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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Saturday, June 24, 2017

D.C. United-Union: Lineups and prematch observations

UNION (4-2-3-1) 
Gaddis- Elliott-Onyewu-Wijnaldum 
Bench: McCarthy, Rosenberry, Yaro, Tribbett, Alberg, Simpson, Epps 

D.C. United (4-2-3-1) 
Le Toux-Acosta-Neagle 
Bench: Worra, Robinson, Korb, Sarvas, Buscher, Nyarko, Brown 

- Three straight losses lead to a change at the back, and it’s not the one you maybe expect: Giliano Wijnaldum makes his second start of the season for Fabinho. Jack Elliott and Oguchi Onyewu retain their places in the center.

- So thin is the central midfield corps that Ken Tribbett makes the bench as the reserve sans Derrick Jones (suspension) and Warren Creavalle (hamstring). At least Alejandro Bedoya is back in the starting lineup. Otherwise it’s as you were in the attacking half, with Ilsinho getting another look at the No. 10.

- The big name for D.C. United is the return of Sebastien Le Toux. This is Le Toux’s third game at Talen Energy Stadium in a non-Union shirt – March 31, 2012 with Vancouver, then in the season finale in 2012 with New York Red Bulls. Expect a big ovation for the Union stalwart.

- Deshorn Brown starts on the bench for D.C., giving Jose Guillermo Ortiz another go up top. D.C., which played midweek, makes a few changes – in comes Lamar Neagle for Patrick Nyarko, who scored in a win over Atlanta; in comes Jared Jeffrey for Marcelo Sarvas.

- Looking for a matchup to exploit: Chris Odoi-Atsem makes just his second career start at right back. The onus is on Wijnaldum and Fafa Picault to get up the field and put the rookie under pressure early and often.

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Sunday, June 18, 2017

Red Bulls-Union: Lineups and prematch observations

UNION (4-2-3-1) 
Bench: McCarthy, Yaro, Rosenberry, Creavalle, Alberg, Epps, Simpson 

New York Red Bulls (4-2-3-1) 
Bench: Meara,
Bench: Meara, Zizzo, Davis, Lawrence, Metzger, Veron, Etienne

- The Union were strategic in resting veterans in the midweek Open Cup game, which allows some strategic reintroductions. Ray Gaddis regains his place at right back, Fabinho in at the opposite side and Oguchi Onyewu centrally. Chris Pontius and CJ Sapong, who divvied up 90 minutes on the wing against Harrisburg City, are restored to their regular positions, while Fafa Picault is back as the starter on the other wing and Ilsinho is in at the No. 10. It’s perhaps interesting that none of the reserves that performed well Wednesday impressed sufficiently to win starting jobs back (though Marcus Epps is again on the bench).

- When it comes to the holdovers, the central corridor is full of players who logged 90 minutes Wednesday. Jack Elliott (by manager Jim Curtin’s preference) and the central midfield pairing of Derrick Jones and Haris Medunjanin (with no other options) each went the distance against Harrisburg. We’ll see if that workload in the center of park has consequences.

- The Union get a big boost with Warren Creavalle healthy on the bench. Alejandro Bedoya's hamstring injury wasn’t pushed.

- Interesting that Richie Marquez is the odd man out today, not even in the 18. With Josh Yaro having done so much running mid-week, it’ll be interesting to divine what this means for Curtin’s center back pecking order with four healthy options.

- The Red Bulls have tinkered with the idea of deviating from the 4-2-3-1, but they keep returning to the familiar structure. Sacha Kljestan and Bradley Wright-Phillips both went 89 minutes against New York City FC midweek, and Felipe, Aurelien Collin and Alex Muyl went the full 90 (and apparently Aaron Long as an outside back). That could translate into a lot of tired legs, with the heat and high pressure today.

- So much attention was paid to the job that Tyler Adams and Jones did at the U.S. Under-20s. They’ll be going head-to-head today in the engine room of midfield. That’ll be one to watch.

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Friday, June 9, 2017

Keeping it 100: Jim Curtin on the century-mark in games managed

Hitting 100 regular-season games managed in MLS
isn't the biggest thrill in the world for Jim Curtin. (AP)
Jim Curtin’s initial reaction Thursday to news of his 100th MLS game in charge of the Union was a joking “who cares?” muttered under his breath. So monumental was the achievement attained Saturday at New York City FC that Curtin didn’t hear much about it until questioned by the media five days later.

To put it lightly, milestones aren’t what drives Curtin to work every day. They also illustrate something important about his aptitude for the job: For all his early-season pugnacity and occasional prickliness in the face of criticism, he was more than willing to stand in the line of fire and take criticism for his team’s struggles. When it comes to accepting plaudits for his team's accomplishments, he’s far more deferential.

Which brings us back to the answer Thursday:
“It means I’ve been here for 100 games, which is something I guess. At the same time, I believe in the work that we’re doing. I think we are moving things in the right direction and it’s a milestone, but at the same time, the individual stuff isn’t anything I get too excited about, for sure. Wish we could’ve gotten a result on the road against New York City FC for our fans.”
With respect to Curtin’s position, from a historical perspective, it is significant. Jim Curtin is the 31st manager in MLS history to helm 100 MLS regular-season games with a club in one continuous stint. His next game will send him past Ron Newman, who coached exactly 100 contests with Kansas City from 1996-99. (Curtin is also the longest tenured manager in Union history, a less distinguished benchmark.)

An intriguing pattern within the numbers is the proportion of 100-game managers that are active. Of the 31, nine are active managers. The 32nd member of that list will be inaugurated in August when Greg Vanney (93 matches) hits the mark. The full list of active coaches with 100 or more regular-season games managed (through June 4, 2017):
Read more »

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Monday, May 29, 2017

For improved Union defense, one weakness remains evident

The Union’s defensive record in recent weeks has gone from horrible to tremendous. It’s been rehashed many times, but once more for emphasis – dating to last year and including the playoff loss to Toronto, the Union allowed multiple goals in 12 of 15 games. They haven’t allowed more than one goal in their last six games, conceding a mere two times in that span.

Make no mistake, this is the foundation on which their turnaround his been built.

But though drastically improved, the team still has its vulnerabilities. And one forms the commonality between the last two goals they’ve surrendered, one of which cost them three points against Real Salt Lake Saturday.

Here’s the goal that the Union allowed against Colorado last week in a 2-1 win. Axel Sjoberg takes possession of the ball deep in his own half:

And here’s when Caleb Calvert deposits it in the net: 

That’s nine seconds for the ball to travel nearly 100 yards.

Fast-forward a week to RSL, and a play that begins with a wayward Chris Pontius cross that rolls toward the touchline that Fafa Picault and Tony Beltran pursue (the video doesn’t quite go back that far). Beltran recovers the ball at 35:14.

In 24 seconds, the ball is in the back of the net 90-some yards on, after a succession of nifty passing between the lines featuring Jefferson Savarino and Joao Plata and through a defense that never full resets into its shape. It’s a bit more leisurely a pace than the Colorado goals, but in the way RSL weaves in and out of Union bodies, it’s arguably more concerning.

The Union have gone through spells this season where particular actions have given them difficulties. They’ve been susceptible to moves up the center of the park, a weakness they’ve shored up. In years past, they’ve struggled with quick changes of field or set pieces or any number of issues. It’s a constant game of cat and mouse to adjust, and this vulnerability to the quick counterattack is the next one on the board to repair.

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Friday, May 19, 2017

Notes from training: Riding the wave into Colorado

Ilsinho has started two straight games at the No. 10 role. Jim Curtin
seems to think he could be up for a third Saturday against Colorado.
(For Digital First Media/Mike Reeves)
CHESTER >> For the third time in eight days, the Philadelphia Union will suit up Saturday night against the Colorado Rapids. That backlog of games could mean changes are in the offing, though that conventional wisdom opposes the Union’s red-hot form, in search of the franchise’s first ever four-game winning streak and enjoying in five-game unbeaten run, with the Western Conference straggling Rapids visiting to boot.

Some notes from training Friday:

- Roland Alberg won’t be a part of any squad shuffling Saturday. Manager Jim Curtin ruled the midfielder out after an injection in Alberg’s strained quad. He worked to the side of training with the goal of prepping him for Real Salt Lake next week. “Difficult to not have him, but at the same time, we know that other guys can step up in his absence, but it looks more like next Saturday in Salt Lake hopefully,” Curtin said.

- Two of the more obvious candidates for change Saturday are the oldest legs in the side – defender Oguchi Onyewu and midfielder Ilsinho. Onyewu has played every minute of the three-game winning streak, and Ilsinho has two starts in the No. 10 role under his belt this week. The Brazilian logged 64 minutes in the win over D.C. United and 67 Wednesday against Houston. Here was Curtin’s answer when asked directly about Onyewu and Ilsinho:
“You look at the data: Gooch plays a position where it’s a lot of organizing, it’s winning your duels and he’s done an excellent job of that. It’s not a position where it’s as taxing on the legs. It’s still difficult, but I think he’s up for the task of turning it around. Ilsinho in a newer position for him, I think has adjusted well to it. He’s doing a lot of running defensively. It is tough on the legs, but we’ll look at everything. We’re kind of still in the process of picking the final lineup, but he tells me he’s feeling great.”
On paper, this looks like a decent time to get Adam Najem his first start – at home, against a struggling team, maybe lower expectations. But if Ilsinho is ready to go, he’s Curtin’s preference, it seems.

- One area where the Union have options to swap is the wing, in part because Curtin’s system asks so much of wingers defensively. Chris Pontius and Fafa Picault have forged a bountiful pairing, but Fabian Herbers could slip in a start Saturday, given how the wingers tired against Houston and contributed to the Dynamo applying more pressure than Curtin would’ve liked. Curtin Friday:
Read more »

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Union-Dynamo: Lineups and prematch observations

UNION (4-2-3-1) 
Bench: McCarthy, Rosenberry, Marquez, Creavalle, Herbers, Najem, Simpson 

Houston Dynamo (4-3-3) 
Manotas-Torres-Quioto Bench: Deric, Anibaba, Holland, Sanchez, Remick, Wenger, Boniek Garcia 

- No changes from Jim Curtin this week, which should shock no one. Roland Alberg is still out, so Ilsinho gets another shot at the No. 10 role. Oguchi Onyewu and Jack Elliott keep their spots in central defense. And Chris Pontius stays on the same right wing where he’s been so effective late.

- It’s steady as you go for Houston, which makes just one change. Instead of risking Alberth Elis with a hamstring strain, he stays home and Erick Torres, MLS’s leading goal scorer, is restored to the starting XI for the Western Conference leaders.

- If you’re looking for a matchup to watch tonight, might I suggest the wings? Romell Quioto and Mauro Manotas have stretched opposing defenses vertically and horizontally, spreading defenses out and getting in behind. Ray Gaddis and Fabinho will have their hands full; they need to keep those two in front of them and prevent dangerous crosses from the byline in the direction of a dangerous target man like Cubo Torres. Given the steamy conditions tonight, expect Fabian Herbers to be ready to spell one of the wingers sooner rather than later since they’ll have to run plenty, too.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A perfect 10? Curtin gives Ilsinho high marks in new role

Ilsinho, here splitting a pair of D.C. United defenders in the April trip
to RFK Stadium, performed admirably in the No. 10 role last week.
(For Digital First Media/Mike Reeves)
CHESTER >> For the 16 or so months that Ilsinho has been with the Philadelphia Union, a false equivalency has sprung up around him.

The Brazilian is impeccably creative, capable of summoning tricks with a soccer ball that many dare not dream attempting. A career winger in Europe whose upbringing in the Brazilian ranks occurred as an outside back, Ilsinho has played his entire career on the flanks. But his skillset, to an American audience, mimics what is expected from a No. 10 – the passing, the runs, the danger but reticence to shoot, the diminished defensive responsibility.

To slide him centrally by 20 or so yards couldn’t be that different for him, right?

“Everything is different at this position,” Ilsinho said Tuesday.

Well, then.

Ilsinho capably handled matters in the middle of the park in Saturday’s 4-0 win over D.C. United. He made way in the 64th, just before Oguchi Onyewu’s second goal sent the visitors flying toward a rout. But his first foray of the season in the No. 10 role in the absence of Roland Alberg was promising, even if it entailed a good deal of change for the 31-year-old.

“Everything is new for me because I just played it two times last year, just the first two games,” Ilsinho said. “I have to move different, I have to run different. I have to look for some space, look for the final pass for other guys.”

For as different as the position might have felt to Ilsinho, manager Jim Curtin thought it extracted some of the traits the staff sought from him out wide. And while the final touch remains lacking – see the 21st-minute passage in which he does magnificently to create space but curls a meek effort straight at goalie Bill Hamid – the initial signs are encouraging for a player who hasn’t played there since the opening two games of 2016 when Tranquillo Barnetta was injured.

“I thought a lot of things we worked on him as a winger came out in the game,” Curtin said Tuesday. “We’ve been trying to get him to run in behind the defense a little more, since he has a tendency to come inside and not stretch them as much and hold the ball at his field. Strangely, as a No. 10, you saw the ball that Fabinho plays him over the top where he’s running behind aggressively, the one that (Steve) Birnbaum makes that hell of a play in the box to defend otherwise that’s a great goal, a tap-in from Ilsinho and a really good action from Chris (Pontius). To get him to do that, to run hard in the box, was really eye-opening, was good.”

“It’s different but the good point is that I have more freedom, I can move to both sides, left or right,” Ilsinho said. “But I need to run at it a little bit more. But it’s good. I just try to help my teammates, and I try looking for CJ (Sapong) or Fafa (Picault) or Chris when I get the ball. It’s different, but it’s good.”
Read more »

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Home sweet home: Time is now for Union to capitalize at Talen

Talen Energy Stadium has been anything but a happy hunting ground
for Chris Pontius and the Union this season.
(Digital First Media/Mike Reeves)
Laid before the Philadelphia Union this week is a notable opportunity. Twice, Western Conference foes will arrive in Chester. Both present compelling cases why the Union could glean three points from their respective encounters. Both are positioned as golden chances for a hot Union side to perpetuate its recent run of strong form in a place where wins are (supposedly) easier to come by.

For a team that has been close to broken this season, this week hardly qualifies as a make-or-break stretch. But history would suggest a huge burden for the Union to recoup a significant return of points against Houston Wednesday, then Colorado Saturday, to prove their recent four-game unbeaten streak isn't a flash in MLS's parity pan.

(I fully realize the ludicrousness of what I'm about to propose. To pillory the Union for months on end and see them endure 252 winless days, then assert that they can win four times in 15 days seems even to me the height of optimism bordering on insanity. But little makes sense in MLS, so why let that stop us?)

When this week ends, the Union will have played seven of their scheduled 17 games at Talen Energy Stadium in 2017. Currently, the Union stand 1-2-2 in five home contests, a yield of five points from a possible 15. That's suboptimal, but to what degree?

The Union have claimed only 33.3 percent of the home points available this season. Unsurprisingly, that paltry return doesn’t correlate well with playoff aspirations. Read more »

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Saturday, May 13, 2017

Union-D.C. United: Lineups and game thread

UNION (4-2-3-1) 
Bench: McCarthy, Marquez, Rosenberry, Creavalle, Herbers, Najem, Simpson 

D.C. United (4-1-4-1) 
Bench: Worra, Robinson, Korb, Odoi-Atsem, Ortiz, Sarvas, Le Toux 

- A win = NO CHANGES ALLOWED for the Union, apparently. Ray Gaddis is again preferred to Keegan Rosenberry, and Oguchi Onyewu and Jack Elliott each keep their spots even with Richie Marquez at full health. There’s a certain logic to that, and we’ll see how it works.

- The one change is one some have been clamoring for: Ilsinho as the No. 10. He doesn’t seem to be changing games as a winger, so why not try him centrally in the absence of Roland Alberg (quad)? The only slight issue in this: 60 percent of the supposed attack five (Ilsinho, Alejandro Bedoya and Fafa Picault) have a combined 0 goals and 0 assists this year. At least Bedoya gets another game in the No. 8, where he’s been quite good.

- D.C. goes defensive with the backline, with Steven Birnbaum playing at right back, an injury-depleted position for them. Sebastien Le Toux is sitting he bench with Patrick Mullins restored to the starting lineup along with Bill Hamid.

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Tuesday, May 9, 2017

From Lone Star to World Cup, on Derrick Jones' Under-20 call-up

Derrick Jones, right, has gone from Junior Lone Star's youth team
to the U.S. Under-20 squad at this month's World Cup. (AP)
“I think the future of soccer on the global stage relies on kids coming from the inner-cities.”

That sentiment was being relayed to me Monday evening at Penn Wood Middle School by Neewillie Saie, the first-team coach for Junior Lone Star. The club hits a milestone Wednesday when they travel to South Jersey to take on Ocean City Nor’easters in the first round of the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the first time that the club founded in 2001 has advanced to the main draw of the 104-year-old domestic cup competition.

Tuesday featured a bit of news with similar resonance for Junior Lone Star’s standing in the American landscape: Derrick Jones, the Ghanaian-born midfielder who traces his American soccer roots to Junior Lone Star, was named to the U.S. roster for the Under-20 World Cup that begins this month.

The two pieces of news aren’t related. Jones was famously plucked from Junior Lone Star at age 15, already an imposing midfielder who has grown into a 6-foot-4 stature, when the Lone Stars played a Union academy side. Since, Jones has been among the pioneering members of the Union Academy at YSC Sports in Wayne before signing as a Homegrown Player last summer, ending a nearly five-year drought in that department.

Jones was among the minutes leaders for Bethlehem Steel’s inaugural team and has established himself as a regular with the Union this year, playing eight games and making five starts. He was cleared to represent the U.S. in a competitive match just last week, having played in one match and several training camps for the Under-20s. Jones previously represented Ghana at the U-15 level.

I happened to be chatting with the Junior Lone Star coaching staff and players Monday, so I figured I’d ask what effect Jones’ ascent has had on the club. (It’s one of many quality nuggets for which I simply have no room in the story in Wednesday’s Delco Times.)

“It changes a whole lot,” said Bobby Ali, a co-founder of the club and now the Under-23 coach after a successful stint as the first-team skipper. “It helps us get a lot of players because when they come here, they think they’re going to get the same opportunities that Derrick Jones had. It’s a good name for us, a good name for us. People feel that when they come here.”

Wednesday’s article focuses on the first team, but it’s worth pointing out that Junior Lone Star also fields U-23 and U-19 sides. The Under-23 team plays in the Philadelphia Premier Soccer League (PPSL) alongside a senior team, which also plays in the National Premier Soccer League’s Keystone Conference. The ultimate aspiration would be to get U-23s into the Open Cup eventually, and that could come to fruition down the road.

For now, Junior Lone Star hopes to position itself in an important role, as Saie indicates. They have a foothold in a community where many talents like Jones can go overlooked, and greater visibility for the club means greater chance of those talents being spotted.

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Monday, May 8, 2017

Meet the new CJ: Why 2017 has been different for Sapong

CJ Sapong has had plenty to celebrate this season, including Saturday's hat trick
against the Red Bulls. (For Digital First Media/Mike Reeves)
Once or twice or seven times in the past, I’ve made the argument about a central deficiency of the Philadelphia Union: Never in franchise history has the club had a truly elite goalscorer, a top-10 MLS hit man to lead the line and paper over cracks elsewhere in the side.

They’ve had a lot of other positives – exemplary chance-creators (Sebastien Le Toux, the ultimate luxury player Cristian Maidana and now Haris Medunjanin), top defenders (Jeff Parke and Carlos Valdes, part one), even a goalkeeper of the year, hard as that may be to believe.

But the Union have flailed in vain for nearly a decade trying to find that star to reliably put goals in the back of the net and strike fear into the heart of opponents (pun intended). They’ve tried to go young, go old, draft and loan, literally around the world.

For all that searching, through the first quarter of the 2017 MLS season, CJ Sapong has looked like that elusive striker. Now we’ve heard versions of this story before – ah the halcyon days of #Sapong4USMNT – and it’s well established that Sapong hasn’t yet in his career been a double-digit scorer in MLS.

That reality caused a bit of tension following the Union’s 3-0 win over New York Red Bulls Saturday when that question was put to Union manager Jim Curtin (or at least was attempted; I’ll refer you to Kevin Kinkead’s timeline for further details).

So let’s attempt the query again: What makes 2017 different than the previous six seasons of evidence we have on Sapong? What evidence is there that nine goals isn’t the rigid ceiling it’s appeared to be, one Sapong has hit twice but never broken through (2015 with the Union and 2012 with Sporting Kansas City)?

Curtin’s response was short on details:
“He’s the same. He’s the same player. He’s confident though, and when strikers are confident, they go on runs, just like Bradley Wright-Phillips, when he’s confident, he goes on runs. David Villa, the same thing. It’s not one thing. It’s getting services, it’s a little bit of timing and movement in the box, sometimes a ball just drops to you and you get on a streak. The finish on a PK, he does that. He’s scored goals a lot of different ways, and CJ is again a very good striker who’s in good form right now, and when he’s confident, he’s as dangerous as anybody in our league.”

Since forecasting the future is not exactly my forte, let’s instead look at the present, which will tell you that Sapong is one of MLS’s most efficient forwards in the early going of the season.
Read more »

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Saturday, May 6, 2017

Union-Red Bulls: Lineups and pregame observations

UNION (4-2-3-1) 
Bench: McCarthy, Rosenberry, Wijnaldum, Jones, Ilsinho, Herbers, Simpson

Red Bulls (4-2-3-1) 
Bench: Meara, Ndam, Zizzo, Grella, Davis, Veron, Etienne, Gulbrandsen

- All eyes on the backline, where Jim Curtin takes the safe route. A week after keeping a clean sheet in Los Angeles, he preserves the back four as much as in is his power, with Ray Gaddis starting for a third straight game at right back instead of Keegan Rosenberry. It would seem at home that the Union could’ve gone with a more attacking backline, but instead Curtin remains shackled by the result = no change equation. Oguchi Onyewu steps in for Richie Marquez due to illness, the first time Marquez has missed an MLS game since the 2016 opener.

- Injury precludes Ilsinho from taking part for a season straight week, which allows Fafa Picault to keep his spot in the lineup. Still no Fabian Herbers in the lineup, but Picault is being given the chance to show his stuff yet again.

- Giliano Wijnaldum sighting: He’s on the bench, for the first time this season. Baby steps.

- The Red Bulls cobbled together a makeshift lineup in Wednesday’s loss at Kansas City, so the first-team stance returns this week, with many of the rested names restored to the lineup. Felipe went the full 90 Wednesday, so he could be one to exploit in the middle of the pitch, but Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan are plenty rested.

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