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."

Union believe they found their missing piece

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Union believe they found their missing piece

David Accam is a dream come true for the Union.

“At the end of the season, we talked about adding players and David was at the top of our list,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said. “I didn’t think that would be a real option. When it comes along, it’s incredible.”

Shocking as it was for Stewart, the Union pulled 27-year-old Accam from the Chicago Fire for allocation money at the 2018 MLS SuperDraft on Jan. 19. With his ability to create one-on-one opportunities and punish teams on the counter-attack, Accam, who had 14 goals and eight assists last season, is a perfect fit in the Union’s 4-2-3-1 system, and the exact type of “difference-maker” the team was looking for.

“David is known in the league for his speed, but when we scouted him we noted just how good he is on the ball,” Union manager Jim Curtin said Tuesday at the official introduction of Accam at Talen Energy Stadium. “The space he creates for others because he is so dangerous. When he gets one-on-one, his quality will take over games and it’ll create a lot of space for the rest of our players.”

From Accam’s perspective, he’s joining an established attacking group. Specifically mentioning Union leading scorer C.J. Sapong and winger Fafa Picault, Accam expects to have space to work.

“We have enough quality on this team already,” he said. “I just have to do my part.”

On top of his offensive acumen, Accam knows MLS. What attracted the Union to the speedster is not only his skill but his familiarity with the league. Unlike European players that take time to adjust to the climate, travel and style of play, Accam should make an instant impact on the Union.

“He’s been now, for multiple years, a top attacking player in our league,” Curtin said. “He’s got the statistics to back it up. The fact that he has a familiarity with the league, he knows the defenders will be grabbing and kicking him for 90 minutes, and that matters a great deal. It makes the transition more seamless. 

“He’s a great fit for us.”

But snagging that perfect fit wasn’t free. Acquired in one of the largest trades in Union history, the attacker was moved by the Fire in exchange for $1.2 million in combined allocation money. According to Stewart, the speedster, who was ripe for a new deal, signed an extension with the Fire before the team moved him to Philadelphia.

“Our understanding is that David has an obligation now with the Union through 2020,” Stewart said.

Despite scratching out a significant name off their wishlist, the Union aren’t quite done adding players, with the expectation that they bring in a playmaking midfielder. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be going on a shopping spree.

“I think we are in a better place than we were last year with the acquisition of David,” Stewart said. “There will be a little more happening but not much more because I believe the foundation is solid. With the acquisition of David and one more player in the near future, we’ll be in good shape to compete for the playoffs.”

Union acquire electrifying winger in major trade

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Union acquire electrifying winger in major trade

The Philadelphia Union didn’t make a pick in the first two rounds of the MLS SuperDraft on Friday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

But the hometown team still made one of the biggest splashes of the day.

Between the first and second rounds, Paul Tenorio of ESPN FC reported that the Union had a trade in place for electrifying winger David Accam, sending a palpable buzz through the ballroom. Not long after, the move was officially announced and the Philly fans in attendance finally had something to cheer about after a quiet-to-this-point offseason.

“I know there was some impatience with the timing of things,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “But this is a special player we added — one that changes the whole dynamic of our team.”

The move wasn’t cheap as the Union dealt $1.2 million in allocation money to the Chicago Fire in exchange for the Ghanaian speedster, who’s bagged 33 goals and 15 assists over the last three MLS seasons.

But if he can stay healthy and keep producing at the rate he has been, the Union think it can be a bargain.

“A David Accam on the open market is significantly higher than what we paid today,” Curtin said. “I can tell you with confidence if we shopped around for someone of David’s quality and production, we’d spend a heck of a lot more money than we did today.”

Accam will likely start on one of the wings opposite fellow burner Fafa Picault with leading scorer C.J. Sapong up top. That still leaves a hole in attacking midfield that the Union need to round out their offense — a position which Curtin and sporting director Earnie Stewart said the club is still searching for.

“With Fafa, with Accam, with C.J. Sapong, those guys will create a lot of space for whoever plays in that No. 10 spot during the course of the season,” Curtin said. “That’s something that makes other teams worry. When we get off the bus, you have to account for David Accam. So that’s a real positive.”

Accam has a unique backstory, playing at the Right to Dream Academy from 2004 to 2008 in his native Ghana, before moving to England on a student visa and playing for Ledbury Town and Evesham United. After taking part in “The Chance” competition, a Nike event to find undiscovered soccer talent, he moved to Swedish club Ostersund in 2012 and then to top-flight side Helsingborg later that year.

After starring for both clubs, he was signed by the Fire as a Designated Player and has been a consistent goal-scoring threat in Chicago. Since he came to MLS in 2015, Accam is one of just six MLS players to total at least 33 goals and 15 assists in league play, along with stars Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa, Diego Valeri, Ignacio Piatti and Kei Kamara.

“As we said a while back, we’re trying to find some difference-makers for our team to help us over those humps in certain games,” Stewart said. “We believe a couple of difference-makers can help that. And once David Accam came around, it was really clear to us that was a target that we wanted to make sure happened. And we as the Philadelphia Union made sure we stretched ourselves to make sure this player came aboard. We’re just very pleased that we were able to accomplish this.”

The Union also made a couple of other smaller moves leading up to the draft, signing defenders Matt Real and Mark McKenzie to Homegrown contracts.

Signing both players when they did was a good indication that the Union valued them both as much, if not more, as any guys they may have been able to draft had they not previously dealt away their picks.

And it’s even better that both Real and McKenzie came through the Union Academy and are more familiar with the club than a kid coming out of college would have been.

“Everybody has a different path,” said McKenzie, an 18-year old center back from Bear, Delaware. “All of these guys that got drafted today are great guys. … But myself, coming through the academy and when I was at the pre-academy when I was 11 and 12 and worked my way up to the U-14s to the U-18s to the [Bethlehem] Steel, it’s been an absolute honor and a blessing. I’ve been pushed and challenged at each level, and I’m looking forward to the future and what that holds.”

“It’s a big moment for me,” added Real, an 18-year-old who played for USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC last year. “These last couple of weeks for me have been surreal. I’m still kind of soaking all this in.

“Mark is my brother. Me and him have been playing together since the academy started. We graduated together, we’re on the [U-20] national team together. So this couldn’t be any better for me to share a moment like this with him.”