Union's Kleberson shines in starting debut

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Union's Kleberson shines in starting debut

CHESTER, Pa. -- Though optimism was limited following the Union’s 4-1 loss to the LA Galaxy on Wednesday at PPL Park (see story), Kleberson provided a lone bright spot.

Earning a start and playing a full 90-minutes for the first time since being acquired for Freddy Adu on March 25, the Brazilian was a revelation at midfield for the Union, who desperately needed it.

“Jose did a good job in his first start,” said Union coach John Hackworth. “You see a lot of good qualities there. Good performance by him, especially to start. Probably tough for him to play 90 but you have to get the game minutes in. We weren’t thinking of playing him the full 90, but your thought is to keep a guy of that quality in the game.”

Kleberson’s quality was evident from the start, as he consistently threaded feathered passes to streaking Union forwards. The perfect compliment to speedy players like Sebastien Le Toux, Jack McInerney and Danny Cruz, Kleberson’s creativity opened another dimension to the Union offense not previously seen with Keon Daniel manning the central attacking midfielder position.

“It felt very natural,” Kleberson said through a translator. “I was content to start the game and an important game at that. I tried to give my best to the team and leave it on the field. The Galaxy have quality players which made it difficult.”

But playmaking isn’t all the 33-year old did in his first start. In just the ninth minute, Kleberson connected on a Daniel corner cross that was miraculously saved by the Galaxy’s Carlo Cudicini. He  finished the match with game-high eight shots, while the rest of the Union combined for nine.

“He was great,” said Union forward Sebastien Le Toux. “He did a lot of good things on the field, especially after coming here just months ago. You could see his quality from the beginning and for me to be able to play with him was great.”

While Wednesday could be considered Kleberson’s breakout game in MLS, his talent wasn’t a total secret. Playing 11 minutes in the Union’s 1-1 draw against Toronto FC on April 13, the midfielder nearly pushed the Union to victory, sending Antoine Hoppenot on a late-game breakaway. Despite his eye-opening play, Kleberson totaled just 29 minutes in seven games with the Union before his start against the Galaxy.

And that was just fine with him.

“I was looking forward to getting my first start,” Kleberson said. “Coming here, adjusting to the American game and waiting on the bench, I have been observing it the last few weeks. To get my first start was a big deal to me. I’m glad John Hackworth had the confidence in me and I wanted to reward him for that confidence.”

According to Hackworth, Kleberson’s lack of playing time was a direct result of his fitness as the coach didn’t feel like Kleberson could manage a productive 90 minutes. And though he ran out of gas late in the game, he still left an impression.

“He had a good game though he might have been a bit tired at the end since he hasn’t played,” said Le Toux. “But you can see his creativity and he will continue to do that and get better after every game.”

Asked if his first start means he will be in the starting lineup on Saturday against the Chicago Fire, Kleberson just shrugged.

“That’s up to John, he makes the decisions that are best for the team,” he said. “I will follow whatever that is.”

Tranquillo Barnetta will not return to Union next season

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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.”

Inside Doop: Union inch closer to playoffs after tie in Toronto

Inside Doop: Union inch closer to playoffs after tie in Toronto

The Union left the country for a big game over the weekend and did not return to the United States with a win as they hoped.

But they did come back with a hard-earned point against the top team in the conference as well as the first MLS goal from their marquee summer signing, while inching closer to the playoffs. Here’s a look at Saturday’s 1-1 draw with the Toronto FC and what lies ahead with three regular-season games left.

Three thoughts about Saturday’s game
1. It took Alejandro Bedoya almost two months to score his first MLS goal … but what a goal it was. After collecting a pass from Fabian Herbers midway through the first half (just barely avoiding being offside), the U.S. national team starter took one dribble and fooled goalkeeper Clint Irwin with a clever chip over his head and into the net. You don’t see those kind of chip goals often and when you do, they’re usually delivered by big-time playmakers — the kind of guys the Union don’t usually have but do now with Bedoya. Head coach Jim Curtin’s decision to play Bedoya at the No. 10 attacking midfield spot with Tranquillo Barnetta injured also paid big dividends and showed the Union have more midfield options going into the playoffs … and into next season.

2. Coming into the game, a big storyline centered around center back Ken Tribbett, who got the start at center back about a month after getting pulled at halftime vs. Toronto. Another centered around right back Keegan Rosenberry, who was trying to bounce back from a rare off game in Portland the previous week. But, in the end, both players had some very good moments and helped limit the Toronto attack for much of the game, especially in the first half. Much of that had to do with another Curtin lineup decision as the Union head coach put two defensive-minded midfielders in front of the backline: Warren Creavalle, who also had a great hustle play that nearly led to a second goal right before halftime, and Brian Carroll, who’s now made two straight starts after missing six straight games with Plantar fasciitis.

3. Saturday’s game didn’t end without some late fireworks from the league’s hottest player, Jozy Altidore. Riding an eight-goals-in-nine-games streak coming in, the U.S. national team star struck the post in the 87th minute and was taken down in the box by C.J. Sapong in stoppage time on what initially looked to be a clear penalty. If you look at the replay from Sapong’s perspective, however, you could probably make the case that Sapong was going for the ball before getting impeded by Altidore. Either way, the idea of a ref not making a call that would likely decide a game (on a play that wasn’t a real goal-scoring opportunity) took some guts, especially as he got lambasted from the home team and its fans.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. The brutal three-game road trip ends Saturday as the Union, after a loss in Portland and tie in Toronto, take on the rival New York Red Bulls (7 p.m., The Comcast Network). As conservative as it might sound, another point would probably make it a mildly successful trip considering the caliber of opponent. Either way, the Union’s playoff hopes and seeding will likely come down to their final two home games against Orlando and the Red Bulls. At this point, the best they can likely hope for is to hold off Montreal, D.C. United and New England for the No. 4 seed in the East, which would ensure them an opening-round home game. Luckily for them, Montreal and New England both lost this weekend, and although D.C. picked up a big win, they did so against another team in the playoff hunt in Orlando.

2. Another week means another question about captain Maurice Edu’s health. It’s now been more than two months since he returned to the practice field and almost a month since he started playing rehab games with the Bethlehem Steel. With only three games left in the season, it’s hard to see him becoming a starter after being out so long with a stress fracture. It also doesn’t help his case that Carroll and Creavalle are both playing well at his position. But if Edu’s healthy, there’s no sense not utilizing him as a midfield reserve or even as an emergency defensive replacement. The question, as always: is this the week he finally makes his season debut?

3. While Curtin’s lineup decisions played well in Toronto, one interesting one was not playing Roland Alberg. With Barnetta out, many Union fans probably expected Alberg to start at the No. 10 position — or, at the very least, come off the bench. But with the Union never falling behind, Curtin probably didn’t feel the need to bring in such an offensive-minded player. It was an understandable move considering the context but one that was surely disappointing for Alberg, who despite having nine goals in just over 1,000 minutes, has played only 19 minutes over the last three games and has started only once since the beginning of August. By now, you have to wonder what role the dynamic Dutchman will have in the playoffs — if he has one at all.

Stat of the week
With his seventh assist, the rookie Herbers moved into the top 10 in franchise history in career assists. He’s tied for ninth all time with Barnetta, Alejandro Moreno and Conor Casey.

Quote of the week
“I kind of even surprised myself.”

— Alejandro Bedoya, on his first MLS goal

Player of the week
Gotta give it to the guy who scored one of the best goals of the Union’s season, right? The Union now hope there’s more to come from Bedoya during the final stretch of the 2016 season.