Union get much-needed win vs. Red Bulls

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Union get much-needed win vs. Red Bulls

Updated 10:30 p.m.

CHESTER, Pa. -- If you asked interim manager Jim Curtin, Wednesday’s match against the New York Red Bulls was a do-or-die game, with the Union’s dimming playoff hopes at stake.  

In response, the club survived.

Conor Casey started the scoring and Sebastien Le Toux finished it as the Union beat the Red Bulls, 3-1, at PPL Park.

“That’s the response I wanted,” Curtin said. “I didn’t know I would get it, but they brought it. To a man, every guy really, really brought it. Our response there was going to dictate how the rest of our season went. To grab three points tonight against an Eastern Conference opponent was big for us.”

The home win was the Union’s first since March 15 against the New England Revolution. They are now 2-2-5 at PPL Park and 5-8-7 on the season. The Red Bulls fell to 5-6-8.

“We made a statement tonight,” Curtin said. “Respect isn’t given, it’s earned and we had to grab it. We did that tonight.”

It took only nine minutes and an impressive individual effort by Casey for the Union to grab the early lead. After accepting a quick pass from Andrew Wenger, Casey -- who saw relaxed defense at the top of the box -- deked defender Matt Miazga. Moving the ball from his right foot to his left, the veteran striker found an opening for the 1-0 Union lead.

It was Casey’s sixth goal in his last six MLS games. It was also his ninth goal in 11 career games against the Red Bulls.

“As a team we’ve been playing a lot better collectively and getting a lot of chances,” Casey said. “Confidence is high with the group. It’s about riding that confidence right now and making the best of opportunities.”

Later in the first half, Union midfielder and leading assist man Cristian Maidana left the contest with a leg injury. He was replaced in the 38th minute with Fred.

“He called it a small, little pull,” Curtin said of Maidana’s injury. “It’s too early to speculate.”

And the man known as “Grandpa Fred” by his teammates made the most of his opportunity.

Off a counterattack in the 51st minute, Fred played the ball outside to Sheanon Williams, who moved forward and sent a low cross into the box. The ball deflected off a touch from Casey and right to the uncovered Fred, who didn’t miss, placing his shot through Luis Robles and in for the 2-0 advantage.

It was Fred’s first MLS goal since 2010 in his first stint with the Union.

“You have to be ready,” Fred said. “You have to be ready any time the team needs it.”

But the celebration was short lived. In the 60th minute, striker Bradley Wright-Phillips made it 2-1 when he was left open by center back Ethan White at the top of the box. He fired it home for his league-leading 16th goal of the season and fifth in his last four games.

“He took a touch in the top 18, and I should have closed that space,” White said. “He spinned it around me, used me as a shield. Zac [MacMath] didn’t make the save, and I didn’t step out in time.”

Eight minutes later, a beneficial call in the box helped the Union reattain their two-goal cushion. On a corner kick in the 68th minute, while streaking toward the ball, Maurice Edu was wrapped up from behind by Red Bulls defender Eric Alexander. It was blatant enough to warrant a penalty kick.

Lining up for the charity shot, Le Toux pounded the ball high over Robles to make it 3-1 Union. It was Le Toux’s team-leading seventh goal of the season.

MacMath handled the rest. Covering up for lackluster defending by the Union, MacMath made four saves in the second half and five in total to preserve the victory.

“Zac bailed us out a few times there,” Curtin said. “He made some big saves for us, which is what you need, you need that from your goalkeeper. He did a great job.”

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.”