Union can learn from Germany's Schalke

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Union can learn from Germany's Schalke

CHESTER, Pa. -- The losses are piling up and the frustration is building rapidly for the punchless Union, who rank second-to-last in the Eastern Conference with a stunning 2-5-1 record.

And while a midweek friendly interruption, just like what the Union faces on Wednesday at PPL Park against Bundesliga club, Schalke 04, may typically come as an unwanted distraction for the struggling Union, this one comes as an opportunity to get some work in and take a mental break before Sundays crucial game against Eastern Conference rival New York Red Bulls.

Ill let them play and give some players 45 minutes and some 90 minutes, to let them make a good run, said coach Peter Nowak, back from a two-game suspension. But when the league game starts on Sunday, thats the game we are looking forward to.

Without Danny Califf, who is still struggling with a hamstring injury, Chris Albright, Zac Macmath and potentially Freddy Adu and Gabriel Gomez, the Union will be fielding a team of youngsters against the German powerhouse. Schalke recently finished its season, 20-10-4, and will also be also presenting a young and largely unknown roster.

Its no secret were going to give guys a day off, said Nowak. We try to play our first team and give some of our guys and the youngsters a chance to player a successful team in the Bundesliga.

Weve never been shy to give our younger guys a chance. Its good to gain that experience and to see first-hand what these teams are all about.

Despite the younger roster, Schalke is expected to play former Real Madrid great and prolific scorer, Raul, who ended his career with Schalke on the final day of their season but will make the trip. Schalke also possesses US Mens National Team midfielder Jermaine Jones, who could see time.

Schalke is a team that will play in the Champions League next year and were close to the top spot in the Bundesliga, said Nowak. They have great players and are a team that has 10-15,000 fans come to watch them practice every single day. They are followed from generation to generation, even my father followed them. Its a very traditional and successful franchise.

With a track record like that, facing Schalke is more than just a treat for fans and an opportunity to gain on-field experience for the younger players. The Union considers it a meeting of the minds, as they pick the brains of their opposition and try to learn how to build a franchise.

Its great to play against a team like Schalke, to see where we are and what we need, said Nowak, whose team is 3-0 in friendlies at PPL Park against international competition. Discussions about structure, youth development and getting the experience needed to move soccer in the United States and find what we need for the future. Its good to chat with them and well have more of that.

Understanding the immense respect that Schalke brings to PPL Park is new Union midfielder Kai Herdling, a German-born player who spent almost his entire career playing within the Bundesliga.

Schalke is one of Germanys top teams with top players, said Herdling through a German translator. They are very well-known and popular in Germany. They have good fans, so growing up in Germany, you always kind of root for them to succeed.

Yet, while the Union hopes to learn from one of Germanys most successful franchises, the real story is what the players will take away from it. Dropping their last two MLS games, the Union can use all the momentum they can get.

E-mail Ryan Bright at ryanbright13@gmail.com

Andre Blake to stay in net for two more games before Jamaica call-up

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Andre Blake to stay in net for two more games before Jamaica call-up

CHESTER, Pa. — The Union are about to embark on perhaps their toughest road trip of the season. 

But it just got a little bit more manageable as head coach Jim Curtin revealed Monday that star goalkeeper Andre Blake will be in the net for both matches before only then leaving to join the Jamaican national team ahead of Copa America Centenario.

The initial belief was that Blake would have to miss at least one of the upcoming games to prepare for the marquee tournament that pits the best countries from North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. But the Union got a stroke of good fortune before hitting the road to face Orlando City on Wednesday (7:30 p.m., CSN) and the Colorado Rapids on Saturday (9 p.m., TCN).

“First of all, Jamaica’s been excellent with us — great to work with,” Curtin said during his weekly press conference. “We came to the conclusion what is best for both parties is that he is with us up until the Columbus game [on June 1]. So the Columbus game is the only game he will miss.”

Jamaica’s first Copa game isn’t until June 5 when the Reggae Boyz take on Venezuela at Chicago’s Soldier Field. But their training camp opens this week and Jamaica faces Chile in a friendly on Friday, which is why few believed Blake would make the trip with Philly to Colorado.

But getting the chance for another live MLS game — against a Rapids team that currently owns the best record in the league, no less — appears to be something Jamaican head coach Winfried Schafer valued more than a friendly.

And Blake will be happy to try to continue his MLS momentum after earning his third shutout of the season in Friday’s 1-0 victory over D.C. United.

“It’s great,” Blake said. “It’s always a confidence booster getting 90 minutes, getting experience and learning every time you touch the pitch. Every time I get to play a game, it’s great for me and it just builds my confidence. Going into Copa, I’m looking forward to keep doing what I’m doing.”

Jamaica will certainly be underdogs at Copa as they’ll follow their opener vs. Venezuela with matches against Mexico on June 9 and Uruguay on June 13 — two of the top 16 teams in the FIFA World Rankings and the big favorites to get out of that group and into the Copa quarterfinals.

But the Reggae Boyz will likely have a chance in every game because of Blake, who’s made several hard-to-believe saves this season while emerging as one of the top goalies in MLS. Against D.C. United, he made a stunning stop on Alvaro Sabario to help the Union climb to first place in the Eastern Conference, and was later named to the bench of the MLS Team of the Week.

“It was a reaction save,” Blake said. “And as I’ve said before, I’m in net to make the saves and do everything I can to keep my team in the game.”

Soon, that team will be Jamaica. And Blake can’t wait to play for his home country on a global stage, especially after falling to third string on Jamaica’s depth chart during last summer’s Gold Cup because of injuries and a lack of playing time in Philly.

But for now, he’s still ready to do it for the Union. And Curtin is grateful he’ll likely only have to go into battle once without his star ’keeper because of the fact that MLS will go on a Copa break for a couple of weeks in June.

“It’s great,” Curtin said. “Obviously his form speaks for itself. He’s a big part of us getting points. To go into two hostile environments now and know that he’s going to be in there is very valuable.

“Having said that, we are very confident in our two backup goalkeepers [John McCarthy and Matt Jones], so when the decision’s made for Columbus, we’ll make one that gives us the best opportunity to get three points. But to have Andre with us is incredibly valuable. He’s playing at a very high level.”

Defense-first Richie Marquez happy to play unlikely hero for Union in win over D.C. United

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Defense-first Richie Marquez happy to play unlikely hero for Union in win over D.C. United

CHESTER, Pa. — For all of his professional career, Richie Marquez has been a 6-foot-2, defense-first center back with no goals to his name. 

On Friday night at Talen Energy Stadium, he played the offensive hero. 

“It’s a good feeling,” he said. “I’m a defender and I don’t get to score often, so now I know what forwards feel like. It feels good.”

In the 90th minute of what felt like the host’s inevitable fourth straight draw, the game quickly turned when a foul and restart allowed Sebastien Le Toux a cross opportunity near the right sideline outside the box. The Frenchman placed a perfect right-footed cross that cleared the head of C.J. Sapong and went to Marquez, who impressively willed the ball into the goal for a 1-0 Union win over D.C. United (see game story).

“Surprisingly, we train like that,” Marquez said. “In our second sessions, we do some finishing like that, crossing and everyone gets a shot at it, so credit to coaches for that.”

Union manager Jim Curtin also gave his coaches credit for the pinch, stating getting the big defender to be more offensive-minded was a strategy the team has been pushing all season.

“Because he’s such a defense-minded guy, that initial ball comes in, and if it doesn’t go straight to one of our guys, he’s in retreat mode, defense-first mode and he’s running back,” Curtin said. “Mike Sorber, B.J. Callaghan mentioned to him to take a little risk and stay up there every once in a while. If you’re not in the box, you’re not going to score. Richie was committed to stay in the box and scores a pretty good goal.”

Curtin, a former center back, was happy Marquez was able to open his MLS goal account. Still, the manager would much rather his defenders go unnoticed. 

“Richie is a great player, a young center back who is growing in confidence with the ball,” he said. “It’s nice to get a goal, but I do like it when it’s quiet and we’re not talking about the center backs.”

Pontius revenge
Following the emotional 1-0 win over his former club of seven years, Union forward Chris Pontius, who was acquired this offseason, played it cool. The emotions weren’t what he expected.

“It felt like a soccer game,” he said. “Once you get on the field, I was expecting it to be different but it actually wasn’t. I kept my emotions in check.”

So, if it felt like just another game, the win wouldn’t be any sweeter, right?

“I won’t say that, I won’t say that,” he said laughing. “Some wins are ugly, some wins are pretty and this was one of the uglier ones. But beating my former team is a bit sweet.” 

Richie Marquez scores last-minute game-winner to propel Union over D.C. United

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Richie Marquez scores last-minute game-winner to propel Union over D.C. United

BOX SCORE

CHESTER, Pa. — Richie Marquez picked a perfect time for his first career goal. 

In the 90th minute, with the match on the line, Sebastien Le Toux’s right-footed cross sailed over the head of C.J. Sapong and to the feet of center back Marquez, who smoothly buried the volley to give the Union a 1-0 win over D.C. United on Friday night at Talen Energy Stadium. 

“My first mentality as a defender is to go back and protect my goal,” the 23-year-old said. “I was staying alive for the play and the ball came in from Seba. I just judged it and was able to get my foot on it.” 

But while Marquez played hero, he couldn’t have done it without the heroic second half of Andre Blake, who made two saves for his third shutout of the season. 

“It’s a great feeling,” Blake said. “I haven’t had a shutout in a while so to get this one tonight, hat’s off to the guys. It wasn’t our best soccer but we stuck to it. If we’re going to be a champion, we definitely have to win games like these.”

In the 63rd minute, Blake made one of his best saves of the season, when a play into the Union box was one-hit with an acrobatic shot by Alvaro Saborio. 

With superhuman speed, the keeper was able to extend his left arm and keep the ball out.

“It was a reaction save,” Blake said. “As I said before, I’m in net to make the saves and do everything I can to keep my team in the game.”

The win continues the Union’s home dominance, pushing their home record to 4-0-2 and overall record to an impressive 5-3-3, keeping the club atop the Eastern Conference standings. D.C. United continued their inconsistency at 3-5-4.  

“There’s a belief within the group,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “I think it’s clear. Even when it’s not our best night, we can win a 1-0 game and roll up our sleeves and fight. I think it’s a testament to the group. The belief in the group is strong.”

The two evenly-matched clubs weren’t shy in trading equal pressure early on, but neither side could find the urgency needed in the final third. But as the first half pushed on, it was the Union that began to take control. 

Led by the active play by Fabinho, who had the Union’s only shot on goal of the half in the 37th minute, the Union went into the break with 54.9 percent of the possession with three corners to United’s one. The score, however, remained 0-0. 

“I’m disappointed that we weren't man enough to see out the game despite that call,” United manager Ben Olsen said. “It’s a game that could probably go either way. We’re disappointed, but it is what it is.” 

The Union pressure wavered in the second half, but could be chalked up to the fact that the club was missing Vincent Nogueira, who suffered an oblique strain in practice on Thursday. Filling that spot was Warren Creavalle, who played beside Brian Carroll.

“Vince is a key to our team, so it hurts,” Union forward Chris Pontius said. “But we have quality guys who have played significant minutes stepping in. For the whole team, it wasn’t the prettiest of games and D.C. did a good job making it that way for us.”