Union Notes: Carroll named team captain


Union Notes: Carroll named team captain

WAYNE, Pa. -- From Danny Califf to Faryd Mondragon, Califf again and Carlos Valdes, another year brings yet another captain for the Union.

But as Union coach John Hackworth announced his on-field general for 2013 on Monday at YSC Sports, he also made it clear that the physical armband means very little when the leadership has been there the entire time.

We have named a captain and it will be Brian Carroll, Hackworth announced following the Unions first day of training camp on Monday. Were very excited about that. Brian has earned it through his actions, his character and way he exemplified fantastic leadership last year in support of Carlos Valdes. The team was made aware of it last night.

Brian Carroll has been here for three years and the fact that hes now wearing the armband does not change the fact that he was a leader for the last three years. Honestly, you guys probably worry about that stuff more than the players or I worry about it. The fact is, we have good leaders in our locker room and Brian epitomizes that and he has the full support of our locker room. And thats what you want in a leader.

Articulate and soft-spoken, Carroll, 31, has been with the Union since late 2010. A veteran of two MLS Cups, 268 regular season and 20 MLS playoff games, the midfielder has been one of the most constant features on the Unions consistently fluctuating roster.

Helping Carroll is the Unions fresh, new experience. Unlike Valdes, a former captain in 2012, Carroll will have a nice supporting cast of veterans to help him -- a list that includes 31-year-old Conor Casey, 34-year-old Chris Albright, 29-year-old Sebastien Le Toux and 30-year-old Jeff Parke.

Brian has a really good group of senior leadership around him, Hackworth said. Guys like Chris Albright, who was extremely influential in helping Carlos last year. He will continue to do that. We have some new guys who are experienced players as well and have all, during different times in their careers, wore the captains armband. We feel good about that.

Carroll takes over the Union leadership from Valdes, who was loaned to Independiente Santa Fe for the entirety of the Primera A season. The nature of the loan is for one year, meaning Valdes could return to the Union

I dont think Carlos would have a problem with it at all, Hackworth said. Carlos and Brian worked very well together last year. Brian was a very important leader in our locker room. What it means for the future? We have a challenge ahead to get through this season successfully and thats what were focused on. When Carlos returns after a year, well reassess and sit down. You cant have too many good leaders, as long as they are working together to one common goal.

Banking on Valdes' return?
When Valdes was loaned for one year to Sante Fe this offseason, the prevailing thought was that the pugnacious central defender would likely never return to the Union. That Colombian National Team success would either keep Valdes closer to home through the 2014 FIFA World Cup or set him on a path to worldwide soccer stardom.

Hackworth, however, is staying optimistic.

Right now Im planning on the fact that he will be back next year, Hackworth said. But the reality is, if he starts for Colombia and if they get close to qualifying or qualify for the World Cup, that changes life for Carlos and for us in a big way. I dont want to speculate on what can or cant happen. But its an opportunity that we feel is good for Carlos. Were trying to make the best out of it. But at no point are we saying that this is the last time well see Valdes in a Union uniform -- because we dont look at it that way. Its simply a loan and it happens all the time in this business. It was good for both the player and club.

Left back problems? Hack no
Entering preparations for the 2013 season, the reigning belief surrounding the Union roster is that they needed an upgrade at left back -- a notoriously tough position to fill.

With Gabe Farfan, a midfielder currently doing a satisfactory job but playing out of position, it was thought that Hackworth would find a natural left back to allow Farfan to move back into the midfield.

On Monday, just days after the Union passed on all left back talent in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft, Hackworth shot down the idea that the Union were in need.

As a starting point, it should be said that Gabe Farfan is our starting left back, Hackworth said. He is one of the best left backs in terms of pure soccer ability. He might be a true left back but the way that we play and in our style, we want our left back to be an attacking player and hes very good at that. Not to say that he was perfect last year -- hes still a young guy developing into that position. Thats where we start from, then we have some guys who can play both right and left -- Sheanon Williams, Ray Gaddis, players that we could put there if needed and well certainly try those guys throughout the year.

However, the Union did make a move at left back, albeit for the future, in signing 18-year-old Trinidad and Tobago national, Damani Richards.

We have Damani coming in as a left back, Hackworth said. Hes an extremely talented individual but he needs time to develop and professional experience. We have a good nucleus of guys and I think it was a misconception that we were automatically going for a left back. It gives us a lot more depth.

E-mail Ryan Bright at ryanbright13@gmail.com.

Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Embracing the playoff underdog role

Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Embracing the playoff underdog role

Union vs. Toronto FC
7:30 p.m. on ESPN2

Riding a seven-game winless run entering their first playoff match since 2011, the No. 6 Union (11-14-9) will attempt to hit the reset button and unseat the third-ranked and heavily favored Toronto FC (14-9-11) on Wednesday (7:30 p.m., ESPN2) at BMO Field.

Here are five things to know:

1. Playing underdog
The struggling Union are happily accepting the role as underdogs against MLS Cup-hungry Toronto FC.

"It's a difficult task but it’s not impossible,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. "Not many people are giving us a chance. We've been a good team when we're considered the underdog and my guys have responded well in that situation. This is no different."

To fully embrace that underdog role, and in an attempt to wash away the stink of how they ended the regular season, the Union are treating Wednesday as a hard reset. For them, the playoffs will be a fresh chance to prove themselves.

“It’s a new season now,” said Union center back Ken Tribbett, who helped his club draw Toronto FC at BMO Field on Sept. 24. “In the playoffs, anything can happen. We go up to Toronto and it’ll be a good test. We have to stay sharp for 90 minutes and hopefully we can come back here with a win.”

And there is a reason to be slightly optimistic about the Union’s chance. Despite a 1-0-1 record against the Canadian side this season, the Union, who lost 3-1 in the first match, played much better on Sept. 24 at BMO Field. They clogged the midfield and ground the Sebastian Giovinco-less club into a 1-1 draw.

“It’s encouraging that we have gone there recently and played well,” Curtin said. “I think we have a group that has a belief, and one that is pissed a bit about how things have ended. They are motivated.”

2. Leaning on experience
While the 2016 Union will ultimately be known for their reliance on youth — a group that included Keegan Rosenberry, who has played every minute this season, Fabian Herbers, Josh Yaro and Ken Tribbett — it’s the veterans that will lead them on Wednesday.

“This is a pressure game for everybody,” Curtin said. “We have a good balance of guys who have played in big spots, like (Chris) Pontius, Tranquillo (Barnetta), (Alejandro) Bedoya. (C.J.) Sapong has played in big games, you can go through the list.”

Yet despite Curtin’s need for his veterans to lead, his reliance on youth means the younger players need to be reliable. The manager admitted that pressure can change how people play, and he is making sure the Union youth movement remains steady on Wednesday.

“We have young guys, there’s no question about it,” Curtin said. “These guys will play in their first playoff game and a lot of the guys on our roster have never been in a playoff game. You hope they rise to the occasion and I’m confident they will.”

3. Pressure on Toronto
Making their second-ever postseason appearance, high-priced Toronto FC has its sights set on bigger things than the Union in the play-in playoff round. That’s why Curtin believes the pressure is squarely on his opposition.

“I’d say the pressure is on them, they are the home team,” the manager said. “My guys should be loose, they have nothing to lose. It’s fair to say, they are the home team and they want to make a deep playoff run. We want to make some noise.”

Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney knows his team will be excited, so he’s trying to instill a high intensity but controlled start for his club.

“We expect a little of the unexpected at the start,” he said. “The game settles down eventually, but at the start, there’s a lot of emotion into it and you want to play with the right kind of caution but the right kind of intensity to put the opposing team on their back foot.

“The guys are ready to go, ready to go after Philadelphia.”

4. Keep an eye on
Jozy Altidore: It would be easy to go with Giovinco here, but Altidore has a recent history of crushing the Union. He has two goals in his last three games against the Union and buried 10 in 23 games this season.

“Jozy is a guy who can stretch the field and is dangerous,” Curtin said. “He’s not a guy you can shut down, it’s not possible. He’ll have his moments, you just have to make those looks as predictable for (goalkeeper Andre Blake) as you can. You hope he’s a little off on the night.”

Tranquillo Barnetta: Without added inspiration, the Union offensive catalyst has been one of the club’s best players all season. On Wednesday, Curtin expects a little extra from Barnetta, who is not returning to the Union in 2017.

“I’ve talked a ton about how special he is, he’s been a great attribute for the Union and a guy we want to prolong the season for,” Curtin said. “He’s played in the big spots, the big games and there’s something extra there for him.” 

5. This and that
• On the injury front, Union center back Yaro sprained his MCL while returning from a concussion. “It’s a two-week injury,” Curtin said, “so it will be unfortunate he won’t be part of the Toronto game.”

Warren Creavalle is also fighting injury. The defensive midfielder left Sunday’s match with a rib injury but could be available for Wednesday. “It’s painful for him,” Curtin said. “He’s a tough kid and he wants to be a part of this game.”

• The Union and Toronto FC are deadlocked all time, with a 6-6-5 record against each other. 

• The Union are 2-4-3 at BMO Field.

• Both clubs enter Wednesday limping. Since August 27 (the Union’s last win), Toronto FC is 2-1-4, while the Union are 0-5-2.

Union plan to lean on Brian Carroll, who's back in playoffs for 10th time

Union plan to lean on Brian Carroll, who's back in playoffs for 10th time

CHESTER, Pa. — Five years ago, there were few certainties in MLS ... but one of them was Brian Carroll making the playoffs.

From his first season in the league in 2003 all the way through 2011, Carroll’s teams got into the postseason every single year, leading then-Union manager Peter Nowak to quip, on the cusp of Philly’s first-ever postseason game, “That’s why we got him — because he never misses the playoffs.” 

But then things, um, changed.

Carroll himself remained a consistent player for the most part, but all around him, the Union were shook by turbulence, missing out on the playoffs in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, sometimes in crushing fashion, other times by a country mile.

Now, five years later, as the Union prepare to return to the postseason with Wednesday’s knockout round matchup in Toronto (7:30 p.m., ESPN2), Carroll is the only Union player left from the team’s last playoff squad in 2011. And you can be sure his playoff streak followed by his playoff drought makes the return trip that much more gratifying for one of the league’s longest-tenured players.

“I had a great run to start my career qualifying for the playoffs, carrying that through up to here,” the 35-year-old midfielder said. “But it hasn’t been easy of late. It’s a great feeling having accomplished that goal of getting back into the playoffs. Now that’s in the past and it’s already about what we can do and how well we can play and try to get a win, try to keep it going.”

With Maurice Edu officially on the shelf until 2017 and Warren Creavalle also nursing an injury, Brian Carroll will likely start in the defensive midfield, just as he did when the Union were swept out of the playoffs by the Houston Dynamo in the 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals. And he’ll play a critical role, shielding a young backline matching up against a star-studded attack that features two of the league’s top offensive players in Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore.

Perhaps just as importantly, Carroll will bring a veteran, winning presence to the lineup. During his stretch of making the playoffs in nine straight seasons — three shy of the MLS record — he captured championships with D.C. and Columbus, meaning he’s one of the only players on the team who knows what it’s like to win in the MLS postseason.

“Brian has been a guy who’s done it and won championships and lifted trophies,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “It was a long absence for him. There are a lot of guys in our locker room that have been in the league for a long time that have never been on a team that’s made the playoffs. It’s a new experience for a lot of guys. Brian will fall in the category of a guy I’ll lean on to talk with those guys and tell them what it’s like, what happens when that first whistle blows — and to really embrace the moment because you never know when you’re gonna be back.”

What will Carroll try to tell the young guys based on his past experiences?

“Everything is more intense,” Carroll said. “Everything is heightened. Just go out there and play without any fear. Play as best we can — connect passes, create chances, make defensive plays, play solid, control your emotions, but use the playoff adrenaline in a positive way. Put everything we have and lay it all out there. It’s one game and you never know what can happen, so hopefully we can go out there and play together and get something done.”

While it’s certainly true anything can happen in an elimination game, it’s also true that few people will think the Union can go up to Canada and beat a Toronto team that, despite stumbling to the finish, remains a top contender to win the MLS Cup. And given the Union’s history and the fact that they’re winless in their last seven games, that will make for an even bigger upset if the Union can return with a victory.

But even if just getting to the playoffs is an accomplishment for the franchise, Carroll knows winning the club’s first-ever playoff game would be a far greater one.

“It’s good to be back in the playoffs,” Carroll said. “We have a chance in the second season to come together and do something that maybe nobody is giving us much of a chance to. We’re going to go up there and do the best we can and enjoy the opportunity. Hopefully we’re able to accomplish something that nobody’s expecting right now.”

Once upon a time, everyone expected Carroll to be in the playoffs. But, as he says, sometimes it’s just as much fun doing things nobody expects.

That can happen Wednesday for a team that’s never won a playoff game and for a player who continues to turn back the clock every day as retirement draws closer and closer.

“It’s never a given,” Carroll said. “It’s a lot more difficult to accomplish this feat with more teams and better competition. But I think it’s a real positive step for our club and a good building block to do what we’ve done in accomplishing [making] the playoffs this year. Now it’s about taking the opportunity as best we can.”