Photo: mlssoccer.com

Photo: mlssoccer.com

Union Season Review Part 4: The Union Show Promise

Another in a series reviewing the Philadelphia Union’s 2016 season.

The story so far: Former USMNT player Earnie Stewart was hired as Sporting Director immediately following the 2015 season. He has put his stamp on the roster. After a month of training camp in Florida, the new-look Union were ready to start the MLS season.

The 2016 season just wasn’t just the start of the MLS season, it was also the start of the Andre Blake era in Philadelphia. Despite being the first overall pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, he saw little action on the pitch during his first two years on the roster, mostly due to a combination of injuries and the debacle that was the Rais M’Bohli signing. Finally, he was healthy and there was no one above him on depth chart.

He didn’t waste time showing why he a number-one pick. Jim Curtin’s squad started their season on the road when they traveled to Frisco, TX on March 6 to take on the defending Western Conference champions FC Dallas. The U lost the match 2-0, but could have been much worse if not for Blake. He made eight saves, with some of highlight-reel quality.

Andre Blake opens the season strong.

Andre Blake opened the season strong.

The boys in blue notched their first win the following week, defeating Columbus Crew SC on the road 2-1. Injury-prone Chris Pontius showed why the Union took a chance on him by scoring the team’s first 2016 goal in first half stoppage time, and then following it up with a second goal in the 71st minute. Once again, Blake was stellar in goal.

On March 20, the Union faithful gathered for the first time in 2016 at the newly-renamed Talen Energy Stadium in Chester to watch their team take on the New England Revolution. They were rewarded with a dominant performance by the U, taking down the Revs 3-0. C.J. Sapong provided a brace, with Sebastien LeToux scoring the third goal. The Union ended the month of March with 6 points in three matches. The U and their fans went home encouraged that the team was on the upswing after the lackluster 2015 season.

The Union had every reason to be optimistic as they traveled to Bridgeview, IL to take on the Chicago Fire, the team that had finished 2015 in last place in the East. Even though the calendar said it was April, no one would have known it from the harsh winter conditions. The Union dominated the run of play in the first half, but a red card incurred by Warren Creavalle in the 47th minute cost the U their momentum and they ended up falling to the Fire 1-0. They may have lost the game, but the strong first half performance maintained some optimism amongst the Union faithful.

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Union battled the Fire and the elements in Chicago.

The boys in blue came back to Chester on April 8 hoping to win their second straight at home against Orlando City SC. The Union took the lead in quick fashion as Sapong scored in the 2nd minute when he took advantage of a botched clearance in the penalty area by the Lions’ Rafael Ramos.

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Sapong took advantage of a botched clearance.

Orlando tied it up in the 43rd minute on a breakaway goal by Adrian Winter. As the game remained tied going into the 90th minute, it was looking like the U would have to settle for a draw, when Tranquillo Barnetta, seeing his first action of the season, scored on a spectacular free kick from about 25 yards out that bounced off the crossbar into the goal, freezing Orlando City’s goalkeeper Joe Bendik. Orlando City left empty-handed and the Union got the 3 points with the 2-1 win.

After snatching victory from the jaws of the Lions, the Union had to follow up with a tough road trip to Seattle on April 16. The Sounders had a 1-0 lead when Roland Alberg was booked for his second yellow card of the match in the 53rd minute. The Sounders went up by two on a Jordan Morris goal in the 71st minute and despite a LeToux goal two minutes later, they could not overcome their one-man disadvantage and left CenturyLink Field in defeat, 2-1.

The Union now had 9 points in six games, which was good for 3rd place within the Eastern Conference. The offense was looking good with Pontius, LeToux, and especially Sapong starting out the season strong. Barnetta was getting healthy and looking like he would be a big contributor in his first full MLS season. On defense, the back line was holding their own with youngsters Keegan Rosenberry, Ken Tribbett, and Richie Marquez all playing well. And first-round SuperDraft pick Joshua Yaro was finally getting healthy and ready to contribute. This was not the Union of years past, and playoff dreams were now starting to dance in the heads of Union fans throughout the Philadelphia region.

Next: The Union forget how to lose