Union

2017 Union fearless forecast

2017 Union fearless forecast

A few months after qualifying for the MLS Cup Playoffs for only the second time in franchise history -- which preceded an early postseason exit -- the Philadelphia Union are ready to take the next step in their eighth season of play.

But can the franchise finally win its first-ever playoff game? What can fans expect from the offseason acquisitions? How much better can the team's young core of Andre Blake, Keegan Rosenberry and Fabian Herbers get? Who will be the star? Who will disappoint?

Leading into their season opener vs. Vancouver on Sunday (9:30 p.m., TCN), CSNPhilly.com soccer writers Dave Zeitlin and Ryan Bright break it all down and offer some sure-to-be-wrong predictions for the Union's much-anticipated 2017 campaign.

Team MVP
DZ: Alejandro Bedoya -- Most Union fans probably weren't wowed by Bedoya over the final 10 games of the 2016 season after he was signed. But it's important to remember that midseason acquisitions often struggle to get their footing, especially when coming from Europe. It's also important to remember that Bedoya had a full preseason to mesh with his teammates and get settled in Philly. Oh and one more thing: he's a regular starter with the U.S. national team. If that doesn't translate to MLS success, I'm not sure what does.

RB: Andre Blake -- The reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year has an overall better team in front of him but a shaky-enough backline to give him nightmares. Luckily for the Union, Blake is the fixer. Coming off a good preseason, the Jamaican international will be relied upon to be the team's best player on a nightly basis -- and he'll deliver once again.

Top newcomer
DZ: Oguchi Onyewu -- World Cup veteran Haris Medunjanin is an easy choice here, and you can also make the case for English striker Jay Simpson, US national team player Fafa Picault or even rookie Adam Najem. But something says that 34-year-old center back Onyewu will surprise some of the people that assumed his career was over and recapture a little bit of the magic that made him one of the most feared American soccer players of his generation. (Or he'll get hurt and barely play. I immediately regret this decision.)

RB: Haris Medunjanin -- The Bosnian native won't move the needle when it comes to name recognition, but he could be the Union's most impactful ball-mover. Playing deep in the midfield, Medunjanin will be the primary facilitator that links the attack together. He will be a mainstay for the Union all season.

Biggest surprise
DZ: Derrick Jones -- Union head coach Jim Curtin had a surprise up his sleeve last year when he decided to start unheralded rookie Ken Tribbett in the 2016 opener, and now he appears poised to go with another opening-day surprise starter in 19-year-old midfielder Derrick Jones. It may be tough for Jones to retain his spot in the defensive midfield when Warren Creavalle and Maurice Edu recover from injury. But if Jones -- who Curtin calls the franchise's first true Homegrown signing from their growing youth academy --  is able to deliver some first-team minutes and score a few goals, it would be a very nice surprise for the club's future.

RB: Ilsinho -- Although Ilsinho is a known entity, he will stun the league this season with his goal-scoring prowess. The aging Brazilian has leaned down from his rookie MLS season and has been instructed by Curtin to shoot more, a little-known ability he put on fine display this preseason. Ilsinho will be the goal-scorer the Union didn’t know they had.

Biggest disappointment
DZ: Maurice Edu -- It's not unreasonable to ask, at this point, if Edu will ever be healthy again. After being sidelined for the end of the 2015 campaign and all of the 2016 season, he's set to now miss some time at the start of 2017 with his recovery going slower than expected. He's only 30 years old so it's too soon to start thinking about retirement. But even if he does find his way back onto the field, will the former US national team starter be the same player he once was?

RB: Chris Pontius -- Pontius led the Union with 12 goals last season but will disappoint in 2017. The Union will still rely on his finishing ability and he will be a productive asset, but last year's prowess matched with his recent call-up to the U.S. national team's January camp will elevate expectations that Pontius won't be able to reach.

Biggest controversy
DZ: Roland Alberg's minutes -- When Tranquillo Barnetta decided to leave the Union to finish his career in his native Switzerland, Roland Alberg seemed poised to take that over the starting No. 10 attacking midfield role. But heading into the season, it looks like Bedoya will take that spot as Alberg tries to find some minutes off the bench while maybe competing for time with guys like C.J. Sapong and Ilsinho. After scoring nine goals in only 1,153 minutes last season -- his first in MLS -- how would the talented 26-year-old Dutch midfielder handle an even more limited role this season? Something says he won't like it too much. 

RB: Jay Simpson vs. C.J. Sapong -- The battle between Sapong and Simpson for the top striker spot will be pronounced all season long. But the controversy will truly begin when Curtin rides one of his forwards through a slump. If the club's offensive lights go out for an extended stretch, how Curtin manages the forward group will be a very hot topic.

They'll make the playoffs if … 
DZ: Bedoya and Medunjanin form the potent midfield combo that Curtin hopes, Pontius continues to carry much of the scoring load, and Blake remains the shot-stopping phenom that wins them points in tough spots.

RB: Onyewu, Richie Marquez and Blake form an unbeatable holy trinity of defense. Scoring goals shouldn't be an issue for Curtin's squad, but giving them up might be. If the center back grouping of Marquez and Onyewu can control play, and Blake can put out enough fires, the Union will win enough games to sneak into the playoffs.

They'll miss the playoffs if … 
DZ: Other players join Edu and Joshua Yaro on the injury list, Rosenberry and Herbers endure sophomore slumps, and Simpson and Onyewu prove not to be the right answers at the two trouble spots of striker and center back.

RB: The Eastern Conference is as good as it looks on paper. With impressive looking clubs like Toronto FC, New York City FC, New York Red Bulls, the Montreal Impact and Atlanta United all tightly competing for the postseason, the Union won't have much room for error.

Predicted finish
DZ: Considering their only key loss from last season was Barnetta and they acquired at least four potential starting-caliber MLS players, the Union should improve upon last season's sixth-place result. But it's hard to see them climbing higher than fifth place in the East, and another Knockout Round playoff exit seems like the most likely scenario.

RB: Despite adding talent around a solid core and showing a more consistent form, the Union fail to keep up in the East and miss the playoffs by a hair. It won't be a late-season collapse that does them in but an improved conference that remains one step ahead throughout.

Alejandro Bedoya, CJ Sapong, Warren Creavalle called upon for international duty

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Alejandro Bedoya, CJ Sapong, Warren Creavalle called upon for international duty

A trio of Union players are being called upon for international duty.

Midfielder Alejandro Bedoya and forward CJ Sapong have been named to the final U.S. Men's National Team roster for an upcoming international friendly against Portugal on Nov. 14 in Leiria, Portugal. 

Bedoya has earned 65 international caps for the USMNT including four World Cup appearances. Conversely, Sapong has earned just two caps, both in friendlies. However, Sapong recorded 16 goals this season, setting a career-high and a new franchise record. His 16 goals were tops among American players in MLS, one more that USMNT mainstay Jozy Altidore.

Union midfielder Warren Creavalle has also been called up by Guyana in their friendly against Trinidad and Tobago. Creavalle has earned three international caps. He played in 13 matches for his club team, his second most in a season since joining the Union in 2015.

Too many familiar chords for Union's Stewart in end-of-season address

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Too many familiar chords for Union's Stewart in end-of-season address

CHESTER, Pa. — Earnie Stewart has a lot of qualities you’d want in a sports executive.

He’s patient. He’s even-keeled. He’s endlessly positive. He always has a plan in mind, and he’s always thinking about the future.

If the Union sporting director has a fault, it may be that he doesn’t seem to have a great read on Philly sports fans, many of whom might have, let’s call it, different personality traits than him. But if Union supporters are feeling negative and impatient these days, it’s certainly for good reason.

The franchise has been floundering near the bottom of MLS since its inaugural season in 2010, while watching teams that entered the league around the same time (Toronto, Seattle, Portland) soar past it and more recent expansion clubs (New York City FC, Atlanta, Orlando) open their wallets for MVP-caliber players while drawing big crowds.

Stewart, meanwhile, has admitted the focus in Philly has been on building a foundation and committing to the franchise’s infrastructure through a new practice facility, a minor-league affiliate and an ever-improving youth academy. 

But even if the Union executes flawlessly in all of those aspects, it doesn’t necessarily give the team a competitive advantage over other MLS clubs, most of whom have the same things in place. Similarly, the rebuilding process won’t bear fruit in the way it does for teams in other leagues like the Sixers and Astros since the MLS draft isn’t a reliable mechanism to acquire foundational pieces.

Soon, the club’s youth academy, fueled by a partnership with Bethlehem Steel FC (where the top players can bypass college and get professional minutes) could very well lead to exciting things. But for a team that stresses development, developing young players has never been a particular strong suit — the regression of Keegan Rosenberry (along with the injuries to fellow 2016 standout rookies Josh Yaro and Fabian Herbers) serving as the latest, most glaring example.

Besides, focusing on development and infrastructure shouldn’t take away from building a team that can make the playoffs, which the Union failed to do in 2017 for the sixth time in the franchise’s eight-year history. Philly fans want a winner today, and seeing an expansion team like Atlanta roll into the playoffs behind star South American imports and record crowds has only made their frustration more pronounced.

Which brings us to Stewart’s end-of-season press conference Wednesday.

In his address with reporters, Stewart dove into many of the roster changes the team has made as it declined the options of several players. Still, it didn’t feel like very much will change at all.

For starters, he announced that Jim Curtin will be retained as head coach despite his 38-50-31 overall record. Second, he said that the team’s search for a new attacking midfielder would start in its “own backyard” and didn’t rule out bringing back Ilsinho, possibly in a reserve role, rather than wipe the slate clean after the 2016 season showed it’s the biggest position of need. And third, he hedged when asked if ownership would spend more money to keep up with other teams.

“We have those conversations and I have to say that our ownership group with [majority owner Jay Sugarman] leading that has been good,” Stewart said. “But we’ve also chosen a path that we have as a club, that we started at least since I’ve been here two years ago. That’s our pathway. That’s who we are, that’s who we want to be, and the most important part is we’ve got to come to grips with that.

“Can you spend like the Torontos? No, we can’t. It’s as simple as that. So we have to do it in a different way, and I think we’ve found that way. When you look around at what we have at the club and the facilities we have, we’re still building because a lot of times it’s only seen in player spending. But this is such a young club that there’s so much that needs to be built. You can bring in the best player you want but if you don’t have the infrastructure, it’s not going to work.”

The thing about this is no one is even asking them to spend like Toronto FC, who dishes out over $18 million a year to three star players: Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. Clearly, it’s a strategy that works, as Toronto posted the best record in league history this season after advancing to the MLS Cup final a year ago. But at this point, Union fans would settle for bringing in just one difference-maker in the $2 million range (plus a transfer fee) — the kind of salary that lured star playmakers Miguel Almiron (Atlanta), Diego Valeri (Portland), Romain Allesandrini (LA Galaxy) and Nicolas Lodeiro (Seattle) to MLS. 

Imagine one of those players behind striker CJ Sapong and in front of central midfielders Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. The Union could easily make the playoffs. Throw in a veteran defender and a quality winger and you could make the case they’re a title contender.

That’s the thing about MLS. There’s a lot talk about building a foundation and grooming young players but, in the end, your success boils down to how much you spend and whether or not you acquire the right players. 

Teams can literally scout anywhere in the world and the Union have had success mixing young Americans in with talented midfielders from France, Argentina and Bosnia, where Medunjanin — an excellent acquisition — hails. But Stewart has also had a lot of misses with his signings as Roland Alberg, Jay Simpson, Giliano Wijnaldum and others failed to make the kind of impact the club needed.

Stewart didn’t really accept much blame for any of those guys, saying Alberg actually had a “very good role” with the Union and that fellow Dutchman Wijnaldum was a “very talented kid” who simply struggled to adapt to a new country. He also didn’t appear to think the 2017 season was a particularly poor one, pointing to the fact that Union finished with same point total, with a better goal differential, as in 2016. Nor did he express any alarm over young players' development, noting that “every player developed this season, except the output wasn’t always the same on Saturday or Sunday.”

On it’s face, there’s nothing wrong with being this positive and Stewart very may well may have big things in store this offseason. But after hearing so much about progress for eight years without ever seeing very much of it, it’s easy to understand why Union fans might not share in his optimism.