Union wary of trap vs. winless Toronto FC

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Union wary of trap vs. winless Toronto FC

When they left Texas following a gutsy 1-1 draw with FC Dallas last Saturday, the Union had reason to believe their lackluster season could take a turn for the positive.

Their three-game losing streak had ended, they had scored for the second-straight time and with Toronto FC next on their schedule, the only winless MLS team, the Union were handed a golden opportunity to build on their momentum.

Yet, even though Saturday at BMO Field provides the perfect chance to beat up on a downed opponent, the Union, holding the league second-lowest point total, cant count anything as a guarantee.

They have no pressure on them, said Union defender Sheanon Williams of Toronto FC. The only way they can look is up and thats definitely dangerous for us. But were just looking at ourselves, we need wins as well and you cant really take anyone for granted. Were not sitting on top of the league looking down on everybody, were still looking up as well. So we need to keep inching forward. In this league, anyone can beat anyone on any given day.

Though Toronto FC is winless in its MLS campaign at 0-9-0, the Canadian club took the Canadian Championship with a 1-0 shutout win over the Vancouver Whitecaps on Wednesday night. That, mixed with a bit of winless desperation, and the 2-6-2 Union are wary of walking into a trap.

Were not looking at the fact that they havent won a game yet, said Williams. Were looking at what they do well and what we need to do to succeed and get points out of the game.

We want to win all our games and we are going to Toronto with the intent that were going to get points. If we play like we've been playing and fight and be aggressive, I think we have a good chance of getting a good result.

Union coach Peter Nowak agreed that his team wont be looking past Saturday and hung his hope on the belief that his offense will continue to contribute. The Union, tied for the second-lowest goal total in the league, received two goals from Lionard Pajoy in a 3-2 loss to the New York Red Bulls two weeks ago and a goal by Gabriel Gomez on Saturday.

They have not been successful for seven, eight games,and we know they are desperate, said the coach of Toronto FC. We will not change our mentality, its important for us to continue the same way weve been playing. The second half against FC Dallas when we discussed things in the locker room, it gave the players confidence to know thats how were supposed to play. We executed very well in the second half. We were more dangerous and I think against Toronto will be another step forward in this direction.

While things are looking up for the Union, injuries could slow them down. Without goalkeeper Zac MacMath against FC Dallas because of concussion symptoms he suffered in practice and losing Carlos Valdes and Gomez to afflictions during the physical contest, Nowak is trying to play the prediction game with regards to who will be ready against Toronto FC.

Carlos is OK, said Nowak. He doesnt have any kind of problems. He received nine stitches, so it was a pretty open cut. But he had no complications after the game so hes going to try tomorrow. Gomez is still pretty banged up and has swelling in his knee. Back-up goalkeeper Chase Harrisons ankle doesnt have any fracture but is still swollen. The swelling is coming down but is still pretty purple and is bothering him.

The good news is that MacMath appears to be ready to make a return. However, because it is a concussion, the team has to follow specific rules set forth by the MLS.

Zac is coming back, said Nowak. Because of the protocol, even though hes clear of the symptoms, you cannot just throw him into practice. He needs to go and follow protocol with rest of the guys. The goalkeepers right now are going to train with helmets, all of them. I dont want to have any kind of problems in the future.

Open Cup vs. the Rhinos
One of the interesting facets of the annual Lamar Hunt US Open Cup is that all levels of organizations compete for a chance at the title. From semi-pro to the MLS, every club invited has a shot.

On Tuesday, three days after the Union take on Toronto FC in MLS play, the United Soccer Leagues Rochester Rhinos visit PPL Park to battle the Union in the third round of the Open Cup tournament.

The Union received a bye for the first two legs and arent taking the Rhinos lightly, as the USL is the primary minor league for MLS talent, which also features the Harrisburg City Islanders -- the Unions affiliate.

I played in Rochester and it wasnt pretty, said Nowak. And then coached twice over there and wasnt successful. Guys, especially in USL-PRO, are always looking to go back to the MLS and always want to show their best. For them its a chance. For us, after the Toronto game, we have to switch gears but were gonna play with the first team, thats for sure.

The Rhinos defeated the Brooklyn Italians to advance. The winner of the Rhinos and Union will face the the winner of the Richmond Kickers and DC United on June 5.

E-mail Ryan Bright at ryanbright13@gmail.com

'Silly goals' have Union defense searching for answers after loss to Whitecaps

'Silly goals' have Union defense searching for answers after loss to Whitecaps

CHESTER, Pa. -- The Union have a defensive problem.

It’s clear, following the club’s 3-2 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday (see story), that Jim Curtin’s once defensively stout team has sprung a leak. The Union have allowed nine goals in their last three MLS games.

“It’s a lot [of goals against] and I’m pissed about that,” Curtin, whose club is 1-2-0 since the Copa America break ended, said. “Don’t get me wrong, we’ll get it fixed, but it’s a lot of silly goals.”

The goals allowed, while plentiful, have been preventable. Like on Saturday, when Union goalkeeper Andre Blake bobbled a corner that ended up in his net. That was followed by a turnover in the midfield by Tranquillo Barnetta that left rookie Josh Yaro out to dry on a fast break in the open field.

“It’s preventable for us, as opposed to teams picking us apart with 20 passes at a time and a good finish,” Union full back Keegan Rosenberry said. “This is completely different.”

So, what's the root cause of these preventable goals? Is it the loss of Vincent Nogueira, who left the team three games ago because of health reasons? Is it Barnetta’s move to a more defensive midfield role shaking up the on-field chemistry?

“I probably can’t pinpoint one thing,” Blake said. “I think that some bounces aren’t going our way and the times we blocked the ball before, now we’re blocking and it’s going in. I think it’s one of those phases where you don’t want to think too much about it.”

Whether the Union want to think about it or not, the goals are pouring in. They allowed just 16 in 14 games prior to the Copa America break and nine in three since returning — not a healthy sign for a team clinging to the top of the Eastern Conference standings.

“There’s no way we’re happy giving up this many goals,” Blake said. “I think we’re going through a phase and we have to hang tight, stick together and ride out the storm.”

Union's home win streak snapped, fall to Whitecaps, 3-2

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Union's home win streak snapped, fall to Whitecaps, 3-2

CHESTER, Pa. — Roland Alberg continued his scoring run (see story), but it couldn’t cover up for defensive mistakes, as the frustrated Union fell to the Vancouver Whitecaps, 3-2, on Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium.

It’s not a feeling the group is used to or likes,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “The guys are disappointed, upset, frustrated.”

The loss, their second in three games, snaps a 10-game home unbeaten streak for the Union and sinks their record to 7-5-5 on the season and 6-1-2 at home. The Whitecaps move to 7-7-3.

“It’s difficult to lose at home here,” Curtin said. “But we had a good undefeated run and we’re going to start another one.”

Thing were looking up for the Union early. The hosts opened scoring in the 14th minute with an eye-opening display of skill from Tranquillo Barnetta, Ilsinho, Fabian Herbers and Alberg.

Barnetta began the play upfield off a turnover from Pedro Morales. And after ticky-tac passing at the top of the Whitecaps box, a one-touch delivery eventually found the feet of Herbers on the right side, giving the rookie space to fire off a right-footed volley that decked the upper left corner post.

That’s where Alberg pounced. The red-hot midfielder settled it off a Sebastien Le Toux deflection and easily placed it home for his fifth goal of the season — all of which came in the Union’s last three games.

“The feeling is great, but it’s a different feeling than Wednesday,” Alberg said, recalling his three-goal game against the Chicago Fire. “I’m disappointed about the result. I think we deserved more today, we played a great game. But in the end, no points and that’s a disappointment."

But the Whitecaps would counter just five-minutes later on one of many Union mistakes. A corner cross into the box slipped through the hands of Andre Blake and onto the head of Andrew Jacobson and in.

“I’m disappointed,” Blake said. “It’s a mistake, and as a professional player, there will be times when you make mistakes. Unfortunately, that mistake cost a goal. I can’t dwell on it, it’s the past and I have to move on.”

The Whitecaps made it 2-1 in the 42nd by catching the Union overcommitted as a result of a Barnetta turnover in the midfield. On the counter, Kekuta Manneh torched Union defender Josh Yaro, cut to the middle and fired off a low shot that cleanly beat Blake. In the 84th minute, Christian Bolanos added the insurance when his shot was deflected in by Keegan Rosenberry.

"It was judgment," Yaro said. "That's part of playing. You make mistakes that cause a goal like that. It's not great, but there's nothing I can do about it now. I just have to let it go and move on."

It was the eighth goal the Union allowed in their last three games.

You win or you learn,” Curtin said. “And we’re learning right now.”

The Union fought back in stoppage time, when a corner was headed by Walter Restrepo back into the crease where Chris Pontius was waiting to make the finish. However, the match ended seconds after, 3-2.

“It’s a big win for us and a very important win,” Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson said. “Today, we wanted to show a little character and I think we showed a lot of character. Credit to the guys, it’s not an easy place to come. We’ve never won here, but we have tonight.”

Union-Whitecaps 5 things: Looking to make history at home

Union-Whitecaps 5 things: Looking to make history at home

Union vs. Whitecaps
7 p.m. on CSN (Pregame Live at 6:30 p.m.)

Fresh off a wild win over the Chicago Fire on Wednesday, the Roland Alberg-led Union (7-4-5) look to continue their winning run at home against the Western Conference Vancouver Whitecaps (6-7-3) Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium.

Here are five things to know for the matchup:

1. Alberg’s explosion
For much of the 2016 season to date, Alberg appeared to be the odd man out in the Union’s lineup. While Alberg worked on his defensive posturing, Union manager Jim Curtin stuck the Dutch midfielder behind Tranquillo Barnetta and Chris Pontius on the offensive depth chart.

But since being let loose in the first game of the U.S. Open Cup, Alberg has proven he belongs.

“He’s great around the goal, that is for certain,” Curtin said. “He hits a heavy ball, great left foot, makes great decisions around the goal, can pass. It’s good to get him going in terms of defensive running, he has really worked hard on that, he’s worked his tail off.”

The work is paying off for the first-year Union attacker, as he scored twice against the Harrisburg City Islanders, notched a goal against New York City FC and then buried the Chicago Fire with a hat trick.

It was a lucrative week and a promising development for the Union heading into Saturday. 

“He give us a calmness on the ball, and we were very happy for him,” Curtin said. “He’s put in a lot. He did a great job getting the goals for us, he’s carrying us to be honest.”

2. Sloppy defense
Though the Union found an offensive answer in Alberg, they haven’t found one recently on defense. The once defensively-stout Union have relaxed a bit, allowing three goals in two consecutive games.

“Three goals given up is not something that we want each game,” Union fullback Keegan Rosenberry said. “Jim talks about it game in, game out, the one goal per game average. We can do better. We can do better in possession, we can do better in limiting counterattacks.”

But if the Union have a surprise characteristic this season, it’s the ability to fight through defensive adversity and fight back in games. Despite going down 3-0 against NYCFC, the Union nearly fought back to tie the game, eventually losing, 3-2. Against the Fire, they gave up the opening goal to David Accam just two minutes into the game before scoring four unanswered. 

“No one hangs their head here,” Pontius said. “We all get back to work. That’s been the mentality of the group. Even 3-0 down at NYC. No one gave in. We kept working at it and ended up tying that game. The resilience of this group is good.”

3. Skillful but inconsistent
Consistency, or lack thereof, has been the theme of the season for the Whitecaps. After ripping off three straight wins in early May, Carl Robinson’s club went 0-2-1, or 1-4-1, if you count the Amway Canadian Championship (Canada’s Open Cup).

But despite their record, the Union are wary of the Whitecaps’ skill.

“They find ways to get points,” Curtin said. “They’re a team that has individual guys who can beat you off the dribble. They have crafty, clever, dynamic individuals. But they’ve conceded some goals this year, so we’ll be looking to attack on our home field.”

Making matters worse, the Whitecaps, who are sitting sixth in the Western Conference, haven't defended well of late, giving up 15 goals in their last seven MLS games.

“You always try to get better,” Whitecaps midfielder Andrew Jacobson said. “I think we just expected to be great defensively, but I think it’ll come. As the team starts playing better and gets rhythm in the attack, it’ll help our defense as well.”

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: Although Fabian Herbers has done a commendable job filling in for injured C.J. Sapong, the Union could use their physical leading scorer back. Lucky for them, that could happen this Saturday in a minor role, according to Curtin. “C.J. has been working out on the field, he’s able to cut and he’s running hard,” the coach said. "We’re optimistic that he’ll play a role [on Saturday].”

Whitecaps: On a team full of skillful talent, Pedro Morales, a midfielder, leads the Whitecaps in goals with six and assists with three. “The key is Pedro Morales," Curtin said. “He draws a lot of penalty kicks, so you have to be smart with one-on-one defending in the box.”

5. This and that
• The Union are 2-2-2 against the Whitecaps all-time and 1-0-2 against them at Talen Energy Stadium. 

• With a 6-0-2 record at home this season, the Union are riding a 10-game unbeaten streak at Talen Energy Stadium, tying a franchise record. “That’s a credit to our fans, our players, we’ve made it a tough place to play,” Curtin said. “We’ve been good at home and want to keep that going.”

• The Union are looking for a set back line. But that hasn’t been an easy task with Ken Tribbett and Josh Yaro competing admirably for the spot. “We have four good center backs,” said Curtin, who wouldn’t reveal who will play next to Richie Marquez on Saturday. “Ken brings a different skill set, he has the aerial presence and size. Josh brings a little more speed.”