Union

Chris Pontius, Keegan Rosenberry ready to make an impression at USMNT camp

Chris Pontius, Keegan Rosenberry ready to make an impression at USMNT camp

Seven years ago, Chris Pontius and Alejandro Bedoya were young players sharing a room together during their first U.S. national team camp.

Since then, Bedoya has become a mainstay on the USMNT, while Pontius fell off the national team radar as he dealt with a rash of injuries.

But in a couple of days, both players will depart for another U.S. national team January camp together, along with their Union teammate Keegan Rosenberry, who got his first call-up.

“It’s awesome,” said Bedoya, who’s made 55 appearances for the USMNT and was a starter at the 2014 World Cup. “I think it’s great for the club. I’m very happy for Chris Pontius to get the call-up because I remember playing with him at my first January camp. Through all this time, he suffered through injuries and mishaps, so to see him fight through all that and have such a great season last year and get a call-up is well deserved and a great achievement for him. 

“And with Keegan, to see a rookie play every minute, I’m very happy for him. He has great potential. … Three [Union] players representing the U.S. national team is something to be proud of and I’m looking forward to playing with them.”

Considering that Rosenberry was the MLS Rookie of the Year runner-up in 2016 while Pontius scored 12 goals in his first season in Philly, it’s not a huge surprise both got the call from U.S. head coach Bruce Arena, especially because the January camp is traditionally a time to look at new MLS players (since the USMNT players who play overseas are in the middle of their seasons).

But both are looking for a lot more than just exposure and are hoping to impress Arena (who none of them know particularly well) and use the camp as a springboard to earn their first-ever appearances in a USMNT game.

The U.S. plays Serbia in a friendly Jan. 29 and Jamaica five days later, before World Cup qualifying resumes in March in the first games since Jurgen Klinsmann was fired and replaced by Arena.

“It’s still a lot of hard work,” Pontius said. “It’s not a guarantee just getting called into the camp. There’s a lot of hard work ahead, and I’ve got to play well to prove myself.”

If anyone knows that nothing is guaranteed it's Pontius, who last got a U.S. call-up in 2012, but couldn’t go because of an injury. That’s been something of a theme for the 29-year-old winger, who looked to be one of the best American prospects in 2012 before injuries slowed his career progression.

But now that he’s healthy and enjoyed a breakout season in Philly in 2016, he feels more ready than ever to show what he can do at the international level.

“I’m less nervous, certainly,” he said. “I was very, very nervous in those first few camps and I think I’m a more confident player and more confident in my capabilities and know how to go about these camps in a different way. I think that just comes with eight-plus years of playing now as a pro. Learn your body, learn how to deal with these camps. It’s kind of like going into preseason. Like a rookie, it’s like going into camp and trying to impress.”

Rosenberry certainly knows what it’s like to impress as a rookie, locking down Philly’s right back spot after a strong preseason and leading MLS in minutes played in his first season. But going into this camp, which opens Tuesday in Carson, California and features 32 MLS players, he’s trying his best to act more like a seasoned veteran than a wide-eyed rookie — even if that means not asking too many questions to Bedoya and Pontius.

“I think when I get out there, I’ll talk to those guys a little bit,” Rosenberry said. “You don’t want to seem like too much of a young guy. You don’t want to show your ignorance, if you will. You try and play it cool as best you can until you get out there. I’m looking forward to seeing those guys.”

For what it’s worth, Pontius doesn’t think he needs much guidance.

“He doesn’t act like a rookie,” Pontius said. “He doesn’t approach things like a rookie. He’s a pretty bright kid, and if he has any questions, I’m there for him. But I’m sure Keegan will perform well.”

Still, for all three Union players, it’s fair to say that going with a couple of teammates should only make a great experience even better.

“I couldn’t be more excited,” Rosenberry said. “Having a couple of teammates out there just means the world.” 

“I was ecstatic to get called back in,” Pontius added. “If anyone isn’t striving to be on the national team, then I think there’s something wrong with that. As an American player, that’s the ultimate prize for us.”

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.