'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.”

Union midfielder Brian Carroll to retire after 15 MLS seasons

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Union midfielder Brian Carroll to retire after 15 MLS seasons

CHESTER, Pa. — Brian Carroll didn’t play a single minute in his first year in Major League Soccer.

That was in 2003.

Fourteen years later, he’s set to retire as one of the longest-tenured and accomplished players in league history.

Carroll, a mainstay of MLS and the Philadelphia Union, announced his well-deserved retirement Thursday ahead of the Union’s 2017 finale vs. Orlando City SC on Sunday at Talen Energy Stadium (4 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia+)

If he plays in Sunday’s game, it will be his first minutes of the season as age and injuries have started to creep up to the 36-year-old defensive midfielder who’s been battling for a time in a crowded position.

But as recently as last season, Carroll was still a key player for the Union, who he spent seven of his 15 MLS seasons with, wearing the captain’s armband at times and being a consummate pro in an ever-changing locker room.

In all for the Union, Carroll has played 13,818 minutes, the most in franchise history, and 165 games, second only to Sebastien Le Toux.

Throughout his MLS career, the savvy midfielder known for his tremendous work rate played a total of 370 games (tied for fourth in league history) and 30,776 minutes (sixth all-time), winning championships with his two previous teams — D.C. United in 2004 and the Columbus Crew in 2008. He also won the Supporters’ Shield four straight years, with D.C. in 2006 and 2007 and with Columbus in 2008 and 2009.

His teams made the playoffs in his first nine years in the league, a streak that culminated with the Union’s first-ever postseason appearance in 2011 — his first season in Philly.

Carroll, a former star player at Wake Forest, also had success at the international level, earning eight caps with the U.S. national team and also playing for a couple of U.S. youth teams.

The father of three now plans to move to Indianapolis with his family and embark on a new career in financial planning.

Inside Doop: Lack of star power continues to doom Union

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Inside Doop: Lack of star power continues to doom Union

At long last, the Union’s season is coming to an end. Even better, they no longer have to play any games on the road this year.

In their final away match of a disappointing 2017 campaign, the Union let a lead slip away in a 3-2 loss to the Fire, finishing the year with a dismal 1-10-6 road record.

What went wrong? And what can we expect from next week’s regular-season finale at Talen Energy Stadium? Here’s a look in the final Inside Doop of 2017:

Three thoughts about Sunday’s game
1. The Union were once again reminded what star power can do for a team. On Sunday, the Fire’s Nemanja Nikolic put on a show with three goals — his 22nd, 23rd and 24th of the season — to all but wrap up a Golden Boot crown and put on his back a Fire team that was without fellow star Bastian Schweinsteiger. In Philly’s last road game, Atlanta also overcame the loss of star Miguel Almiron to ride Josef Martinez to a big win. That’s what happens when you spend a lot of money: you have a stable of difference-makers and their presence trickles down to the rest of the club. The Union, simply, don’t have anything close to that — one of the big reasons why they can’t play well for 90 minutes on the road and why they’ll be missing the playoffs for the sixth time in the franchise’s eight-year history.

2. The closest thing the Union do have to a true star, apart from goalie Andre Blake, is the midfield combo of Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. And both overcame their recent heartbreak of missing out on the World Cup (Bedoya with the U.S., Medunjnanin with Bosnia and Herzegovina) to put in strong shifts. Medunjanin’s pass to set up Bedoya’s second goal of the season was a thing of beauty — and marked his 11th assist of the season. Say what you want about the Union, but those two are consummate pros and locker room leaders who will do everything in their power to get this thing turned around in 2018.

3. Sadly for the Union, one of their best stories of the season — Jack Elliott — had a night to forget. The rookie center back, who went from fourth-round draft pick to Rookie of the Year contender, lost track of a long ball on the Fire’s first goal and then committed a penalty to set up Nikolic’s second goal. Elliott will still be an important piece heading into 2018, but it’s important to remember that he’s no sure thing, especially after seeing what happened to Keegan Rosenberry and Josh Yaro in their second seasons. Meanwhile, Richie Marquez continued his late-season revival with one of his better games of the year. Raise your hand if you have any kind of handle on the team’s center back situation right now.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. Home finales are usually special no matter how a season turns out but it’s hard to figure what kind of crowd and reception there will be when the Union take on Orlando next Sunday (4 p.m., 6ABC). This has been a trying season for Union fans who watched their team fail to build on any kind of momentum from last year’s playoff berth while lowly teams like Chicago or expansion teams like Atlanta (for the reasons listed above them) skyrocketed past them. At the same time, the Union have been mostly fun to watch at home, where they’ve set a franchise record with nine wins. The chance to go for a 10th victory and have C.J. Sapong break the single-season scoring record could be a couple reasons that people will flock to the stadium — that, and the realization that there will be no more soccer there until March.

2. Another big reason to come to Talen Energy Stadium is to see Kaka, the Brazilian legend who will play his last game in MLS. Who will play their last game for the Union? It’s hard to say for sure but Roland Alberg, Ilsinho, Chris Pontius and Brian Carroll are decent bets as an offseason potentially filled with turnover looms.

3. How will head coach Jim Curtin construct the lineup? He doesn’t like to switch things too much, but fans may be clamoring for young guys like Derrick Jones and Adam Najem while Curtin may want to give something of a send-off to Carroll or Charlie Davies, well-known veterans who have hardly played this year. And what about Maurice Edu? He hasn’t played in more than two years — but will a player who led the Union to back-to-back U.S. Open Cup finals in 2014 and 2015 get to say goodbye to fans in some way?

Stat of the week
Even after Bedoya’s goal Sunday, the Union’s four highest-paid players — Bedoya, Edu, Ilsinho and Jay Simpson — have combined for only seven goals this season.

Quote of the week
"It was definitely nostalgic to come back and play at Toyota Park. When I was younger in the U-16s and the U-18s, I played a lot here when I was with the academy. It was good to come back on the professional side and be able to play on the same field I play it on when I was younger." — Union rookie Marcus Epps

Player of the week
Bedoya scored a very nice goal, made a couple of perfectly timed tackles and generally looked sharp in his first game back from the USMNT’s World Cup qualifying failure. Maybe he should’ve played in Trinidad, huh?