During City Hall event, Union owner says Philly 'will be a great soccer city'

During City Hall event, Union owner says Philly 'will be a great soccer city'

On Tuesday afternoon, Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney briefly stopped what he was doing to sit down with MLS Commissioner Don Garber and three Philadelphia Union executives: owner Jay Sugarman, sporting director Earnie Stewart and chief business officer Tim McDermott.

With the Union preparing for their eighth home opener Saturday vs. Toronto FC (4:30 p.m., CSN), Garber was in town to tour the Union's new training complex and visit for the first time YSC Academy, the Union-affiliated private high school for youth academy players. He then paid a visit to City Hall to meet with Kenney, who proclaimed March 7 as "Philadelphia Union March to Soccer Day," and take questions from broadcaster Tommy Smyth and fans, along with other members of the panel.

Afterward, Sugarman said he was thrilled for the opportunity to participate in an event like that with the mayor, who was presented with a Union jersey and touted the Philadelphia International Unity Cup, a World Cup-style tournament featuring teams of different immigrants that debuted last year. (Kenney also touted his relationship with Union goalkeeper John McCarthy's father -- his college roommate.) And it is Sugarman's hope that, even though the Union play 20 miles away in Chester, the franchise's relationship with the city only grows stronger.

"We continue to try to bring this whole region together," Sugarman said after the panel ended. “Last year you saw us put an Uber lot together for people who needed to get to the game in other ways. We tried to get some public transportation to really make it a lot easier for someone in Center City to get down there. We still have a lot of work to do.

"But Philadelphia is one of the largest cities in the country and [soccer] is the world's biggest sport. The opportunity and potential here is enormous. To hear [Mayor Kenney] is a fan, to hear he's committed through the Unity Cup to the sport in Philadelphia, that can only help. All those roads lead to the same place, which is Philadelphia will be a great soccer city."

Sugarman seems to understand there may be an uncovered sector of Philadelphia residents who would like to become more invested in the Union but prefer not to make the I-95 commute to Talen Energy Stadium and deal with the hassle of traffic getting in and out of the complex.

That's why the club began a partnership with Uber last year and hopes, in the future, to possibly create a new train station by the stadium, as well as a waterfront "campus" to better serve tailgaters.

"We're trying to work on some train alternatives that will get you dropped off right at the stadium," Sugarman said. "That would be my dream -- to march to the match from a station that's literally right next to the stadium. We have the train tracks. We just need the will. 

"We're trying to build a campus, so you can come before the game, be at this incredible place and then actually stay after the game. So that's on us. We've continued to acquire properties around there to really start building a sense of, 'Hey, you can spend an entire day with your friends, with your family.' We're not fully done there but that's the vision."

When the Union were first awarded an MLS franchise and laid out their stadium plans in 2008, it came with waterfront development along the Delaware River. To the dismay of many, those plans were then tabled, in large part because of the economic crisis at the time. But speaking with reporters from City Hall, Garber sounded optimistic that Sugarman and company will be able to revive them in some form, citing D.C. United's recent long-awaited stadium groundbreaking as proof that patience is vital.

"One thing I've learned over time is that it's really difficult to develop large projects in major metropolitan cities," the MLS commissioner said. "But if you're focused and you have a good plan and you're patient while being diligent, eventually it all gets done. You saw last week we broke ground in D.C. and that took us 20 years. I spent some time with the group today and got a sense of what the development is going to be like on the waterfront. Jay referenced it. I'm very confident that it will get done and that area will look very different five years from now than it does today."

Despite the waterfront development setbacks, Garber praised Sugarman and former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell for the initial plans to create the Philadelphia Union and a stadium in Chester. And Sugarman, for his part, believes the franchise has taken the necessary steps to since evolve with the development of a new training complex, training fields and YSC Academy, which Garber said compared to some of the top European academies.

"I think some people don't really know how much progress we've made," the Union owner said. “To have [Garber] come down here and see the field, see the training complex, see the school, see the youth facilities, and to really understand the commitment we've made to be a long-term success in the league is great.

"It's important for the league to understand we're going to be a top-tier team for a long time."

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.