup for Philadelphia. And the benefits will likely be reaped for a long time to come as the Union followed last year’s Barnetta signing with a couple of big moves in the offseason and this summer’s long-term acquisition of U.S. national team starter Alejandro Bedoya — the combination of which has them thinking about the playoffs and a whole lot more even as Barnetta’s departure looms.

“It’s something we want to celebrate rather than pity and feel bad,” Curtin said. “We’re happy for the time we’ve had him here. And now we’re gonna make it last as long as we possibly can. The rest of the games out, in the pregame talk, we’ll say, ‘Let’s extend this thing as long as possible and use it as a rallying cry.’ You don’t want it to come to an end. And when it does come to an end, you want it to be a special moment.”

What kind of special moment?

“We want his last game with the Philadelphia Union to be an MLS Cup.”

Tranquillo Barnetta will not return to Union next season

Tranquillo Barnetta will not return to Union next season

Tranquillo Barnetta is going home.

In an abrupt announcement on Tuesday, the Union declared that the skillful Swiss attacking midfielder will not renew his contract with the club and will return to Switzerland following the 2016 season to play for his hometown club, FC St. Gallen.

According to MLS Players Union, Barnetta’s exit will free the Union of $687,500 next season.

“The entire soccer community here was so welcoming and I’m so thankful to everyone at Philadelphia Union for making me feel so appreciated,” Barnetta said. “Playing in front of my friends and family and making plans for life at the end of my career where I want to live is a force I can’t resist.”

Although the timing of the announcement is a surprise, the move isn’t one. With Alejandro Bedoya now in the mix, currently playing out of position in a box-to-box midfield role, the Union will replace Barnetta with Bedoya at the center attacking midfield spot. It’s a position that Bedoya is comfortable in, playing there with his previous club, FC Nantes.

Bedoya played for the injured Barnetta in the center midfield spot last Saturday and scored his first goal of the season in a 1-1 draw with Toronto FC.

But even with Bedoya ready to take over, the Union will miss Barnetta. Since joining the Union in 2015, Barnetta, 31, has been one of the better possession playmakers in MLS, scoring six goals and seven assists in 37 games.

“Tranquillo has been a key piece in what we’re trying to build here in Philadelphia but we appreciate his decision to return to Switzerland,” said Union sporting director Earnie Stewart, whose club has three matches left in the 2016 season, and will likely make the playoffs. “We look forward to continuing to push for the postseason.”