Union to open 2013 at home; host Mwanga, Califf


Union to open 2013 at home; host Mwanga, Califf

For the first time in four seasons, the Union will open their season at home.

The MLS on Wednesday released its full 2013 schedule, which has Sebastien Le Toux and the Union opening their 34-game season against Sporting Kansas City on March 2 at PPL Park. One week later, the Union will see their first road action, when Union striker Conor Casey takes on his old team, the Colorado Rapids, at Dicks Sporting Goods Park.

The Union play one of 10 nationally-televised battles on March 30 when they face the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena in the rivals first meeting of the year. With the MLS continuing its unbalanced scheduling from last season, the Union will travel to Red Bull Arena twice in 2013, while the Red Bulls coming to PPL Park on June 23.

Similarly, the Union will take on rival DC United twice at RFK Stadium but will only host coach Ben Olsen and the United in a late-night matchup on Aug. 10 at PPL Park.

In other notable matches, the Union will welcome back former captain and current Toronto FC player Danny Califf on April 13, as he makes his first return to Philadelphia after being unceremoniously traded to Chivas USA midway through the 2012 season.

The Union will also lay out the welcome mat for Danny Mwanga and the Portland Timbers on July 20 at PPL Park. Mwanga, the Unions first-ever draft selection and first overall pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, was traded to the Timbers in 2012.

Jeff Parke and the Union will play host to the high-flying Seattle Sounders on May 4 and challenge reigning MLS Cup champion LA Galaxy on May 15, both at PPL Park.

In addition, the Union will celebrate the Fourth of July in tough fashion, when they face always-stingy Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium on July 3, before traveling directly to BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston to battle the Dynamo on July 6 in what could be the Unions toughest two-game stretch of the season.

E-mail Ryan Bright at RyanBright13@gmail.com

Despite woeful final two months, Union found stability in 2016

Despite woeful final two months, Union found stability in 2016

Shortly after the Philadelphia Union’s first playoff appearance in 2011, two of the top players on that team stepped onto a podium and talked about stability.

Sure, it was upsetting for Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Califf that the Union had just been swept out of the playoffs by the Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. But the stalwarts of the then-two-year-old franchise pledged continued improvements in 2012 if the same core returned and no sweeping changes were made to the roster.

What happened next remains the stuff of nightmares for Union fans. Le Toux, Califf and others were shuttled off with the Union getting little to nothing in return, the 2012 season started disastrously, controversial manager Peter Nowak was fired after orchestrating the puzzling moves (and doing far worse), and, you could argue, the franchise took years to recover.

Which brings us to the 2016 season.

Back in the playoffs for the first time since 2011, the Union once again had a short postseason stay, getting bounced out of the Knockout Round by star-studded Toronto FC on Wednesday night.

But just like it felt at the end of the 2011 season — before Nowak began his systematic dismantling — the brief trip to the playoffs feels more like a step in the right direction than anything else.

The season has ended but, in many ways, this feels like only the beginning.

Forget for a second that the Union finished the season on an eight-game winless streak and consider that three of their top players throughout the year were 2016 first-round draft picks Keegan Rosenberry, Fabian Herbers and Joshua Yaro — a rookie trio the coaches hope will remain in Philly for up to a decade.

Forget that the team had a worse record than any MLS team to make the playoffs and consider that they got to the postseason without arguably their two most influential players — captain Maurice Edu (who missed all of 2016 with injuries) and Vincent Nogueira (who returned to his native France in the middle of the season because of a personal health issue).

Forget that they were outclassed by a Toronto team built on the backs of superstars Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and consider that, for one of the first times, owner Jay Sugarman opened the wallet this summer to bring in Alejandro Bedoya, a US national team player who scored the second goal in Union playoff history Wednesday and will be a focal point of the team for the next three years.

There were several other positive takeaways from 2016, including the spectacular season of highlight-machine Andre Blake in goal, the career-revival of Chris Pontius on the wing, and the reliability of Richie Marquez at center back. 

And, to be sure, there were plenty of negatives too, including the late-slump of striker C.J. Sapong that coincided with the team’s late-season slump, the inability to turn the attacking bench trio of Ilsinho, Roland Alberg and Charlie Davies into a true weapon, and the hard-to-watch struggles of Ken Tribbett, who once again showed Wednesday that he can’t match up with the league’s best strikers. 

The key now is to fix the areas that need fixing (a big striker should be a necessity, for starters) while continuing to build upon the foundation that got the Union into the playoffs. And yes, that should mean keeping Jim Curtin as head coach.

Like anyone, Curtin has his faults. Deciding not to tinker with the lineup and bench slumping players like Sapong may have hurt the Union down the stretch. And his comments now about how no one thought the Union would be in the playoffs are both not true (CSN’s two Union writers both picked them to sneak in!) and unfairly diminish expectations for a team he himself says should be considered in the top 10 of MLS.

But re-calibrating expectations after a season is nothing new. Former Union manager John Hackworth did the same after the Union barely missed the playoffs in 2013, essentially saying he got the most out of his team and that it was a rebuilding season (which came to a surprise to some players at the time). Curtin and Hackworth also, perhaps, share a loyalty to the players they like even in times of struggle — which can be problematic but is a far better trait than Nowak’s old habit of tossing club stalwarts to the scrap heap.

Why bring up the Union’s past coaches when neither have been around for years? Because it’s important for this franchise to learn from mistakes at what is now a critical junction in its history.

The Union have already done that well by building a beautiful new training facility and hiring a smart sporting director in Earnie Stewart, who helped put the team on a better path in his first year. But it will be much harder to continue the building process by undergoing a roster overhaul or switching head coaches in the offseason.

Sometimes, a coaching change is necessary. But Curtin has a lot of good qualities that embody what this franchise is striving to be and has been a big part of turning the team around from the dark days. And as Union fans know well, a new coach also can mean going back to square one — which is not something this team can afford right now.

The only other time they made the playoffs, the Union were dismantled. This time they need to do the opposite.

Union's season over after MLS playoffs loss to Toronto FC

Union's season over after MLS playoffs loss to Toronto FC

For the underdog Union to overtake powerful Toronto FC on Wednesday in the opening round of the 2016 MLS playoffs, they needed a near-perfect effort. 

They didn’t get it. 

Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore abused Union rookie center back Ken Tribbett to help Toronto FC dismantle the Union, 3-1, at BMO Field. 

“Only one team’s season ends the right way, good and with a smile,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “Our season ends now, it’s difficult. Somewhere deep down in there, I do feel like Philadelphia Union fans and players can walk a little taller. We’re a franchise that is moving in the right direction.”

Toronto FC will face New York City FC in a two-game aggregate playoff. 

After a strong first five minutes of the match, the Union’s worst nightmare came true in the 15th minute, when Tribbett, who needed to be subbed for poor play in a match against Toronto FC in late August, flubbed a clear that bounced back to Andre Blake. The goalkeeper aggressively pursued the ball but wasn’t strong enough to get possession, allowing Altidore to make a crisp cross-box pass to wide open Giovinco for the opening goal and 1-0 lead.

“We were happy with how we came out, we put pressure on them,” Union veteran Chris Pontius said. “The goal was a crazy play, it just breaks down and they get a goal.” 

Toronto FC’s lead was doubled by Jonathan Osorio just three minutes into the second half when he capitalized off a corner. But the Union battled back.

The Union managed to trim the host’s lead in half, 2-1. Tranquillo Barnetta’s corner was flicked by Tribbett to Ilsinho, who hit it back across the box to Richie Marquez. The center back found Alejandro Bedoya wide open on the doorstep. 

“I thought our team pushed the game,” Curtin said. “Especially in the second half.” 

Yet, despite the mild comeback for the Union, Toronto FC put the opposition away in the 85th, when off a fast break, Altidore buried one off another failed clearance from Tribbett for the 3-1 final.

“It was a mistouch,” Curtin said. “If you give Jozy two looks, he’s going to get one. They were broken plays.” 

Although the Union began the season with a burst and flirted with being the surprise of the Eastern Conference, they collapsed at the end. Curtin’s club completed the year with four straight losses and went winless in its final eight matches of the season.

“When we started the season, nobody had us playing in a 35th game, for sure,” Curtin said. “We had a dip in form and we don’t hide from that. But we’ve moved forward. We know we need to get better in the offseason.”