A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
OKUGO PLAYS OUT OF POSITION, EXCELS AT CENTERBACK IN UNION'S OPEN CUP WIN
There was a moment, in the final minutes of the first half, when Union goalkeeper Chris Konopka was caught in the middle.
Unsure whether to retreat to defend the goal line, or whether to race
toward the ball and retrieve it from a troublesome spot in the box,
Konopka hesitated. And then Amobi Okugo, sliding six feet away from the
endline, swung his right leg at the bouncing ball
and booted it upfield.
The clearance looked all too easy. It almost looked as though Okugo has
been playing centerback for years. He played it Tuesday night for the
first time this season.
"I've been keeping sharp with fitness," said Okugo, who helped the Union post a cleansheet
in a 3-0 win over the Rochester Rhinos, in a third-round U.S. Open Cup
match. "I played centerback before, so it's nothing new. I played there with the (U-20s) and a little bit with the 23s. It's comfortable. You get to see the field a little more and I have a little more time on the ball."
The Union were in a bind. Captain and centerback Carlos Valdes missed
the game with a red-card suspension carried over from last year's Open
Cup, defender Porfirio Lopez and defensive midfielder Gabriel Gomez were
out on national-team duty and defender Chris
Albright can't seem to get healthy. Having traded Danny Califf earlier
this month, those scenarios left the Union particularly thin on the
That's where Okugo came into the equation. Sure, he played a little out
of position -- beside Sheanon Williams at centerback -- but so did
midfielders-turned-defenders Michael Farfan and Gabriel Farfan. Though
Okugo is a little undersize for that spot on the
pitch, he played well enough to help third-string goalkeeper Konopka
post a cleansheet ... and help the Union win an Open Cup game for the
first time in franchise history.
"We didn’t always defend as well as we wanted to at times, but we got a
shutout and to have Amobi back there as a centerback, I thought he did a
great job," said Union assistant coach John Hackworth.
FRESH OFF KNEE SURGERY, TORRES EXPECTS TO RETURN JUNE 9 AT READING
Union midfielder Roger Torres told the Daily Times Tuesday that he's recovering nicely from April surgery on his left knee, and that he expects to play next week in a pair of friendlies against the Union's affiliate clubs.
"I'm training with the team," Torres said. “I think I can play against Reading, Harrisburg."
The Union will play Reading United AC June 9, and Harrisburg City Islanders June 12. They next play an MLS match June 16, at home against D.C. United. Torres said he'll "definitely" be back by then.
Back then, the Union said Torres was on a 6-to-8-week recovery timetable. Should he return next week, that would be during Week 7. Not bad guesswork.
Torres got around the locker room pretty good Tuesday, after the Union polished off Rochester, 3-0, in a third-round match of the U.S. Open Cup. They next play June 5, at D.C. United in a fourth-round match.
Torres said the most difficult part of the process was the recovery, and not the surgery.
“The recovery was the hardest," Torres said. "You lose everything you had in the preseason. That's what's so difficult. But I started recovering a lot of it. I'm ready for the MLS games. I'll be ready by then. I'll be back more faster, more everything, you know?
“To walk? Maybe one week it took to walk. After that, I started to jog a little bit. Now I feel so good."
OTHER ODDS AND ENDS...
***Carlos Valdes and Peter Nowak were sidelined by red-card suspensions from last season's U.S. Open Cup, which carried over to this season. Valdes, who had stitches to mend an open wound in his forehead from a draw with FC Dallas, said he feels good and wished he could have played.
***Freddy Adu, who scored twice against Rochester, said he might miss the June 5 match against D.C. with a scheduled Lasik eye surgery.
***Chandler Hoffman, the Union's first-round SuperDraft choice, got the bad-luck treatment against Rochester. He was the third and final sub...and played only three minutes of stoppage time.
***The game was delayed 58 minutes with rain and lightning.
***Josue Martinez, who scored the other goal Tuesday, got 90 minutes. He hadn't played more than 60 in any match this season, and those 60 came in the season opener. He hadn't gotten more than 35 minutes in any match since.
# # # #
On an editorial note ... thanks for checking out the blog routinely this season. I took a few days away from it to recharge the batteries over the holiday weekend. But now that I'm back, the posts will be just as regular as they were before. Again, thanks for your readership. It's appreciated.
Wednesday, he became the center of attention without even knowing it.
Sheanon Williams walked into the PPL Park media room, took a spot behind a table at the podium and took off his Boston Bruins hat.
I asked Williams, a Boston native, if he expected the Celtics to take down the 76ers in the teams' Eastern Conference semifinal series.
"Hopefully," Williams said, "we close it out tonight."
Of course the Celtics didn't, but Williams drew a good laugh from the reporters in the room. Like it or not, Williams is at the center of more than basketball chatter. He's at the center of the Union's defense these days, a beleaguered unit that had been among one the league's stingiest at the start of the season. Williams was shifted to that part of the pitch following the trade of veteran centerback Danny Califf to Chivas USA.
Williams, an anchor at the right back spot since signing with the Union in August 2010, played centerback in the five matches Califf missed this season, for various reasons. He'll play alongside de facto captain Carlos Valdes there for the foreseeable future.
“Me and the coaches have had a conversation," Williams said. "And that's what I'll do moving forward, and we'll leave it at that."
Williams said he hasn't encountered any pitfalls in learning the position.
“I don't mean to disrespect any centerbacks, but for anybody to change, it's probably one of the easiest transitions," Williams said. "It's a lot of just reading the game and, if you can do that, you can be pretty successful. I would definitely say it's a lot easier than right back or left back or any other position."
Of course, switching positions means Williams is a tad hampered when it comes to making runs into the offensive third.
“Obviously you won't see me up on the wings," he said. "My first responsibility is to defend, have good shape, watch against counters, things like that. … I can't really give away the ball. I'm the last person except for whoever's in goal. It's a defend-first position."
Union boss Peter Nowak said, in the days after the trade of Califf, that he views Williams "like a captain," playing beside Valdes. Not bad for a guy who's been a pro for fewer than two full seasons.
“It says that Peter and the coaching staff has trust in me," Williams said. "It's a great honor."
HARD-WORKING LAHOUD'S OK WITH BEING 'THAT GUY' ON OTHER SIDE OF TRADE
The other day, walking into Springfield's Healthplex for training, Michael Lahoud said he encountered some Union fans.
They weren't unlike others he had come across since Thursday, when the Union traded Danny Califf to Chivas USA for Lahoud and allocation cash. But what Lahoud's learned, in his few days with Philly, is that Union fans can be blunt.
"There have been a couple jokes here and there that definitely, from
talking to people on the streets or going to places like the Healthplex
yesterday, a couple people are like, 'Hey, you're the guy we gave up the
captain for, right?'" Lahoud said Wednesday, at PPL Park.
Yes, that's Lahoud --- the 25-year-old midfielder for whom the Union traded their captain.
He expects he's going to carry around that banner during his time here, but Lahoud -- who debuted with the Union in the starting XI at FC Dallas -- said he's not feeling any more pressure to perform because of the departure of Califf, a popular guy among those in the locker room and in the stands.
“If there is, for whatever reason, I haven't felt too much of it," said Lahoud, who said a few players from the Union called him Thursday to welcome him after news of the trade trickled out. "If
anything I've felt a lot of support, especially from the fans and the
coaching staff. They've done a good job of taking the pressure off."
Here's what Lahoud wants fans to know: He's a good dude, a chill guy who's willing to work hard to get results. (Sounds like Califf.) But it's something Lahoud read about, to prepare himself for the supporters in Philly. In fact, he said, it's what he's carried with him every step of his career --- from counting Union centerback Sheanon Williams as a teammate with USL PDL side Carolina Dynamo back in 2008, through to the present day.
“From my experience, since I've been in the league, every coach I've had
so far, that's something that's been pulled out of me," Lahoud said of his determination. "For whatever
reason, I'm very grateful every coach I've had has demanded that of me
to put the effort – whether it's training or, more importantly, in
games. While I'm here, I just want to be me. Hard work, honest effort
and discipline – that's my discipline.
“Just from talking to Peter, it's an extension of what I've been doing
with my career. It's an honost effort on both sides of the ball. From
what I've understood so far, it's an asking and a willingness to be more
productive on the offensive side of the ball but still maintain
defensively. Just be honest on both sides of the ball and be a two-way
Sounds like a guy everyone's going to like having around ... even if it meant trading away the captain.
"IT'S TIME" FOR THE TURNAROUND TO UNION'S SEASON, SAYS NOWAK
Those were Union boss Peter Nowak's words --- so to speak --- after his club polished off a 1-1 draw Saturday with FC Dallas.
Nowak seemed elated that the Union, who equalized in the second half, came away with a point and ended their three-match losing streak. He also seemed to think that no longer will the Union be able to play the 'we're inexperienced' card any further.
"As I’ve said,
there’s still work to do, but we are moving forward as a group and we
are going to keep fighting," Nowak said.
"What we tried to
change was just the defensive game, which we didn’t have in the first
part of seven or eight games and we’ve tried to make it better. Now we are more
dangerous. People are looking at us like, 'What are
we going to do?' We made the changes and we get the shots, so the
backline is stepping up and creating room and creating the chances.
“Listen. It’s time.
It’s the new guys settling in. They know each other. They play with
each other, so now the understanding as a group is pretty good and we’re
going to keep fighting."
Those comments surprise me because Nowak, for the better part of three years, has said the Union need experience and that could mean a few things --- that his youngest players literally don't have experience, that his newest players don't have experience playing with this group, that all of players need the experience of playing in Philly, who knows? All three scenarios have left Nowak's lips at one point or another.
But it seems like Nowak wants a stronger Union, starting with Saturday's match at Toronto FC.
And let's be honest --- the Reds (0-9-0) aren't exactly world-beaters these days. Toronto is easily the most-scored-upon side in MLS, allowing 21 goals in nine matches. And the next closest isn't even close, with FC Dallas surrendering 19 goals in 13 games --- four more than TFC. And the Reds also have scored the fewest goals in MLS, tied with Chivas USA with seven tallies.
If ever there was a time for the Union to need a winnable game on its schedule, this is it.
There were plenty to reasons to worry about the Union's odds Saturday night. The most-daunting one was standing between the posts, looking like a HI-LITER.
Chase Harrison had never started an MLS game. Heck, he had never even appeared in one. So getting the start Saturday in place of injured goalkeeper Zac MacMath meant the Union would have to step up big in front of the 28-year-old Harrison.
They didn't, but that didn't matter.
Harrison played well -- far better than the two saves spotted him by the official MLS stat sheet -- and he and the Union earned a 1-1 draw against FC Dallas.
Here's one way to look at the tie: It could have gone a lot worse. Sure, Harrison took some bumps and lumps in the match -- including an uncalled-for, stoppage-time barreling into by Andrew Jacobson. (Somehow, Jacobson didn't earn a booking, but Harrison got one for delay of game. But that's neither here nor there.)
It had to have been a cause for concern for Union boss Peter Nowak when he found out MacMath, who took a knock in training Wednesday and sustained more of those troublesome concussion-like symptoms, wasn't going to make the trip to Dallas. Then, to have to turn to Harrison -- a total newbie to MLS -- made matters worse. Harrison's kicked around the MLS reserve goalkeeper pool, in cases of emergency, but he's never made a match.
That's what made his showing Saturday so impressive.
“He was very courageous on a couple of corner kicks and
crosses and the free kicks from the sides," Nowak said of Harrison. "As you can see right now, he
took some hits. Some hits on the head and some
on the ankle. So listen, you always keep everyone fresh and everyone on
their toes because you never know what is going to happen."
Nowak ranted all offseason about how unnecessary it would be to seek out and sign a veteran 'keeper, instead of relying on Harrison and third-stringer Chris Konopka. Harrison's performance could have made Nowak eat his words, especially because Nowak clearly wasn't counting on MacMath getting clipped so soon in the soon.
But Harrison showed up Saturday, earned his paycheck and shouldered the weight of a club that looked in-flux on the backline after trading its captain and centerback this week. For that, Harrison deserved more than a draw against Dallas.
Union's starting XI tonight v. FC Dallas:
GK ... Chase Harrison
D ... Ray Gaddis, Carlos Valdes, Sheanon Williams, Michael Farfan
MF ... Gabriel Gomez, Brian Carroll, Michael Lahoud, Keon Daniel
F ... Danny Mwanga, Lio Pajoy
A few notes about the lineup:
Rookie moment.Chase Harrison will make the first start of his MLS career in place of Zac MacMath, who will miss the match after re-aggravating his concussion-like symptoms during a collision Wednesday in training. (MacMath did not make the trip.)
Two strikers, two goals? Last week, in a loss to New York, the Union went with two forwards...and Lio Pajoy scored two goals, playing off Danny Mwanga as the center striker. Tonight, they're going with the same two up top.
Know Your Farfans. The Union are going with Michael Farfan --- and not Gabriel Farfan, who completed his three-game suspension --- at left back tonight.
Lahoud debut. Acquired Thursday from Chivas USA, in exchange for Danny Califf, Michael Lahoud will make his debut for the Union tonight with a start in the midfield. Time to see the Union's return on the deal.
No Adu.Freddy Adu will serve his one-game suspension after incurring a red card last week.
HOW THE UNION PICK UP PIECES FOLLOWING TRADE OF CALIFF
Talking in circles this week, about a trade that was bound to happen but hadn't quite been completed, Peter Nowak said he's looking to three players to carry the leadership torch once toted by Danny Califf.
There's 26-year-old vice-captain Carlos Valdes, who's got the experience, the candor and the skill to lead the Union ... as evidenced by marking Cristiano Ronaldo last season in a friendly against Real Madrid.
There's 30-year-old Brian Carroll, an MLS Cup champion who's been a professional for 10 seasons. And there's 22-year-old Sheanon Williams.
“I think the team's going to move on," Califf told me Thursday, after he had been traded to Chivas USA, for Michael Lahoud and allocation money. "They'll find somebody else to step up and do that. I think
team's find ways to do that."
Of course, Califf has his opinion. Here's mine: The Union can slap an armband on anyone and call him a captain. But to maximize the value of the trade, the Union must make the most of the midsummer international transfer window.
There's no way around the obvious, that the Union's personnel moves in the last five months have been an attempt to dump salary. The majority of the players they've brought in during that time have been either products of the SuperDraft or supplemental draft. Meanwhile, they've cut ties with high-salaried veterans -- six of their 14 six-figure guys, and four of the seven best-paid.
2011 Guaranteed Salary
Juan Diego Gonzalez
Sebastien Le Toux
Attempting to progress as a franchise, the Union's technical staff and front office have put their faith in their youngest players. The next step is reassuring everyone that they know what they're doing with the state of the team. Bringing aboard a high-profile player, akin to last season's designated-player signing of Freddy Adu, follows that progression. It only seems right. The signing of a polarizing, guiding, authoritative, experienced player -- particularly one who can score goals, the weakness of the Union -- would do wonders for a team desperately seeking rebranding.
The season is not lost. The Union enter their weekend match at FC Dallas trailing Eastern Conference fifth-place side New England by five points. Seeing as the separation between postseason afterthought and contender is so thin, it's reasonable to believe that a few tweaks can turn around the Union's 2012 campaign.
Thus, the emphasis on the midseason international transfer window, which opens June 27 and closes July 27. If the Union fail to make a big splash inside those 30 days, trading fan favorites and creating a stink within their supportive fanbase will have been for naught.
TRADED TO CHIVAS USA, CAPTAIN CALIFF SAYS HE'S "SAD TO LEAVE" UNION
His flight arrived in California, his home state, around 7 p.m. EDT, which is when Danny Califf said he got around to returning phone calls.
“I've been going minute-to-minute here," he said. "It's been crazy."
The Union traded Califf, their captain and starting centerback, to Chivas USA Thursday for midfielder Michael Lahoud and allocation money.
Here's, in question-and-answer format, my conversation with Califf:
What was your initial reaction to the trade?
“I was a little bit dumbfounded, I think. I guess these things happen all the time. To his credit, he came and told me or whatever. I was a little bit shocked that it was discussed because that meant it was being entertained."
Being that you're one of the Union Originals, any thought on how the Union will move on without your leadership?
“I think the team's going to move on. They'll find somebody else to step up and do that. I think team's find ways to do that. I'm obviously, my family and I are really sad to leave. We put down roots. Regardless of the other stuff, I understand it's professional sports, but I'm sad to leave an area where we really felt comfortable and I really enjoyed playing."
Was there any contesting a trade?
“There's maybe two players in the league who have no-trade clauses. Players don't have a choice."
How did this whole thing go down?
“(Union manager Peter Nowak) came and said they had offers from Toronto and Chivas. I didn't even know what to say. I couldn't say anything. I called Peter back later and said, 'Please, if you're going to make this trade, please don't send me to Toronto. If you have to make this trade, please don't let it be to Toronto.'
“When you're presented with a choice to go to Chivas or Toronto, which place are you going to choose? It got narrowed down Sunday, or Monday. Monday, maybe, I was told the deal was done. Then the deal wasn't done. Then Toronto came back in at the last second with something and I almost lost it. It just kept getting postponed, the date and time of the actual deal being finished. That was the hardest part, the uncertainty of the whole thing."
Any idea where you'll live?
“The first home (my wife Erin and I) lived in is in Orange. We have renters in it that don't seem to want to move. We'll figure it out."
This week, (the reporters) were told you weren't around. Did you get a chance to say goodbye to your teammates?
“I'd come in a couple times to basically say goodbye to the guys and get my stuff and I met with Peter and whatever. I was around them, so that was nice. It was hard, obviously. At least I was able to, you know, tell them goodbye."
Seemed like, from the beginning, the fans had your back. They identified with you. What's your impression of Union fans?
“It's been, I felt an incredible bond with the fanbase just about from the very beginning. It was really and it is really something that really vaults this club. It's such an integral part of what the Union is all about. I feel real fortunate that they appreciate the effort that I put out on the field. They appreciate it, they're knowledgable enough to see it even when I'm not perfect. They've been amazing to me from the outset, top to bottom. It's been absolutely, 100-percent been a highlight to play at PPL Park and in front of those fans. God's honest, 100-percent, the highlight. I can't say enough."
What was rumored Saturday and confirmed Sunday could be completed in a few hours or by the end of the week.
Peter Nowak said the Union are close to finishing a trade with Chivas USA to send captain Danny Califf to the California-based club for another player plus “something else.” According to Nowak, the trade is merely awaiting MLS approval.
And that's all well and good, that the Union are completing a trade they feel is in their best interests. For that, they should be commended.
Here's my hang-up … or three:
1. Getting experience. When times get tough and one loss becomes three, Nowak continually beats the 'these guys need experience' drum during his press conferences. Yet he and the Union are shipping away their vocal leader, their on-field captain, and the one guy in the locker room who holds himself accountable – win, lose or draw. Will a younger captain without such a leader be able to handle those responsibilities? My guess is no.
2. Who got the ball rolling? Nowak said Chivas USA reached out to the Union concerning the acquisition of Califf. But Wednesday, Nowak said California-born Califf – at some point – approached him regarding the desire to “go home.” When asked specifically about the root of the trade, Nowak backtracked and said “the initial offer come out of the blue. It's not like we go out and shop to sell Danny or trade him.” I guess it's a matter of who you ask.
3. Questionable timing. The Union are in a tailspin, having lost consecutive matches and requiring a winless Toronto FC side to stay out of the Eastern Conference's cellar. Granted, the Union's primary issues this season have been on the offensive side of the ball, but is trading Califf, one of the team's integral contributors on defense, a necessary thing at this stage of the season? Another couple losses could derail the entire season for the Union. My guess is no one can answer this question until the Union announce who they're getting in return.
Be warned – the next time you step into PPL Park, it could be your last visit for an extended period of time.
The folks at PPL Park are trying out the use of a “fan conduct class” to encourage improved behavior and safety within the confines of the Union's stadium. Should a fan be removed from PPL Park due to poor behavior, his or her admittance for later dates would hinge upon the completion of an online anger-management course.
“Fortunately, we haven't had to use it or implement it this year because PPL Park is a fun place and a safe place to go,” Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz told me recently. “We want to maintain that it's a safe place to go. Arenas around the country and world use this and it's very comforting. We've had a great experience at PPL Park for two years and we'd like to keep it that way, as a safe and enjoyable place.”
“We've had great success with it,” said Ari Novick, and anger-management expert and the president of AJ Novick Group, which runs fanconductclass.com. “We've not had a single repeat fan go through the class.”
(For the sake of this post, I tried to take the conduct class online. However, I was stopped in my tracks by two elements of the exam: its price – $75 – and its duration – four hours.)
The fee alone would be enough to keep most fans on their best behavior. Here's some more information you'd need to know: The class covers the code of conduct at your particular team's stadium; alcohol abuse; defining disruptive behavior; “gaining control of ourselves”; and communication skills, stress management and resources for finding help. That is, among other things.
Only the Union's PPL Park and New York's Red Bull Arena require the course, among Major League Soccer teams, according to the Web site fanconductclass.com. However, Sakiewicz said it's a league-wide initiative that applies to all 19 franchises. Eight NFL teams use it, as well, and the Eagles are being pushed by the league to become the ninth.
As Sunday creeps closer to Monday, the rumored trade taking Danny Califf to Southern California seems to strengthen.
The latest word on the Web has Califf heading West, with Jack McInerney, for Chivas USA's Juan Pablo Angel. Early Sunday afternoon, we didn't even have that much detail.
Union boss Peter Nowak confirmed Sunday, following their 3-2 loss to New York, what had been kicked around online for nearly a day: That the Union, teetering on the brink of relevance, are listening to a trade offer for Califf.
But is this the right decision for the Union?
From Nowak's standpoint, it seems like an easy decision. The Union's strength is, and has been for two seasons, on the defensive side of the ball. So Califf, the 32-year-old captain of the Union, becomes expendable, especially when Chivas is waving Angel, a 36-year-old striker with a proven track record for scoring goals in bunches, in the Union's faces.
From the fans' standpoints, it's not so clear. The supporters of the Union see their team casting off another fan favorite – like when they traded Sebastien Le Toux Jan. 31 and released goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon a day later.
There's also the dollars-and-cents angle of this.
The Union, at 2-6-1 and closer to the Eastern Conference's cellar than its surface, are pointed toward a losing season. Through nine games, they've made the leashes for SuperDraft picks Chandler Hoffman and Raymon Gaddis longer than most of their untested rookies in previous seasons. And the Union's technical staff has made it clear that, if provided the chance to play Homegrown Players Zach Pfeffer and Cristhian Hernandez, they are more apt to take those opportunities than pass on them.
So trading Califf seems like a natural fit for a team that, on the surface, looks like it wants to get younger while shedding salary in the process. Win-win, right? Not necessarily. Califf made $250,000 in base salary in 2011, as reported by the MLS Players Association in September. And Angel? He made $1.25 million according to the same report.
According to MLS Pressbox, Angel is a former designated player, which means his salary has drastically decreased. Only $350,000 of a DP's salary counts against his team's cap. So if Angel's DP tag has been removed, his salary might be comparable to, if not lower than, Califf's.
That makes acquiring Angel appealing to Nowak and the Union. That is, before you allow the opinions of Califf's teammates to factor in. Califf is “the good guy” in the locker room who always “looked out” for the younger guys on the team, according to Sheanon Williams. Fellow centerback Carlos Valdes, the captain of the Union in Califf's five absences this season, called Califf “the leader inside the field.”
It's a toss up. Just depends on which side of the coin you stand.
Zac MacMath, the goalkeeper suffering from concussion-like symptoms this week, will start Sunday's match v. New York Red Bulls.
MacMath was included in the Union's starting lineup, which was announced 15 minutes ago.
The 20-year-old MacMath, who's been troubled by concussion-like symptoms since May 5, when he took a knee to the head from Seattle's David Estrada, had been listed as 'out' in a May 8 injury report, then upgraded to 'probable' May 11.
MacMath owns a 1.12 goals-against average and three clean sheets this season.
Other interesting observations from the Union's starting XI v. NYRB:
No Califf. Centerback Danny Califf will miss his fifth game of the season, presumably with the left hamstring strain that has saddled him since last month.
Backline mixup. The Union list Michael Farfan, Ray Gaddis, Carlos Valdes and Sheanon Williams as their starters at defender, but offered no further clarity. If Gaddis, who's most comfortable on the right, starts there, that would seem to push Williams to centerback. Assuming that's how they take the field, the Union might use Farfan as an attacking piece on the left, perhaps providing that connecting link between the defenders and midfielders that has been so lacking for the Union.
Two forwards. The Union saw what a three-forward formation provided May 9 in a friendly win over FC Schalke 04. So today, they will start Lionard Pajoy and Danny Mwanga up top.
HACKWORTH EXPECTS BAD BLOOD SUNDAY AGAINST RED BULLS
There's no Roger Torres, and they won't be battling for first place ... but that doesn't mean this year's initial meeting of the Union and New York can't be entertaining.
Don't believe me? Take John Hackworth's word for it.
“I don't think they like us and I don't think we like them. What more do you need?" the Union assistant coach said the other day. "They're close to us (geographically). They're ahead of us in the table. We're obviously very hungry to get a result Sunday."
Riding a two-game skid, the Union (2-5-1) need a win over the Red Bulls (6-3-1), who are on a three-match winning streak. A win last April against NYRB, with the help of a second-half tally from late sub Torres (above), helped keep the Union in first place well into June.
Even though Torres is out, still nursing his ACL/MCL woes, the Union are optimistic they can net a win. And the Red Bulls know it. Here's what a few guys had to say to Big Apple Soccer:
"They're going to be tough," said NYRB's Dax McCarty.
"I'm expecting a tough, hard game," teammate Juan Agudelo said. "It's always tough going to Philly."
So while it might not be the marquee game everyone's expecting, Sunday's matchup at PPL Park, a 12:30 kickoff, will be worth watching.
MACMATH UPGRADED TO PROBABLE ... AND WHY SHOULD SIT OUT SUNDAY
Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath has been upgraded from 'out' in Tuesday's injury report to 'probable' today, per a Tweet from the club.
MLS had not updated its injury report as of 6 p.m.
MacMath has been suffering from concussion-like symptoms since a collision with Seattle's David Estrada in the first half of last weekend's loss to the Sounders. The second-year pro did not suit up for Wednesday's friendly vs. Schalke 04.
Times staff photo / JULIA WILKINSON
Though this seems like positive news, here's why MacMath should not play Sunday against visiting New York:
1. Concussions are far more severe than any other injury.
If MacMath Tuesday was suffering from symptoms related to a concussion, chances are it hasn't gone away in three days. And since MacMath has been the Union's best player this season -- by far -- the club will need him to be at the top of his game as the season progresses. An aggravated concussion leads to light and noise sensitivities, as well as headaches ... and that's only in the short term. The Union would be best served sitting MacMath.
2. Heightened sensitivities to concussions nationwide.
They are more than a buzzword or the hot topic of sports. Concussions are a serious epidemic, serious enough that the Union and PPL Park are promoting Sunday's match as Concussion Awareness Day. Taylor Twellman, an MLS all-star whose career was cut short by concussions, is an advocate for the awareness of the ailment. A former Union broadcaster, he'll be on hand with an ESPN team for the game. It would seem to undercut the message of the event should MacMath suit up.
So while Sunday is a big game against a big rival, it might be in everyone's best interests that MacMath take the day off and allow either of his backups -- Chase Harrison or Chris Konopka -- to get the start.
HERNANDEZ SAYS HE'S PRIMED FOR TIME (PLUS AN UPDATE ON MACMATH -- SORTA)
Courtesy: Getty Images
Wednesday night, in a game looking like it was pointed toward a draw, the Union had an 18-year-old lining up to take free kicks and corners.
Granted, Wednesday's game was a friendly, thus ensuring there was less at stake than a league match. But Cristhian Hernandez was the man called upon by Union assistant John Hackworth.
Hernandez didn't deliver the game-winning goal, or the helper that led to it, though his effort in a 2-1 win over FC Schalke 04 provided a glimpse into how the Union technical staff view the future career trajectory of the 5-11 forward.
“Ever since I was young, I was the guy behind the ball," Hernandez told me the other day. "I got used to
having the pressure of delivering a nice ball. From that pressure, I got
the confidence of Coach Peter (Nowak) and going out there tonight having
corners and free kicks. Having no other guy responsible to take it, I
was willing to step up to the challenge."
The franchise's second Homegrown Player, and a mere 17-year-old when he netted the game-winner against EPL side Everton FC, Hernandez has gotten 26 minutes -- largely garbage time -- in two home losses. So, at the very least, the PPL Park fans have gotten a glimpse at him.
He said he's confident in the future the Union have promised him, in giving him a pro contract last offseason, even if he wishes he'd play more. Until then, it'll be games like Wednesday's that motivate him.
“It's difficult because, going out there is a whole different level," Hernandez said. "Everyone's a lot faster and a lot stronger. It's all about confidence. And I have it right now."
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As of 5 p.m. Friday, MLS had yet to update its injury report.
That left the status of Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath up in the air. MacMath was listed in Tuesday's report as 'OUT' with concussion-like symptoms, after taking a knee/shin to the back of the head in the first half of last weekend's loss at Seattle.
Backups Chase Harrison, 28, and Chris Konopka, 27, played well in the friendly, but have combined for one appearance (Konopka's start last season with New York) in their MLS careers.
UNION BEAT SCHALKE: VALDES PLAYS 90, KONOPKA THE COMEDIAN AND MORE
The Union scored first, endured an equalizer and buried an 88th-minute goal to defeat Schalke 04, 2-1, Wednesday night in a friendly at PPL Park.
Here are two storylines worth looking into from tonight's game:
1. Carlos Valdes played 90 minutes.
With defensive depth lacking, as Danny Califf and Chris Albright were missing in action per Peter Nowak's doing, someone was going to have to bite the bullet and play 90 minutes. That ended up being centerback Carlos Valdes, who never left the pitch.
That's what Union assistant John Hackworth told reporters afterward.
“The reason was, we only had a limited number of substitutions, so we knew we had to have a couple guys go the full distance for us," Hackworth said. "We wouldn't have done it unless he was (up for it). Carlos is a true professional. He told Peter yesterday, 'I feel fine, I'm fully recovered from Seattle so no problems.'”
Still, why risk injury to one of your finest players in a meaningless game?
2. Chris Konopka has a sense of humor.
The Union's third-string goalkeeper, Chris Konopka doesn't get interview requests all too often. So when he was asked to speak following their win over Schalke, Konopka opened up.
He tied his tie while giving an interview, then teased rookie teammate Jimmy McLaughlin for being unable to do the same. Konopka told reporters McLaughlin, his roommate, often leaves the PPL Park locker room before the game ends "to go home and do his tie in the mirror, because he can't do it."
Then, Konopka explained who from the Union inspired him against Schalke. Read this:
“Yesterday in training, literally the first five minutes of a short-sided game, I let a ball go in and (Zach) Pfeffer scored on me," Konopka said. "I basically curled up into a ball. I made myself small. The first thing I had to get into my head was to keep myself big. I'm a big guy – 6-foot-5. The more I make myself big, the less they have to shoot at the goal."
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A couple odds-and-ends notes from the game:
Danny Mwanga might have a future as a broadcaster. He eavesdropped on interviews with Konopka and Chase Harrison, sticking his iPhone over reporters' shoulders and up to the goalkeepers' mouths.
Game-winning goal-scorer Chandler Hoffman swapped jerseys with Schalke's Jermaine Jones, of the United States national team, in the moments after the match.
Though it hit the crossbar, Harrison had Schalke's PK sniffed out from the start. Harrison said Kai Herdling, a German who's quite familiar with Schalke's Lewis Holtby's tendencies, told him Holtby goes "down the middle" on penalty kicks. Trouble averted.
PPL Park security wouldn't allow Pfeffer -- by this time, wearing a button-down and a blazer -- into the mix zone area afterward...at least not until Pfeffer pleaded with the guard, saying, "But I'm a player." The guard took Pfeffer at his word, and let him in.
The "official attendance" released by Union officials was 7,464. Sorry, but there's no way 7K were at PPL Park. Don't buy it.
Two weeks ago, following his first appearance with the Union, Kai Herdling declined to comment. He cited his inability to speak English as the reason.
Tuesday, he had no such qualms.
Part of the reason, though, was because his employer splurged. The Union hired a German-to-English translator not only for Herdling, but for their guests -- FC Schalke 04. The teams will play a friendly Wednesday night.
Herdling understands English, though he has difficulty speaking it. His progress in overcoming the language barrier was on full display Tuesday, and it shows Herdling's serious about learning English. (Perhaps to extend his loan beyond June 30? Just saying.)
Here's what Herdling had to say, during his first press conference since the striker/midfielder signed with the Union last month: What's the adjustment been like?
“I feel like I need a little more time to adjust and get used to the environment. So far, it's been pretty good."
Do you feel like you're almost there?
“I feel good, but – as I said – it's been an adjustment so far. I'm confident it'll be better for me. I'm over the jet-lag at this point."
What's the difference between German teams, like Schalke, and the Union?
“The main difference is the way the game is played. It's more about athleticism and physical strength. In Germany, it's more about tactics."
Since Peter Nowak is, likely, the only person in the Union organization who can speak German, have you had discussions with him?
“So far, I've had a very good connection with Peter. I actually understand a lot of English. I'm just having trouble when some people speak fast. It's hard for me to understand fully. But Peter's been helping me a lot."
Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath is listed in Tuesday's Major League Soccer injury report as 'OUT,' though his status for this weekend's league contest with New York is unknown.
According to Union boss Peter Nowak, MacMath -- who is suffering from concussion-like symptoms -- will sit Wednesday's friendly with FC Schalke 04.
MacMath sustained the injury in the first half of Saturday's 1-0 Union defeat, when Seattle's David Estrada struck MacMath in the back of the head while vying for a ball in the goalbox. MacMath remained in the match.
The second-year keeper, and first-year starter, MacMath has not had to miss action due to injury. The fifth overall selection in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, MacMath owns a 1.125 goals-against average with three cleansheets this season. Two weeks ago, MacMath's franchise-record 408-minute shutout streak was snapped in a loss to San Jose.
Of course, if I hear anything, I'll be sure to update. This is all I have for now.
AGAINST SCHALKE, EXPECT NOWAK TO ROLL OUT NEW-LOOK LINEUP
It should almost go without saying, but don't expect Union boss Peter Nowak to go with his usual lineup Wednesday in a friendly with Schalke 04.
Nowak said Tuesday that he'll more than likely favor giving a few of his reserves opportunities to play against the German Bundesliga side.
“We've never been shy, over these two-and-a-half years, to give (younger players) a chance," Nowak said during a presser at PPL Park. "It's a good chance to gain experience, a good chance to see first-hand what those teams are all about – from Chivas, Celtic, Real Madrid and Schalke."
In 2010, against Celtic FC, Nowak had reserve goalkeepers Brad Knighton and Brian Perk split time between the posts. He gave Knighton minutes against Manchester United, as well.
In 2011, eventual Homegrown Player Cristhian Hernandez scored the game-winning goal against Everton, during which teenagers Zach Pfeffer and Jimmy McLaughlin also appeared.
While the starting lineup remains uncertain, Nowak went as far to say the following five will not play: Danny Califf, Zac MacMath, Chris Albright, Freddy Adu and Gabriel Gomez.
Nowak confirmed that reserve goalkeeper Chase Harrison will start between the posts.
Saturday, the Union dropped their second straight game with a 1-0 loss at Seattle.
One of MLS' lowest-scoring sides, the Union suffered their third shutout of the season while managing only one shot on goal against Bryan Meredith, a goalkeeper making his first in-league start.
Sounders FC picked up the game-winning snipe from Mauro Rosales in the 63rd minute, receiving a weighted pass across the box from Fredy Montero and burying it far post and past Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath.
Here are a few select quotes from CenturyLink Field in Seattle:
UNION ASSISTANT JOHN HACKWORTH On Goalkeeper Zac MacMath’s performance
“Week in and week out Zac does a great job for us.”
On the final third and lack of offensive performance
“We talked about it during the week and our guys are a little hesitant to pull the trigger right now. We had some opportunities, especially in the first half, where we’re 20 yards away from goal and you have an open window to let a shot ride. All we can do is continue to ask our players to have to courage to take those shots and hopefully it will happen. It didn’t happen and we talked about it at halftime. Came back out with a couple of weak attempts on goal, not exactly what we wanted. We’re putting a lot of pressure on our team overall, in particular our midfield and defensive line. We don’t do a good enough job stretching the opponent and we’re not being dangerous in the final third.”
On the season overall
“We’re a little disappointed, it’s the second week in a row we lose the game by a goal against two of the best teams in the league right now so we don’t feel like we’re not there. We know we can play better, we know we have to fix this problem we have of being more dangerous and opening teams up a little more, creating some chances and taking some more. We’ll just have to continue to work on that. I think we all believe that we are a good team, we’ve put our back against the wall and we have to play out of it. It’s still very early here so no need to hit the panic button at all. We have a lot of young guys in our locker room, a lot of new guys in our locker room we just need to give ourselves time and come out next week against New York. That will be huge for us.”
On finding positives
“It’s not like it was a terrible performance by us. I don’t think we executed very well throughout the game yet we were still in a position to hold Seattle. We gave ourselves a chance up to the last whistle to get a result here and that’s a tough thing to do.”
UNION MIDFIELDER FREDDY ADU On the result
Freddy Adu (AP)
“We had a couple of good plays to break them down in the middle. When we got to the final third we ran out of ideas sometimes. Sometimes we were trying to do too much rather than just obviously find an open man and move. When we get down there we’re all thinking about scoring goals and we are caught in two minds, so to speak, and then we end up making a pass too late or losing the ball. We have to do better. That’s an area that we’ve had problems with all season long and we have to get better at that.”
On team scoring this season
“Obviously for us offensive players, we want to score more goals and create more chances. We just got to put the ball in the back of the net. We have to be better. Today was another game where we didn’t test the goalkeeper enough. He’s a new goalkeeper and we got to test him, shoot the ball more. That’s how soccer is, somebody makes a brilliant play and then the floodgates open. Then goals start pouring in, that’s just how it is. We gotta keep going, we gotta keep doing the things we’re doing. This is a tough place to play and we only lost 1-0 here. We still lost, but I thought we fought hard and at the end of the day they got got a goal and we didn’t. We have to be better at that.”
MACMATH On the result
“Tough loss, I thought the guys worked really hard and played well for 90 minutes. There was a little lapse on that throw-in and unfortunately [Seattle Sounders Midfielder Mauro] Rosales had a good shot at the back post.”
On offensive performance
“Everyone’s trying to gel together up front and we’re just going to go back to philly and work on that more and hopefully take it into our next game.”
SEATTLE COACH SIGI SCHMID On the play of Montero, Eddie Johnson, and Rosales
“I agree with you that it was Johnson to Montero to Rosales for the goal. The league thinks that it was just Montero to Rosales, but I agree with you. Obviously when they spend more time together they will have a better understanding. I think that everyone who has watched us the last couple of years knows how important Mauro is to our crew. Eddie gives us a different dimension up front and Freddy even though he was unlucky today is a guy who gets around the goal and gets opportunities. Those three (are) ... really fun guys to watch.”
SOUNDERS GK BRYAN MEREDITH On his first start
“It was a lot of fun, very exciting. I didn’t have too much to do today. I came out on a couple crosses, they shot high…Other than that, the defense really held it down. They just didn’t really even let them in the 18.”
On what the defense was doing well
“They were just organizing. Playing really well together as a whole. Especially in the second half, the whole team was just really clicking and had good possession, for sure.”
On Union's late press
“They were just throwing as many guys as they could forward, just trying to get that last goal in the last seconds.”
The report, which takes into account the payroll numbers of every professional sports league in America, as well as few select leagues globally, also reported these interesting numbers about the Union:
They rank 253rd world-wide in total payroll and fifth in MLS.
They rank sixth in average weekly pay, which is $3,120.
The average pay of its rostered players is $162,232.
Their total payroll is $4,542,484.
(Be aware that, while reading ESPN's report, it puts more eggs in the 'average weekly pay' basket than that of total payroll. That would explain why FC Dallas, which has a greater payroll than Chivas USA, ranks seventh in the ESPN grid, compared to Chivas' fifth.)
“I haven't seen those numbers, so I have no idea what ranking we are," Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz told me by phone. "But we're trying to put our best team on the field every night. If that's where we are, I'm glad we're that high. It means we're paying our players well.
It may come as a surprise that the Union, who began the week ranked eighth in the Eastern Conference table, could rank fifth overall in total payroll. That number could be the result of Freddy Adu, who is in his first full season with the Union and became the franchise's first designated player.
“I think salary has less of an impact in Major League Soccer than it
does in other leagues around the world,” Sakiewicz said. “That's evident
against the Spanish League, which is a two-team league. It's Barcelona
and Madrid, and nobody can compete with those two in terms of points.
Major League Soccer is, from top to bottom, an equally balanced league.
Some teams like Los Angeles and New York spend millions of dollars on
marquee names, and it doesn't always guarantee victory. A lot has to do
with chemistry and coaching and teaching players and getting them to
jell as a unit. It doesn't always come down to money."
Sakiewicz said to take the ESPN numbers with a grain of salt. He said the Union's average salary per player is somewhere in the ballpark of $100,000, whereas ESPN reports a total like $160,000. The MLS Players Association, which releases the first installment of its bi-annual salary figures later this month, will confirm the numbers ESPN published. MLS and its clubs don't release salary figures for individual players.
Only Los Angeles ($17.2m), New York ($13.2m), Toronto FC ($8.37m), and Seattle ($5.36m) have greater payrolls than the Union, according to the ESPN figures.
Sheanon Williams (Times / COLIN KERRIGAN)
The Union are rather economically sound when it comes to building a club. In three seasons, they've seldom made bad investments. Juan Diego Gonzalez, who made more than $193,000 to play reserve-league games in 2011, was one of them. Then there were Sebastien Le Toux, a steal at $179,000, and Gabriel Farfan, at $42,000, Michael Farfan, at $79,000, and Sheanon Williams, at $42,000, who were relatively inexpensive pieces in a rotation that made the Eastern Conference semifinals a year ago.
“We feel like we've used our money wisely to invest in the future," Sakiewicz said.
But what do you think about the Union's payroll totals? Should fans expect better of a team paying so much for the product on the pitch? Or is this right about where you figured they'd be, given the roster the Union have assembled? Leave your comments below.
This post isn't MLS-related, nor does it have anything to do with U.S. soccer. It's just a guy scoring a goal that's dropping jaws around the globe.
If you don't already know about 26-year-old Papiss Cisse, you will after viewing the clip above. That's the second goal in his brace Wednesday, during Newcastle United's 2-0 win over Chelsea. He's got 13 goals in 12 matches for Newcastle. (Think the Union could use him?)
HACKWORTH: UNION 'NEED TO CREATE OPPORTUNITIES' AGAINST SOUNDERS
The last time Danny Califf was a predominant, offensive weapon, he was taking algebra classes.
"I was 16," Califf told me Wednesday, at PPL Park. "I played up top with my high school team and my club team, and that's how old I was when I first moved into the back. It was a lot of fun."
It's also a part of the pitch where Califf wouldn't mind playing again, should the Union's offensive woes continue.
OK, enough with the light-hearted stuff. Here's the truth: The Union rank last in Major League Soccer in goals scored and shots on goal. To fix it, before they head West for Saturday's 4:30 p.m. match at Seattle Sounders FC, the Union are willing to try anything and everything.
Primarily, the Union are saddled with the same problem that has dogged them since limping out of JELD-WEN Field following their opener: An unwillingness "to pull the trigger," as Freddy Adu dubbed it that cold, rainy night in Portland.
That's why Union assistant John Hackworth (pictured), who will handle sideline duties for the final time during Union boss Peter Nowak's two-game suspension, said Wednesday every player on his bench has been instructed to take a shot when the opportunity is there.
Hackworth said there's no reluctance to be an offensive catalyst.
“Absolutely not," Hackworth said. "We talk about it all the time – we want to get numbers forward. We talk about … wanting to create those advantages. When the opportunity is there, you don't have to tell a 10-year-old or a seasoned pro. The eyes get big and you know it's on.
"But you have to have the courage to take it. And there's a couple times in this first part of the season where players passed it. They've looked to the next guy. It happened Saturday night (in a 2-1 loss to San Jose). We're reinforcing it. 'Hey, when you get this chance, we want you to take it.' We need to create more of those opportunities, we need to take those chances and that's a good recipe for how we'll get some long-term success."
Big offseason get Lionard Pajoy has two shots on goal. Danny Mwanga, a potent contributor in the past, had an assist Saturday, but he came on only in the final 20 minutes as a reserve. The Union's leading goal scorer, Gabriel Gomez, is a midfielder who's playing out of position.
If there's a way to fix the Union, chances are it's crossed Hackworth's desk.