Union

Andre Blake's shutout helps give Union life with slump-busting win over D.C. United

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Andre Blake's shutout helps give Union life with slump-busting win over D.C. United

BOX SCORE

CHESTER, Pa. -- The Union have life.

Fafa Picault netted his fourth of the season and Andre Blake cleaned up the rest as the Union snapped a three-game losing streak by defeating D.C. United, 1-0, Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium. 

“It was a much needed three points, especially after the last two games,” Union center back Oguchi Onyewu said. “I feel that despite the previous games, despite losing, we haven’t lost the spirit, we haven’t lost the camaraderie, we haven’t lost the fight. That was visual in our gameplay tonight.”

Picault brought Talen Energy Stadium to life in the 31st minute with a highlight reel goal.

From the midfield line, Ray Gaddis pushed the ball down the right side to Alejandro Bedoya into D.C. United territory. With possession on the fast break, Bedoya, who made his return after missing two games with a hamstring injury, launched a lofty cross that seemed to surprise the defenders, who failed to track trailing Picault’s one-hit drive that beat Bill Hamid for the 1-0 Union lead.

“In those cases, you just track it,” Picault said. “When the ball’s put in, our jobs as attackers if the ball is played off the right side, CJ has to be there and me coming off the left side, try to make a run in. It ended up falling onto my left foot. I think either of us would’ve put it in, but it came to me and I had to put a strong one on to put it on target and give it a chance to go in.

Then it was Blake’s turn to play the hero. 

In the 69th minute, Union center back Oguchi Onyewu was called for a handball in the box. Lining up for the kick, Lamar Neagle fired off a strong shot to the left that was stopped confidently by diving Blake, keeping the Union’s lead alive.

“I decided I was gonna go to my right,” Blake said. “I saw a few cues from him and I made up my mind. I went there and I made the save.” 

Blake would punish Neagle again with another eye-popping save in the 90th minute. The goalkeeper brought the crowd to its feet with a leaping stop off a point-blank header from the top of the crease. 

“We created a penalty kick, plenty of looks, bunch of service in the second half,” United coach Ben Olsen said. “We revved them up a little at halftime. We had more life from the get-go but they made the play.”

Blake would finish with the four-save shutout.

“Incredible,” Picault said of Blake. “He’s for me by far the best goalie in the league. I’m really happy to have him on our side. Every week, week in and week out, he’s shown great performances. It’s emotional for me during the games to watch that. It gives me a lot of motivation to keep going. Especially on that PK stop.”

But the match wasn’t without referee drama. With the Union, now 5-7-4, in full control late in the second half, referee Sorin Stoica handed United midfielder Luciano Acosta a straight red for taking down and kicking Haris Medunjanin. However, the card was completely rescinded moments later.

Why? Medunjanin came clean that Acosta didn’t kick him after the play.

“I do commend him and give him credit,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “Crazy situation because all of us on the sidelines were not sure what was going on. I never have seen a red card and then it rescinded. We couldn’t figure out what was happening on our end. Very noble and honorable thing to do for Haris.”

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.