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C.J. Sapong, Union topple Revolution with dominant shutout win

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C.J. Sapong, Union topple Revolution with dominant shutout win

BOX SCORE

CHESTER, Pa. -- C.J. Sapong and the Union took two minutes to claim the lead and didn’t look back, punishing the shorthanded New England Revolution, 3-0, Sunday at Talen Energy Stadium.

“All 11 players and substitutes that came on, they all contributed to the three points,” Union center back Oguchi Onyewu said. “It’s a testament to our growing as a team and our toughness in terms of playing against us. I don’t think that any team can say we’re an easy team to beat or play against.” 

Before fans settled into their seats, the Union took the advantage. Breaking down the left side of the Revs' box, Sapong’s attempted cross hit the extended left arm of Benjamin Angoua on the line. Without hesitation, referee Chris Penso pointed to the spot for the fortunate Union penalty kick.

Lining up, Sapong stutter-stepped before pounding a rocket high and down the center past Cody Cropper to make it 1-0. It was Sapong’s team-leading and career-high ninth of the season, along with his first in four games.

“I’m seeing my battling throughout the game is paying dividends for myself and my teammates around me,” Sapong said. “So I just want to keep doing that.”

Still, the visitors pressed. 

With the Revs controlling play throughout the first half, Union goalkeeper Andre Blake was called upon once again to play the savior. In the 12th minute, off a midfield turnover, the Revs gained the Union box and on a two-on-one, Teal Bunbury slid the ball over to Kei Kamara for a right-footed shot which Blake bodied away. 

“It was a turnover and I just tried to get a read on it,” Blake said. “I saw he was gonna pass to him so I knew I just had to get out and make myself big and to hopefully see if I can get a piece of it. That’s what happened.”

Blake finished with the three-save shutout. It was his seventh clean sheet of the season.

“I think there was a few instances where they got in behind us,” Onyewu said. “But that’s why we have a world-class goalie like Andre to do his job and do what he’s paid for.” 

The save loomed large, as three minutes into the second half the Union doubled their lead and put a chokehold on the match. Pushing down the right side on a fast break, Fafa Picault stopped and flipped a pass to the streaking Ilsinho, who split defenders and took a shot off the bounce that found the top of the net. 

“Haris found Fafa for a through pass, and Fafa found me and I took a good shot,” Ilsinho said. “Thank God, I scored my second goal of the season.

“When I was running, I read it so fast and I didn’t see anyone inside the box. I tried to shoot and score or the keeper saves it and someone else takes the rebound.”

The dismantling of the Revs continued in the 78th minute, when Roland Alberg, moments after entering the game for Ilsinho, ripped a rocket from around 30 yards out that beat Cropper and into the top right corner for the 3-0 win.

“To score the goal that Roland did, how quickly he releases that shot is world class,” Union manager Jim Curtin said.

Without midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, who is away with the U.S. Men’s National Team for Gold Cup duty, the Union have registered back-to-back wins to move their record to 6-7-4. Meanwhile, the Revolution entered Sunday’s match without leading scorer Juan Agudelo and key midfielder Kelyn Rowe, who are both working the Gold Cup with Bedoya. The Revs, who are now 5-8-5, were also down suspended Diego Fagundez for the match.

“We’re not perfect and we’re not going to win the rest of our games, but at the midway point now, we’ve put ourselves in a spot with a couple games in hand on a lot of teams,” Curtin said. “We have to take care of business with those games in hand.”

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.