Union

Despite woeful final 2 months, Union found stability, optimism in 2016

Despite woeful final 2 months, Union found stability, optimism in 2016

Shortly after the Philadelphia Union’s first playoff appearance in 2011, two of the top players on that team stepped onto a podium and talked about stability.

Sure, it was upsetting for Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Califf that the Union had just been swept out of the playoffs by the Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. But the stalwarts of the then-two-year-old franchise pledged continued improvements in 2012 if the same core returned and no sweeping changes were made to the roster.

What happened next remains the stuff of nightmares for Union fans. Le Toux, Califf and others were shuttled off with the Union getting little to nothing in return. The 2012 season started disastrously, controversial manager Peter Nowak was fired after orchestrating the puzzling moves (and doing far worse), and you could argue the franchise took years to recover.

Which brings us to the 2016 season.

Back in the playoffs for the first time since 2011, the Union once again had a short postseason stay, getting bounced out of the knockout round by star-studded Toronto FC on Wednesday night.

But just like it felt at the end of the 2011 season — before Nowak began his systematic dismantling — the brief trip to the playoffs feels more like a step in the right direction than anything else.

The season has ended, but in many ways this feels like only the beginning.

Forget for a second that the Union finished the season on an eight-game winless streak and consider that three of their top players throughout the year were 2016 first-round draft picks Keegan Rosenberry, Fabian Herbers and Joshua Yaro — a rookie trio the coaches hope will remain in Philly for up to a decade.

Forget that the team had a worse record than any MLS team to make the playoffs and consider that they got to the postseason without arguably their two most influential players — captain Maurice Edu (who missed all of 2016 with injuries) and Vincent Nogueira (who returned to his native France in the middle of the season because of a personal health issue).

Forget that they were outclassed by a Toronto team built on the backs of superstars Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and consider that, for one of the first times, owner Jay Sugarman opened the wallet this summer to bring in Alejandro Bedoya, a U.S. national team player who scored the second goal in Union playoff history Wednesday. Bedoya will be a focal point of the team for the next three years.

There were several other positive takeaways from 2016, including the spectacular season of highlight machine Andre Blake in goal, the career revival of Chris Pontius on the wing, and the reliability of Richie Marquez at center back. 

And, to be sure, there were plenty of negatives too, including the late slump of striker C.J. Sapong which coincided with the team’s late-season slump, the inability to turn the attacking bench trio of Ilsinho, Roland Alberg and Charlie Davies into a true weapon, and the hard-to-watch struggles of Ken Tribbett, who once again showed Wednesday that he can’t match up with the league’s best strikers. 

The key now is to fix the areas that need fixing — a big striker should be a necessity, for starters — while continuing to build upon the foundation that got the Union into the playoffs. And yes, that should mean keeping Jim Curtin as head coach.

Like anyone, Curtin has his faults. Deciding not to tinker with the lineup and bench slumping players like Sapong may have hurt the Union down the stretch. And his comments now about how no one thought the Union would be in the playoffs are both not true (CSN’s two Union writers both picked them to sneak in!) and unfairly diminish expectations for a team he himself says should be considered in the top 10 of MLS.

But recalibrating expectations after a season is nothing new. Former Union manager John Hackworth did the same after the Union barely missed the playoffs in 2013, essentially saying he got the most out of his team and that it was a rebuilding season (which came to a surprise to some players at the time). Curtin and Hackworth also, perhaps, share a loyalty to the players they like even in times of struggle, which can be problematic but is a far better trait than Nowak’s old habit of tossing club stalwarts to the scrap heap.

Why bring up the Union’s past coaches when neither have been around for years? Because it’s important for this franchise to learn from its mistakes at what is now a critical junction in franchise history.

The Union have already done that well by building a beautiful new training facility and hiring a smart sporting director in Earnie Stewart, who helped put the team on a better path in his first year. But it will be much harder to continue the building process by undergoing a roster overhaul or switching head coaches in the offseason.

Sometimes a coaching change is necessary. But Curtin has a lot of good qualities that embody what this franchise is striving to be and has been a big part of turning the team around from the dark days. And as Union fans know well, a new coach also can mean going back to square one, which is not something this team can afford right now.

The only other time they made the playoffs, the Union were dismantled. This time, they need to do the opposite.

Humble and unassuming, Union's Brian Carroll retiring as 'pioneer for the game in this country'

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Humble and unassuming, Union's Brian Carroll retiring as 'pioneer for the game in this country'

CHESTER, Pa. — It’s almost too fitting that Brian Carroll has decided to become a financial planner in Indianapolis.

For the retiring Union midfielder (see story), it’s a perfectly unassuming job for a perfectly unassuming guy. Someone who, without shin guards and cleats, always looked more like a business manager than a pro athlete anyway. An underappreciated, underrated, never-flashy player who was damn good at soccer and leaves the sport as a “pioneer for the game in this country,” according to Union head coach Jim Curtin.

“Having the opportunity to coach him here in Philadelphia, being around him, to work with him, it’s been a real honor for me,” Curtin said Thursday. “Once you reflect back on his career, the trophies that he’s won, the caps he’s received for the U.S. national team — he’s a true professional, a guy who always played the game with a smile on his face but also was kind of a quiet killer on the field.”

Carroll’s pedigree certainly is impressive. Two-time MLS Cup champion. Four straight Supporters’ Shields. Nine straight playoff appearances. Fourth-most MLS appearances in league history. Sixth-most minutes.

But when you stack him up against some other guys on the all-time leaderboard of games played (Kyle Beckerman, Brad Davis, Steve Ralston, even his brother-in-law Chad Marshall), it’s fair to say he doesn’t get the same kind of national recognition. What gives?

“Because he goes about his business in such a quiet way, he isn’t a guy who is loud on the field or loud in the locker room, he’s just a lead-by-example kind of guy, and often those guys don’t get a whole lot of credit,” Curtin said. “[But] he’s a guy who anybody speaks about him in the game has nothing but positive things to say. Everybody has a Brian Carroll story, and they’re all positive. There are not a lot of guys that end their career with that — with not one person that you would ever meet that would say a negative thing about them. He’s been a guy who’s gone about his business the right way — an example of so many young players to learn from in our country.”

Even if he might not always get league-wide attention, anyone who ever played with Carroll certainly knows what he’s all about. Five years ago, then-Union teammate Danny Califf said he was “one of the most underrated guys in the league, and he has been for a long time,” before adding: “He’s happy to sit back and be in the playoffs and win championships — and let everyone else talk about the other guys that don’t.” Two years later, when Carroll was the team’s captain, Amobi Okugo revealed that everyone called him “The Iron Man.” 

But for Carroll, always a picture of humility, none of that stuff ever really mattered. And if he did fly under the radar, that's just fine with him, too.

“I think I have some athletic ability, thank goodness, but I’m not the fastest, the tallest or the strongest,” said Carroll, who remarkably was never shown a red card in any of the 370 games he played. “What I brought was consistency, work ethic and fulfilling my role to the best of my ability and me doing that enabled other guys to fulfill their roles and succeed at their roles. I’m happy and thankful that I was able to lead my team to some trophies, whether it be Supporters’ Shield or MLS Cup.”

It’s a testament to his work ethic that the 36-year-old defensive midfielder continued to play at a high level as recently as last season. And although his playing time completely dried up this year, he holds no ill will toward the Union about that. If anything, he’s enjoyed the chance to step into a new role that’s involved coaching up his younger teammates at practice.

“I knew coming in these past couple of years my role was gonna change and be more supportive, still helping to lead,” he said. “One thing leads to another last year and I was a little bit more involved than what was planned. Then this year, it just kind of went according to plan — supporting the guys and helping them out in any way I can.”

Because of how he filled that role, many people speculated that he would transition directly into coaching or into a front office job. But while Carroll said he explored that path, he said the best thing for him to do with his family right now is to move to Indianapolis, where his wife is from.  

Of course, that could always change.

“There’s always a job here with the Philadelphia Union if he wants one,” Curtin said. “I know he’s moving into the financial world. I’m hoping he’s not sitting in a cubicle but if he is sitting in a cubicle, the door’s always open to come back here on the field to be a coach because he has so much more to give.”

He still has a little more to give as a player, too. Although he hasn’t played all season, Curtin said Carroll will likely play in Sunday’s 2017 finale vs. Orlando City SC — for his 371st and final MLS appearance.

“I think it’s important for him to get on the field, so we will find a way to make that happen,” Curtin said. “I kind of half-joked about starting him and seeing how long he could possibly last being out a lot this year. But he’s been sharp in training the past couple of weeks, so it’s great. 

“He’s an experienced guy, so no matter where you put him on the field, he deserves for our fans to give him a proper send-off. And I know they will.”

Union suspend Keegan Rosenberry for 'inappropriate' tweet

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Union suspend Keegan Rosenberry for 'inappropriate' tweet

Keegan Rosenberry’s nightmare season has come to an end. 

The second-year right back, who has floated in and out of favor with Union manager Jim Curtin throughout the 2017 campaign, has been suspended for the final game of the regular season on Sunday against Orlando City, for what Curtin deemed “unprofessional” behavior on social media.

“His activity on social media prior to kickoff was inappropriate,” Curtin said. “It’s something that won’t be tolerated. It's a decision that he made, one that he’ll be held accountable for. It’s unprofessional and disrespectful to the guys in the locker room.” 

Shortly before the Union’s 3-2 loss to the Chicago Fire last Sunday, in which he wasn’t tapped to start, Rosenberry tweeted a photo of himself on the bench with an unhappy look on his face and the headline, “(Need some caption help)”. The image, which also included defender Richie Marquez, was viewed as a veiled comment on his lack of playing time. 

It’s since been deleted.

“He’s a great young player that I think will learn from this,” Curtin continued. “But as professionals, we are held to a standard. To do that right before kickoff is not something [Union sporting director Earnie Stewart] and I will tolerate.”

It’s been a rough year for Rosenberry, who, after playing every minute of the regular season in 2016, was benched in favor of a more defensively stout Ray Gaddis after the Union’s first six games. The 23-year-old 2016 Rookie of the Year runner-up only managed five more starts and eight appearances following his early-season struggles. 

Although he made a five-game comeback through August and September, an ankle injury knocked him back out. He finished the season with one assist and four shots.

Now, he’ll miss the finale.