Inside Doop: Absences, losses continue to pile up for Union

Inside Doop: Absences, losses continue to pile up for Union

The Union gave us a glimpse into their future as two rookies made their first MLS starts over the weekend. But, in the end, a slew of key veteran absences were too much to overcome as the Union lost their second straight to fall further out of the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Here’s a closer look at the rough past few days and what lies ahead during another busy week that, if they don't turn things around, could sink their playoff hopes.

Three thoughts about the past week
1. The biggest surprise Saturday may have come before the game in Columbus even began — when the lineups revealed the Union’s attacking four consisted of two rookies making their first career starts (Adam Najem and Marcus Epps), their backup striker (Jay Simpson) and a winger who’s been mostly deployed centrally of late (Ilsinho). That’s because regular starters Chris Pontius, Fafa Picault, C.J. Sapong and Roland Alberg, among others, were all absent due to injury, suspension or Gold Cup duty. And, well, it showed. While Najem did look comfortable on the ball at times, the chemistry was lacking up top, the team strung together very few passes moving forward, and they finished with a grand total of zero shots on target in a 1-0 loss to the Crew. Head coach Jim Curtin likes to talk about his team’s improved depth but there’s only so much you can overcome on the road.

2. Although he’s yet to win in three starts since replacing Andre Blake, who’s currently at the Gold Cup, John McCarthy has looked sharp in net. And in Columbus, he made a couple of big-time saves to keep his team in the game. Now, the Union will need him once again Wednesday when they face Columbus in the second half of a home-and-home series. That’s because Blake continued his stirring run in the Gold Cup by leading Jamaica to a huge 1-0 upset of Mexico on Sunday night and into the title game vs. the U.S. You could say that’s a tough break for the Union in the short term — Curtin has admitted part of him has been rooting for Jamaica to lose so he can get Blake back sooner — but having a player shine on such a national stage could end up being one of the high points of the year for Philly, especially given the current trajectory of the club.

3. While the Union’s offense was virtually nonexistent in Columbus, they did have a glimmer of life four days earlier in Montreal when Fafa Picault scored his fifth goal of the season. But even that moment was marred by the fact that Alberg and Ilsinho appeared not to want to celebrate with him. Afterward, Curtin revealed that there was a heated discussion at halftime with those players angry that Picault didn’t square a ball for Ilsinho that would have likely resulted in a tap-in goal. Curtin said he didn’t mind hearing that but you have to wonder if there may be some rifts growing in certain corners of the locker room.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. It’s something of a bizarre scheduling quirk that the Union meet the same Crew team Wednesday that they just played four days ago on Wednesday night at Talen Energy Stadium. But Curtin will hope that the game — and Philly’s lineup too — will look a lot different. Although Pontius and Blake will still be gone, squaring off in the U.S. vs. Jamaica Gold Cup final across on the same night, Picault and Sapong could return from their minor injuries and Alberg's set to come back from his one-game suspension. Of course, the Crew could also get some reinforcements with star playmaker Federico Higuain working to recover from a right knee sprain.

2. Even if the Union weren’t missing guys anyway, Curtin might still tinker with the lineups during a four-game-in-11-days stretch; after Wednesday’s matchup vs. the Crew, they travel to New England to take on the Revolution on Saturday. Veteran center back Oguchi Onyewu will likely be plugged back into the lineup after he was given a rest this past weekend and his fill-in, Josh Yaro, had what basically amounted to an own goal in the loss. Will Curtin opt to give any other guys a rest in either of the next two games?

3. Almost lost in the storylines of Saturday’s game was the return of captain Alejandro Bedoya, who had missed the three previous contests due to captaining the U.S. national team at the Gold Cup group stages and the birth of his second child. The true test now for the Union captain will be to see if he and fellow veteran central midfielder Haris Medunjanin can right the ship before it’s too late.

Stat of the week
With his season debut in Columbus, Charlie Davies became the 23rd Union player to play in a league game this year.

Quote of the week
“It feels amazing. As a kid when you dream of playing professional soccer in front of big crowds and stuff, it’s great to have that first start and put it in the books.”

— Union winger Marcus Epps

Player of the week
John McCarthy was one of the only bright spots in Columbus, making the kind of saves that would make Andre Blake proud.

U.S. men's soccer team blanks El Salvador in Gold Cup at Lincoln Financial Field

U.S. men's soccer team blanks El Salvador in Gold Cup at Lincoln Financial Field

The U.S. men’s national team knows how to protect its Philly turf.

A year after shutting out Paraguay in the Copa America Centenario at Lincoln Financial Field, the American soccer stars returned to the Eagles’ home stadium and shut off El Salvador, 2-0, in the Gold Cup quarterfinals Wednesday night.

Defenders Omar Gonzalez and Eric Lichaj scored for the U.S., who advance to face Costa Rica in the semifinals of the tournament for CONCACAF supremacy.

But despite the shutout — and the fact that they’re moving on — the win didn’t exactly have U.S. head coach Bruce Arena in a jovial mood.

“I thought we had a difficult time tonight,” Arena said. “Our timing wasn’t good. We didn’t deal with the physicality. The game had no rhythm with all of the fouls and players falling on the ground. And we weren’t good on top of it.”

Arena was particularly upset about some of the more physical aspects of the game, saying that he didn’t think “games should look like that” with all the fouls and time wasting.

One particular play stood above the rest — and it took the term “physical” to a whole new level as El Salvador’s Henry Romero literally bit U.S. striker Jozy Altidore in the shoulder while defending him in the box on a corner kick.

It appeared that Altidore also got his nipple grabbed by Romero — something he was furious about at the time but able to laugh about afterwards.

“My girl’s mad at me,” Altidore said. “She’s mad at me, she’s mad at Romero, because she’s like, ‘Only I can bite you, only I can grab your nipples.’” 

Incredibly, U.S. defender Omar Gonzalez was also bitten later in the second half by Darwin Ceren. Neither Romero or Ceren were carded but could possibly draw retroactive punishments from CONCACAF.

“When the guy bit me, I was a bit shocked,” Gonzalez said. “But you have to move on as quick as possible and look forward to the next play.”

“There should have been players sent off in my opinion,” Arena added. “These games aren’t easy. Clearly I would think the referee doesn’t want to send anyone off. But it was a night where on a couple of occasions perhaps it would have gotten the game headed in the right direction.”

Of course, Gonzalez did enjoy the best kind of revenge, getting his head on the end of a 41st-minute free kick from Michael Bradley to put the Americans on the board.

The U.S. then made it 2-0 right before halftime when Lichaj scored his first international goal following a marvelous spin and through ball from Clint Dempsey.

“I don’t know if it was a few years coming,” said Lichaj, who made his first appearance with the U.S. national team in Chester back in 2010. “But I was just excited to score.”

Longtime USMNT stars Bradley, Dempsey, Altidore and goalkeeper Tim Howard were four of the six players called up by Arena for the knockout stage of the tournament after a young, untested roster helped the team win Group B — albeit unconvincingly — with wins over Martinique and Nicaragua and a draw with Panama.

And although they did deliver — on top of the Bradley and Dempsey assists, Howard came through with one big early save en route to the shutout — no one seemed particularly happy about the performance.

“There was not much rhythm in the game today — a lot of stoppages because of all the fouls,” Dempsey said. “You just gotta try to be smart, see your way through the game. It wasn’t pretty but we got the right result.”

The Americans know they’ll need to be better in the next round against Costa Rica, who defeated Panama, 1-0, in the first game of Wednesday’s doubleheader with fans from all four countries — 31,635 in all — packing the Linc.

The U.S. national team is looking to win its sixth Gold Cup and avenge an uninspired fourth-place finish in the last Gold Cup, two years ago.

“The great thing is we have a really deep roster and we’re able to keep the team somewhat fresh for every single game,” Gonzalez said. “Tonight we got six new guys in and you can tell it was a bit sloppy in the beginning. We missed passes here and there. It could definitely be better but we got a game in together and we’re expecting it to be a lot sharper for the next game.”

Of note to the Union fans in the crowd, Chris Pontius entered the game in the 87th minute, marking the third straight Gold Cup game he’s played in after being called in as a late injury replacement.

In the three minutes that he was on the field, the Union winger did not appear to get bit.

Union-Impact 5 things: Both teams missing key players in Eastern Conference tilt

Union-Impact 5 things: Both teams missing key players in Eastern Conference tilt

Union at Montreal Impact
7:30 p.m. on TCN

After a 13-day break from MLS play because of the Gold Cup, the Union (6-7-5) enter a busy stretch with a tricky road trip that starts in Montreal tonight and ends in Columbus three days from now. Here are five things to know for Wednesday’s matchup vs. the Impact (5-6-6):

1. Missing players
The Union will be without a slew of key guys as Chris Pontius (U.S.) and Andre Blake (Jamaica) are still with their respective national teams heading into the Gold Cup quarterfinals. And even though Alejandro Bedoya was released from the U.S. national team, that was only so he could welcome the birth of his second child, which he did Tuesday morning.

That means Bedoya understandably may not want to leave his newborn daughter, Milena, behind to fly to Montreal for Wednesday’s game. Instead, the Union captain will likely join the team for the second half of their road trip in Columbus for Saturday’s game.

“Obviously, we’re a much better soccer team when he’s there with us, but there are certain things that are more important for soccer for sure,” said Union head coach Jim Curtin, a father of three. “The birth of a child, for me, is always something that is an incredibly unique experience. … It would be pretty darn selfish to take that away from him.”

Among other injuries, the Union will also be without Bedoya’s midfield replacement in Derrick Jones, who suffered a concussion in Saturday’s friendly vs. Swansea City and will, according to Curtin, “be out at least until Saturday.”

But the Impact will also likely be without some important players, including Patrice Bernier and Anthony Jackson-Hamel (with Canada at the Gold Cup), Ambroise Oyongo (right knee surgery) and star playmaker Ignacio Piatti (groin injury).

“You dodge a bullet because he’s as talented a guy in the league that there is,” Curtin said of Piatti. “We’re missing guys, they’re missing guys — it will be a real fight.”

2. Brutal schedule
It was recently revealed that, of every team in MLS, the Union have the toughest remaining schedule for the second half of the season with trips to home powerhouses Toronto, Chicago and Atlanta looming.

That means that even though it’s tough to win on the road in this league, the Union know they need points in Montreal and Columbus — two teams near them in the standings — before coming home to face Columbus again next Wednesday.

“It’s a tricky time, with the combination of the Gold Cup and the schedule,” Curtin said. “They gave us Saturday off, which was I guess nice. But then they crammed in Wednesday-Saturday-Wednesday, so you’re playing the same amount of games. I’d rather almost that they kept us in the rhythm of a weekly game. It’s a challenge.”

According to Curtin, there is at least one positive about hitting the road for a midweek game, however.

“The old Wednesday night is good for us because it’s not quite the same atmosphere on a Wednesday night in a home stadium,” the Union coach said. “We have to jump on them and take advantage and try to take points.”

3. Ilsinho back to the wing?
With Pontius on U.S. national team duty in Philly and Fabian Herbers out indefinitely after undergoing sports hernia injury, the Union are a lot thinner on the wing — once arguably their deepest position.

Fafa Picault will start on one side and it looks like Ilsinho will slide back over to the wing from the central midfield position he had been occupying for the last couple of months. That means Roland Alberg, who had lost that No. 10 spot, is in line to start his first MLS game since early May and play alongside Ilsinho in Montreal.

“They’re both experienced players, and I’m totally comfortable with them being on the field together,” Curtin said. “We will have a little more possession. They’re guys that are very good on the ball. I’m comfortable in that regard.”

Curtin added that speedy rookie Marcus Epps will continue to be a top winger off the bench while Herbers recovers from surgery (which could be up to the next eight weeks).

“Every time he comes into a game he changes it,” Curtin said of Epps.

4. Players to watch
Union: If Bedoya doesn’t make the trip to Montreal, Warren Creavalle will almost certainly get the start in the midfield alongside Haris Medunjanin. Although it will only be his second start of the season, Creavalle is a seasoned MLS player who started 21 games last season, so he should be up for the challenge. And look for veteran Brian Carroll to back him up and possibly make his season debut if the Union are holding a late lead.

Impact: Since coming over in May as a Designated Player, Swiss midfielder Blerim Dzemaili has three goals and four assists for Montreal in only 626 minutes.

5. This and that
• The Impact are 5-1-1 all-time vs. the Union in games played in Montreal.

• The Union had a stunning collapse when the Impact visited Talen Energy Stadium earlier in the season, blowing a 3-0 lead for a 3-3 draw.

• Montreal just acquired Shaun Francis, but Curtin said he thinks the experienced Jamaican left back may be immediately thrown into the fire and see time tonight

• Union striker C.J. Sapong remains one goal away from hitting double digits for the first time in his career.

• With Blake gone, John McCarthy will get his second straight start in net after making six saves in a 1-1 draw with Sporting Kansas City two weeks ago.