Inside Doop: Lack of star power continues to doom Union

usa-jim-curtin-union.jpg
USA Today Images

Inside Doop: Lack of star power continues to doom Union

At long last, the Union’s season is coming to an end. Even better, they no longer have to play any games on the road this year.

In their final away match of a disappointing 2017 campaign, the Union let a lead slip away in a 3-2 loss to the Fire, finishing the year with a dismal 1-10-6 road record.

What went wrong? And what can we expect from next week’s regular-season finale at Talen Energy Stadium? Here’s a look in the final Inside Doop of 2017:

Three thoughts about Sunday’s game
1. The Union were once again reminded what star power can do for a team. On Sunday, the Fire’s Nemanja Nikolic put on a show with three goals — his 22nd, 23rd and 24th of the season — to all but wrap up a Golden Boot crown and put on his back a Fire team that was without fellow star Bastian Schweinsteiger. In Philly’s last road game, Atlanta also overcame the loss of star Miguel Almiron to ride Josef Martinez to a big win. That’s what happens when you spend a lot of money: you have a stable of difference-makers and their presence trickles down to the rest of the club. The Union, simply, don’t have anything close to that — one of the big reasons why they can’t play well for 90 minutes on the road and why they’ll be missing the playoffs for the sixth time in the franchise’s eight-year history.

2. The closest thing the Union do have to a true star, apart from goalie Andre Blake, is the midfield combo of Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. And both overcame their recent heartbreak of missing out on the World Cup (Bedoya with the U.S., Medunjnanin with Bosnia and Herzegovina) to put in strong shifts. Medunjanin’s pass to set up Bedoya’s second goal of the season was a thing of beauty — and marked his 11th assist of the season. Say what you want about the Union, but those two are consummate pros and locker room leaders who will do everything in their power to get this thing turned around in 2018.

3. Sadly for the Union, one of their best stories of the season — Jack Elliott — had a night to forget. The rookie center back, who went from fourth-round draft pick to Rookie of the Year contender, lost track of a long ball on the Fire’s first goal and then committed a penalty to set up Nikolic’s second goal. Elliott will still be an important piece heading into 2018, but it’s important to remember that he’s no sure thing, especially after seeing what happened to Keegan Rosenberry and Josh Yaro in their second seasons. Meanwhile, Richie Marquez continued his late-season revival with one of his better games of the year. Raise your hand if you have any kind of handle on the team’s center back situation right now.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. Home finales are usually special no matter how a season turns out but it’s hard to figure what kind of crowd and reception there will be when the Union take on Orlando next Sunday (4 p.m., 6ABC). This has been a trying season for Union fans who watched their team fail to build on any kind of momentum from last year’s playoff berth while lowly teams like Chicago or expansion teams like Atlanta (for the reasons listed above them) skyrocketed past them. At the same time, the Union have been mostly fun to watch at home, where they’ve set a franchise record with nine wins. The chance to go for a 10th victory and have C.J. Sapong break the single-season scoring record could be a couple reasons that people will flock to the stadium — that, and the realization that there will be no more soccer there until March.

2. Another big reason to come to Talen Energy Stadium is to see Kaka, the Brazilian legend who will play his last game in MLS. Who will play their last game for the Union? It’s hard to say for sure but Roland Alberg, Ilsinho, Chris Pontius and Brian Carroll are decent bets as an offseason potentially filled with turnover looms.

3. How will head coach Jim Curtin construct the lineup? He doesn’t like to switch things too much, but fans may be clamoring for young guys like Derrick Jones and Adam Najem while Curtin may want to give something of a send-off to Carroll or Charlie Davies, well-known veterans who have hardly played this year. And what about Maurice Edu? He hasn’t played in more than two years — but will a player who led the Union to back-to-back U.S. Open Cup finals in 2014 and 2015 get to say goodbye to fans in some way?

Stat of the week
Even after Bedoya’s goal Sunday, the Union’s four highest-paid players — Bedoya, Edu, Ilsinho and Jay Simpson — have combined for only seven goals this season.

Quote of the week
"It was definitely nostalgic to come back and play at Toyota Park. When I was younger in the U-16s and the U-18s, I played a lot here when I was with the academy. It was good to come back on the professional side and be able to play on the same field I play it on when I was younger." — Union rookie Marcus Epps

Player of the week
Bedoya scored a very nice goal, made a couple of perfectly timed tackles and generally looked sharp in his first game back from the USMNT’s World Cup qualifying failure. Maybe he should’ve played in Trinidad, huh?

Jim Curtin calls U.S. men's World Cup qualifying failure 'devastating'

ap-usmnt-christian-pulisic.jpg
AP Images

Jim Curtin calls U.S. men's World Cup qualifying failure 'devastating'

CHESTER, Pa. — The Union play a game Sunday but head coach Jim Curtin knew he wouldn’t get many questions about that following Thursday’s practice.

And that’s not because the Union have already been eliminated from playoff contention when they hit the road to face the Chicago Fire (5 p.m./NBC Sports Philadelphia). It’s because all anyone can talk about this week is the historic U.S. national team loss to Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday that caused the Americans to miss the World Cup for the first time since 1986 and send shockwaves throughout the entire country’s soccer community.

That certainly includes Curtin, who played in MLS for many years before getting his start in coaching, first at the youth level.

“It’s devastating,” the Union coach said. “It’s a devastating result for anyone that’s involved in soccer. If you just take the 90 minutes and the simultaneous 90 minutes going on in different countries and the chain of events that happened, for it to all fall apart before our eyes was incredible. It will be probably a 30 for 30 or some kind of documentary.”

While the surreal set of circumstances that included last-ditch, come-from-behind wins by Panama and Honduras to knock the USMNT out was painful in the moment, many soccer people have since used it as a way to take stock of the state of soccer in the United States.

How does a country as big as this one fail to beat tiny Trinidad and Tobago in a do-or-die game? How did the U.S. go 3-4-3 in the Hexagonal stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying when it had won the Hex the previous three times?

Curtin has heard all the takes, flying in from every direction, and has tried to figure it out himself.

“Is it grassroots? Not getting enough city kids involved in soccer? The academies letting us down? The coaches in our country letting us down? The player pool not being good enough? The fact that we haven’t qualified for the Olympics in two cycles? It’s a little bit of all of those things,” he said. “There’s no one answer. There’s no one person that’s right. It does prove we have to step back, evaluate things and get better for it.

“Listen, our country right now, we are the best at basketball, we are the best at American football, we are the best at baseball, we’re not the best at soccer. Sometimes maybe we feel like we’re taking big steps forward but the reality is it’s still newer in this country and we have to improve. We have to get better.”

MLS has certainly taken its share of criticism for the World Cup failure with some pointing the finger at USMNT stars like Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard and even Union captain Alejandro Bedoya leaving the more cutthroat world of European soccer to play club soccer in their home country. Interestingly enough, MLS has also probably made the rest of CONCACAF better — a point that was driven home when the Seattle Sounders’ Roman Torres scored the game-winning goal for Panama shortly after the Houston Dynamo’s Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto both scored for Honduras.

But while Curtin acknowledged the fact that the league’s “amazing facilities” and other factors have boosted the Panamanian and Honduran programs, he also said the USMNT still “has the quality in our player pool” to beat those countries out for a World Cup spot. He is concerned, though, that the league often favors foreign-born players at the expense of American ones.

“Listen, I’m a believer that the domestic league has to be a resource in developing players,” Curtin said. “It really has to be. You look at different countries and the way they do it — some are successful in doing it, some are not so successful. And right now, there are big decisions that have to happen, with the league and U.S. soccer.

“I think it’s critical because you do see the direction our league is going and it probably wouldn’t be one that would favor the American player right now to be honest, with the different ways money’s coming into it. So it’s an important time. We still have very good young American players in our league that are getting better each and every day and developing. But you do want to see more of it.”

While admitting it might be better served as an “eight-hour discussion,” Curtin also touched on the pay-to-play model of youth soccer in this country. He recognized that it’s “big business” for people who make a living doing it but that it “does get in the way of what’s best for kids.” And he said he’s been in rooms where people involved in youth soccer simply don’t listen to each other because “everyone has to show they’re the smartest guy in the room.”

“We’re probably one of the few countries in the world where soccer is a privileged sport, and if people want to argue that, they’re crazy,” Curtin said. “It’s a privileged sport in this country across the board. Do I have the answer how to change that? I don’t have it right now. I wish I did. But there are enough resources, we have enough facilities in the United States of America to do a better job of getting the best kids involved, regardless of whether they’re rich kids, regardless of whether they’re middle class, regardless of whether they have nothing. 

“I think we’re out of excuses, to be honest. I can’t come up with one reason why we can’t be better.”

While Curtin does not have a direct connection to the USMNT, he knows that “if our national team fails, soccer is going to fail in this country.” And missing out on a once-every-four-years event like the World Cup hurts the growth of soccer and is a big blow for all of the kids — his three included — that will have to wait five years to watch the U.S. on the world’s biggest sporting stage.

But for the Union coach, there are still too many exciting things happening around the sport and MLS for him to be entirely discouraged.

“Honestly, I still see the game moving forward,” he said. “The coverage for the game, MLS is getting better despite people that will blame the league for the collapse. The game is growing in our country, that’s inevitable. It’s on TV more. Does this hurt? Absolutely. It hurts the growth any time there’s a setback like this, but there’s still good things happening.

“We got punched in the teeth and now we have to get up and recover.”

Soccer in 2017 broke a lot of people

ap-us_soccer.jpg

Soccer in 2017 broke a lot of people

If you’re a soccer fan in this country, you might always feel like you’re rooting for two things at once: your favorite team and the growth of the sport in this country.

It may sound silly to some, thinking about the latter, but that’s the way it is. You’re constantly on the defensive, constantly reminded of the uphill battle that soccer faces against some of the country’s more established sports, constantly telling people that we’re climbing that hill, slowly but surely. 

And if you’re in Philly, you’re hoping that the Union can help the cause by attracting big-name players and developing promising young ones, gaining more relevancy in a crowded sports market, and competing for championships.

Even when there are bumps in the road, that’s what soccer people think about: building toward something cool, something special.

And then 2017 happened.

On Saturday, the Union were officially eliminated from playoff contention in perhaps the most frustrating season in the franchise’s eight-year history as questions abound as to where the club goes from here.

Three nights later, in a far more crushing and unexpected blow, the U.S. national team’s stunning loss in Trinidad and Tobago, coupled with come-from-behind wins by Panama and Honduras, left the Americans out of the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

Let’s start with the U.S. national team because that, obviously, has far more wider significance. It’s hard to overstate how devastating it is to miss a World Cup — a rare event that brings casual soccer fans and even non-soccer fans to their TVs. Of course, many of those people only watch soccer every four years but there are certainly some who then decide to follow their local team or pay attention the USMNT at other tournaments. Not being able to use the momentum of a World Cup is a big setback to growing the fanbase and getting the sport more into the mainstream (if a defeat as crushing as the USMNT’s on Tuesday happened elsewhere, it might grind that country to a halt; here, it didn’t even register with a lot of people).

More to the point, not being able to cheer on the US at a remarkable event like the World Cup is just gut-wrenching for the soccer diehards out there. The World Cup is the reason I fell in love with soccer and, if you’re reading this, it’s probably the reason you did too. The fact that the US isn’t nearly at the same level as the best soccer countries from Europe and South America is certainly cause for alarm and change (and the subject of plenty of other columns today) but it also makes for a fun, anything-is-possible underdog vibe on the biggest stage in sports.

From watching in a summer camp cabin in ’94 to waking up in the middle of the night in ’02 to jumping on barstools in ’10, I can remember where I was and what I was doing for every World Cup — and for people of my generation, it almost became a given that the scrappy US team would be there. If there’s any bit of solace it’s finally realizing that CONCACAF qualifying shouldn’t be taken for granted and that building around a new crop of players led by 19-year-old Hershey sensation Christian Pulisic is vital. More than anything, though, it’s painful to think about waiting at least five years to cheer on Pulisic and the Americans at the world’s biggest sporting event.

And then there’s a different kind of pain in Philly. While the passion soccer people have for the USMNT won’t ever diminish (which on days like today, manifests as a passion to be held accountable and figure things out), there’s a creeping sense that apathy has set in with some sections of the Union fan base. 

The Union have had bad seasons before but this one almost feels different because, you can argue for the first time, it seems like they’re moving in the wrong direction. Consider: 2010 was the expansion season when everything was new and exciting (and, hey, a World Cup year with a soccer moment for the ages). In 2011, they made the playoffs. In 2012, John Hackworth took over for the embattled Peter Nowak in the middle of the year and unleashed some young players, before leading an overachieving group to the brink of the playoffs in 2013. In 2014, another new coach in Jim Curtin took over and led the Union to the first of two straight U.S. Open Cup finals, in front of home crowds that shook with noise, and then pushed them back into the playoffs (albeit on a winless streak) in 2016.

But what did 2017 bring us? No playoffs. No Open Cup runs. No big changes. Uninspired play for much of the season, especially on the road. Alarming regression or lack of playing time from young players. No real nucleus to build around. Nothing, really, to inspire confidence heading into 2018 other than the hope that ownership opens up the wallet more, the youth academy continues to improve, and sporting director Earnie Stewart does a better job of finding talent around the world with the resources he has to work with.

The sad part is the Union may have had a fighting chance to break through a couple years back when Curtin, a big Philly guy, took over while the rest of the city’s teams struggled. Now, the other Philly teams are on the rise with marquee young superstars to build around while the Union remain on the periphery of a stubborn four-sports town without a true face of the franchise. (In perhaps the funniest little comparison, the Union’s best young player this season, rookie Jack Elliott, quickly become overshadowed by Eagles rookie Jake Elliott kicking a 61-yard game-winning field goal.) 

Perhaps that’s where the Union are destined to remain — on the periphery. Perhaps that’s where soccer as a sport and MLS as a league are destined to remain, too. Soccer players and coaches love to talk about the building process, and we love to believe them because the possibilities are endless. A Union-operated high school that chooses from the best teenagers in the region and nurtures them along so they can one day win a championship at Talen Energy Stadium? A huge, sports-obsessed country like the United States finding a way to develop enough stars to make them household names and potentially even win a World Cup?
It’s all so tantalizing, so exciting, so fun to think about it. But in a year and a week like this one, it feels like nothing more than a pipe dream.