'Exciting window' gives familiar Union a new look

'Exciting window' gives familiar Union a new look

Earnie Stewart and Chris Albright spent the last month giving the Union a fresh look.

Despite entering the season with 21 players from last year’s group, the sporting and technical director shook the foundation of the Union by adding Haris Medunjanin, Fafa Picault, Oguchi Onyewu and Jay Harris.

“It was an exciting window for us,” Union manager Jim Curtin said from training camp in Clearwater, Florida. “Great moves by Earnie and Chris Albright, who did a great job.

“We’re getting quality players, experienced guys that fill needs.”

The most impactful of the newcomers could be Medunjanin. In the mold of Vincent Nogueira, who left the Union midway through 2016, 6-foot-2 Medunjanin is a possession midfielder and adept playmaker. He’s expected to start right away at either defensive midfield or in more of a box-to-box role.

“Haris is a guy who can get on the ball, with pressure, with a guy on his back, he can slow the game down,” Curtin said about the Bosnia and Herzegovina national. “Has really good feet but also his ability to connect the back four to the attackers is incredible. These 40-yard balls on the balls that he plays between the lines are important and something that we think that we needed.”

Medunjanin’s skillset is exactly what the Union were looking for in their midfield. The plan is for the veteran to play alongside Alejandro Bedoya and one of Brian Carroll, Warren Creavalle or Maurice Edu. Where Medunjanin fits is something the club will test throughout the preseason.

The club plays its first official preseason game on Feb. 18 against the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

“You can see Haris has played in the 4-2-3-1 system, he knows the role and responsibilities of the six (defensive midfielder) and eight (box-to-box midfielder), he can do both,” Curtin said. “He’s comfortable doing both.”

The Union attack has also been bolstered with the likes of Simpson and Picault. Simpson, a veteran, who popped in 33 goals over 87 matches for League Two side, Leyton Orient, will give the Union forward group some much-needed depth as he competes at the position with C.J. Sapong and Charlie Davies.

Meanwhile, 25-year-old Picault, out of St. Pauli in Germany’s second division, adds a dynamic element of speed and goal-scoring ability to the Union’s left-wing offense behind Chris Pontius.

“He has that ability to cut in on the right foot, use the defender as a screen and shoot from his right foot, curling the ball to the back post,” Curtin said. “Speed-wise, he gets to the end line whenever he wants, he is fast. He has a different level of speed that we haven’t had before.”

On the defensive end, where the Union struggled most last season, the club added a veteran center back in Onyewu. Though he hasn’t played significant minutes in two years, the former U.S. Men’s National Team player has opened eyes in Union camp.

“His soccer’s been excellent,” Curtin said. “He’s been playing center back at a very high level in the short time that we’ve been going. So he’s been above and beyond what I anticipated, I must say, and I’m happy with where he’s at right now.”

More importantly, Onyewu is fitting well with the club. Part of the 34-year-old’s responsibility is mentoring a young Union back line that features second-year players Josh Yaro, Ken Tribbett and 24-year-old Richie Marquez.

“The way Gooch is interacting with the group, how he puts his arm around our academy kids and how at every meal he sits with a different group. He’s fitting in with everybody," Curtin said. "He's been doing a ton for us in sharing that knowledge. He’s holding guys accountable in training, he’s getting on guys the right way with the right tone and getting a good response out of them. That part’s been good.”

But while the Union’s four high-profile additions are a welcome sight for the refreshed team, they won’t come without a few sleepless nights for Curtin. But that's not a bad thing for the fourth-year manager.

“We’ve got a lot of tough decisions,” he said. “It might look a little different when we’re at home and when we’re away in terms of personnel to choose from, but again, these are good problems to have.”

With new deal signed, CJ Sapong hungry to 'eat' for Union

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With new deal signed, CJ Sapong hungry to 'eat' for Union

CHESTER, Pa. — When the Union first traded for CJ Sapong ahead of the 2015 season, they knew they were getting a promising young attacking player.

What may have been less expected was Sapong developing into one of the top American strikers, a member of the U.S national team rotation and a foundational player that makes the Union’s entire system go.

So with Sapong’s contract set to expire at the end of the 2018 campaign, the Union knew they had to make sure to lock him up — which they did just one game into the season, signing him Wednesday to a new deal that runs through 2019 with a club option for 2020.

“I hope he continues to progress as a center forward,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart told reporters from the club’s training complex Wednesday. “I think CJ is a person that, [with] the way he takes care of his body and the professional that he is, has a long future in soccer. And he’s still growing as a soccer player.”

At 29, Sapong might not be considered young anymore. But it’s easy to make the case that his best soccer is still in front of him, considering he’s coming off a breakout 16-goal season — the first time in his career he eclipsed double digits — and is set up for even more success this year with the offseason additions of playmakers Borek Dockal and David Accam.

The combination of Dockal’s vision behind him with the speed of Accam and Fafa Picault on either side of him has Sapong as excited as inking a new deal.

“That gives me space to just chill in the box and eat when I can,” he said. “I find it hard to believe we’ll be kept off the scoresheet too many games this year.”

After opening his account in Philly’s season-opening 2-0 win over the Revolution on March 3, Sapong will look to find the back of the net again when the Union return to the field Saturday vs. Columbus at Talen Energy Stadium.

And putting all contract negotiations behind him should only provide further motivation to a player who can now rest easy that Philadelphia will be his home for years to come.

“He’s a guy who’s done everything for the badge, and it’s been a pleasure to work with him and watch him grow and take his game to another level,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “I’m looking forward to working with him for the next few years.”

Currently in his eighth MLS season, Sapong said he hopes to, at the least, hit double-digits in goals every year while continuing to do the dirty work and hold-up play that Curtin loves — and has endeared him to Philly fans.

“I owe a lot to Philadelphia,” Sapong said, “and how it’s transformed me as a person and a player.”

The kids are finally all right for Union in season-opening win

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The kids are finally all right for Union in season-opening win


CHESTER, Pa. — For years, the Union have yelled from the rooftops about their youth-first mentality and plan to win through player development.

On Saturday night, that plan finally came to fruition.

"It's a big step for us," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "The fact that some homegrowns weren't just on the field but left huge impacts on the game, it's special."

Anthony Fontana, 18, Auston Trusty, 19, and Derrick Jones, 21, all put their stamp on the Union's 2-0 season-opening win over the Revolution.

Fontana, hailing from Newark, Delaware, and who played 66 minutes at attacking midfield, opened up his MLS account in the 43rd minute when he gathered a tipped ball from C.J. Sapong and placed a confident shot past Matt Turner. 

“It’s always been a dream of mine to play here at this club,” Fontana said. “To be able to actually help the team today feels good.”

His teammates also couldn’t be happier. That includes Union and former U.S. Men’s National Team captain Alejandro Bedoya, who took Fontana under his wing throughout the preseason.

“I’m so happy for him,” Bedoya said. “He’s a good player so I hope he takes a good step this season. Not a bad way to start his debut, to score a goal. It’s just the beginning for him, he’s got a bright future.”

For Trusty, it was all about the clean sheet. Pairing with Jack Elliott on the left side of the Union defensive line, Trusty had the unenviable job of shutting down the Revs’ most potent option, Juan Agudelo. 

“It means a lot, but it’s also the challenge,” Trusty said. “The coach put me up to it and our organization put me up to it and they believe I can do it. I just set out to fulfill my role, do my task and keep the clean sheet and just play my role on the team.”

At one point in the first half, Agudelo beat Trusty and moved in on a breakaway, only for the rookie to catch up and steal the ball back.

“He made a couple key tackles in the box, won a lot of aerial duels in the box, did a lot of the things that don’t show up in the stat sheet for center backs,” Curtin said. “But the thing that makes me most proud is there was a zero at the end of the day. That’s what is most important. That means Auston did the job.” 

And while the win was a productive introduction for the Union’s crop of talented prospects, it was also an unforgettable experience for the local kids.

“It’s amazing,” Trusty said. “Imagine growing up in the Philadelphia area, being a little kid and coming to see these guys play, to be on the same field. I remember buying a ticket and coming to see these guys play and always dreamed of playing for the Union. For it to actually happen is amazing. It’s very humbling. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”