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Union have improved because of depth and confidence

They have played only about 24 percent of their 34-game Major League Soccer schedule, but the Union appear to be a much different team this season.

They have played only about 24 percent of their 34-game Major League Soccer schedule, but the Union appear to be a much different team this season.

After a 10-17-7 record in 2015, new sporting director Earnie Stewart reshaped the roster and added depth. More important, he has fielded a more confident team.

The Union are 4-3-1, just one point behind first-place Montreal in the Eastern Conference with a game in hand.

Even though the Union squandered a 1-0 lead with a man advantage during a 1-1 draw with San Jose on Saturday, this is a team that no longer dreads late-game situations. A year ago, that wasn't always the case.

For a team that made the playoffs just once in its previous six seasons, the Union are feeling good about themselves as they face a break in the schedule. They don't return to action until Wednesday, when they host the dangerous Los Angeles Galaxy.

"There is a lot more belief among the group that we can go out there and do something special," said midfielder Maurice Edu.

Considering that Edu hasn't gotten on the field yet because of a stress fracture in his left leg, the start is even more impressive.

In addition, midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta missed the first three games with knee tendinitis and is working his way back into soccer shape, although he has made a major contribution to the attack.

"Earnie is the big piece that is unique from last year to this year," Union coach Jim Curtin said of Stewart. "He has given a very professional air, and he makes it clear with the players their responsibilities on the field."

Stewart said the chemistry has been the key.

"We have managed to put a group together that function well with each other," he said in an email. "The locker room atmosphere is very good at the moment."

Stewart also said that the coaches have communicated well with the players.

"The technical staff has done a very good job in making sure everybody understands what we expect from them," Stewart said.

The Union brought in many immediate contributors, such as midfielder Chris Pontius, acquired in a trade with D.C. United. He is tied with C.J. Sapong for the team lead with four goals. Right back Keegan Rosenberry, the No. 3 overall draft pick from Georgetown, has started every game.

Brazilian midfielder Ilsinho has shown flashes, although he has battled a hamstring injury that has slowed him.

There are others as well, but the biggest change is in goal, where Andre Blake is flourishing in his first season as a full-time starter.

Blake, the No. 1 overall selection in 2014, appeared in just seven games his first two years. He played six of those toward the end of last year after overcoming two knee surgeries and showed flashes of brilliance.

This year, the Union have allowed eight goals, tied for the second-fewest in MLS, behind only Toronto, which has yielded seven.

Compare that with last year, when the Union were 1-4-3 for six points after eight games. At that point, the Union had scored nine goals but surrendered 13.

One thing that likely won't creep in is complacency. With the added depth, the competition to get on the field is fierce.

"When you have quality through and through, competition for spots is always up for grabs, and I think you see that day in and day out," Edu said. "Nobody is comfortable."