Union

From England to West Virginia to possible Union starter, rookie Jack Elliott forged unique path

From England to West Virginia to possible Union starter, rookie Jack Elliott forged unique path

Jack Elliott didn't expect to come to the United States to play college soccer. He didn't expect to get drafted into MLS. Few people likely would have predicted that he'd make the Union coming out of the preseason and even fewer probably believed he'd find his way onto the field just four games into the rookie season.

But there he was last week, having climbed up the depth chart due to surprisingly steady play and a couple of injuries, entering the Union's game vs. D.C. United at RFK Stadium in a daunting spot at halftime. 

And now, with Richie Marquez undergoing concussion protocol and questionable for Saturday's game against the Portland Timbers at Talen Energy Stadium (7 p.m., TCN), the England-born Elliott may very well get the start in Philly's second home contest of the 2017 season.

"At first, there were a bit of nerves," Elliott admitted of his earlier-than-expected MLS debut. "But I didn't really have too much time to think about it and be nervous about it."

Indeed, Union head coach Jim Curtin didn't even get a chance to talk to Elliott at halftime when Marquez exited the match with concussion-like symptoms. Instead, it was performance director Garrison Draper who told Elliott to get on the field and warm up with Curtin relaying a message to the rookie through Oguchi Onyewu.

According to Elliott, Onyewu then told him, "I trust you. Just play your football." And the new center back pairing teamed up nicely to help keep D.C. United in check as the Union sliced their two-goal halftime deficit in half before eventually dropping a 2-1 decision.

Although the loss adds significantly more pressure to the Union's upcoming three-game homestand, with the club winless in its first four games, the play of Elliott was certainly a bright spot as Curtin praised the rookie's passing and positioning.

"I'm confident in Jack that he can play in MLS,” Curtin said. "I believe he has the size, the feet, the passing ability to play in the league. And he showed that, to his credit, against D.C. United."

More than 3,500 miles away, Elliott's parents enjoyed the game from their home in Norbury, a town just outside London. They stayed up until 2 a.m. to watch, unaware that their son would get in. When he did, they proudly texted him, which he saw as soon as he returned to the RFK visiting locker room.

In many ways, it was the culmination of an interesting journey that was set in motion a few years ago when a West Virginia University assistant coach who hailed from his area in England scouted him and offered him a scholarship.

Elliott -- who played so much soccer as a kid in soccer-mad England that the grass in his backyard eventually disappeared -- was planning to go to a university in his home country, but he immediately jumped at the new opportunity to cross the Atlantic.

"It wasn't a huge deliberation for me," Elliott said. "As soon as he told me, I told my mom I really wanted to do it."

Elliott admits that going from London to Morgantown, West Virginia, was a little bit of a culture shock at first, as was the speed and physicality of soccer in the U.S. But his teammates welcomed him in with open arms and he grew into a dominant and reliable player for the Mountaineers, missing only one match in four years and anchoring a backline that recorded eight shutouts during his senior season.

Because of his success in the college ranks, Elliott was invited to the MLS Combine in January, where he thought he played well enough to get drafted -- though he admitted it was never "an expectation." The Union picked him in the fourth and final round with the 77th pick, ahead of only seven other players, with Curtin calling him to congratulate him and telling him he expected "big things."

But the truth is, many players who get selected in the third and fourth rounds of the draft don't get offered an MLS contract with some instead signing with a lower-division affiliate or pursuing professional opportunities elsewhere. In the past, the Union even have had cut late-round draft picks in the first week or two of the preseason.

Having already made it that far, however, Elliott wasn't worried.

"I didn't really think too much about the statistics of all that," he said. "I just played the way I played football -- connecting passes, showing my passing range. I got the height and I've been trying to improve and show what I've got."

Elliott's 6-foot-5 frame is certainly one big reason why he looks like an MLS player, which he showed with a pair of impressive preseason performances before getting rewarded with a rookie contract in late February. With Onyewu providing sound advice, he then quickly passed Ken Tribbett -- last season's surprise rookie starter -- as the top center back reserve behind Onyewu and Marquez, at least until Joshua Yaro returns from a shoulder injury.

"It starts with the preseason," Curtin said. "He came in really fit, really confident and showed his ability to pass out of the back. He got to play in preseason games and we started to see that against some good forwards that he belonged. And his evolution in training each and every day when he goes against our forwards, he does a good job as well. He's progressed very quickly.

"You always have to be ready for your opportunity," the Union coach added of his debut. "That's how it starts. That's how it started for Richie Marquez. That's how it started for Josh Yaro. And now Jack Elliott would be another guy who had that debut moment and rose to the occasion. We really believe in our young guys. It won't be the last time a young guy steps up in a big spot. I'm happy for Jack to get his debut and now we want more."

Whether or not "more" comes Saturday is up in the air. Curtin said he believe Marquez should pass the league's concussion protocol but even then, he'll have a "tough decision" since Marquez has missed some practice time.

Whoever plays will certainly have his work cut out for him against a dynamic Portland attack that features two of the league's premier players in midfielder Diego Valeri and striker Fanendo Adi, who have combined for nine goals this year already. 

But if the call comes, Elliott will be ready for it.

"Coming out of that tunnel," he said, "would be an amazing feeling."

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.