Union wary of trap vs. winless Toronto FC


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

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

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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.”

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 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 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 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 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 Aug. 27 (the Union’s last win), Toronto FC is 2-1-4, while the Union are 0-5-2.