Union

Hometown kid John McCarthy relishing time in spotlight for Union

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Hometown kid John McCarthy relishing time in spotlight for Union

CHESTER, Pa. — Before every Jamaica game in the Gold Cup, backup Union goalkeeper John McCarthy would send Andre Blake a text: “Good luck, my son.

Blake — the Union’s first-string goalie who had been with Jamaica on international duty for most of July — was quick to respond, just as he was quick to offer McCarthy luck before Union games. And he’d have no choice but to call McCarthy his “father,” as part of a very important deal they have.

“When we play ping pong, if you lose, you have to call the other person ‘father,’” McCarthy said with a laugh after Union practice Wednesday. “It’s good banter. It’s stuff like that that goes a long way. But we know we have each other’s backs.”

McCarthy may have the edge over his fellow ’keeper in ping pong of late but even he’d admit there’s no one better in goal than Blake.

That makes it more palatable for McCarthy to be the Union's backup, and it makes him hungry to try to live up to the team’s high goalkeeping standards when Blake’s away — which he mostly has over the last five games.

“Everyone wants to play,” McCarthy said. “Being a backup at any level is not fun. But I think I’m in a great situation, if not one of the best. I’m backing up the best goalkeeper in the league, and I get to train with him every day. And I try to take advantage of my opportunities when they do come.”

Although the results haven’t been there, with the team going 1-3-1 in the last five games with McCarthy starting, the Philly native certainly has made the most of his chance, making a handful of the kind of highlight-reel saves that fans are accustomed to seeing from Blake.

McCarthy — who may get his sixth straight start Saturday vs. FC Dallas if a hand injury Blake suffered in the Gold Cup final is not yet healed — said he felt like “overall it’s been a really good run,” pointing to his six-save effort in Kansas City on July 6 as “a special game” for him. 

And Union head coach Jim Curtin has been pleased to see McCarthy putting in strong performances — all while Blake emerged as one of the best players at the Gold Cup.

“Andre’s talent speaks for itself,” Curtin said. “He’s coming off an incredible Gold Cup performance. John’s done a really good job stepping up his game in a tough spot. It’s always hard to play behind someone, especially at the goalkeeper position because there’s always the waiting-your-turn aspect of it. For him to have the success he’s had speaks to all the hard work he’s put in and peaks to (goalkeeper coach) Oka Nikolov and the great work he’s done with all our goalkeepers. You’re happy for Johnny. He’s stepped up in a big way and has done a good job in the games he’s gotten.”

At one point during McCarthy’s run of games, Curtin even said the goalkeeper out of La Salle University had shown him that he can be a full-time starter in this league. And considering Blake is probably good enough to soon play in a top league in Europe, that means the Union may have their next (star?) goalie waiting patiently in the wings.

“That means a lot,” McCarthy said. “They see that I’m growing as a player. It definitely helps with the confidence when a coach gives you praise like that. At any level, that’s huge. I’m happy to hear that and I’m hoping I can keep making the coaching staff happy.”

Given Blake’s impending return to the lineup, McCarthy knows he may not get many more opportunities in games this season. But that doesn’t mean the 25-year-old can’t continue to showcase his growth and technique in practice, where he and Blake consistently offer each other friendly advice.

“Training with Andre every day is a great opportunity for me,” McCarthy said. “He was the best goalkeeper in the league last year and he might be the best goalkeeper in the league this year. … And we have no problem critiquing each other at any point in time. Even as he walks off the field, I’ll say something to him before anyone else does. It’s not like he takes it like, ‘Oh, he’s being a mean dude.’ No, we appreciate each other. It’s good because we have such a good relationship on the field.”

The two goalkeepers have such a good relationship, in fact, that when Blake returned from the Gold Cup, following his devastating injury exit from Jamaica’s title-game loss to the U.S., McCarthy “went right up to him and gave him a hug and said, ‘Dude, you deserved everything in that tournament, you were the best goalkeeper by far, man.’”

And McCarthy knows that Blake will be right there cheering him on if he gets the start vs. FC Dallas — along with many of his family members, old friends from Northeast Philly, and former teammates from La Salle. 

Just like they always do.

“It’s cool to see them all texting me, coming out to the games and really having my back, whether I’m playing or not,” McCarthy said. “Even though I’m the No. 2, I’m home.”

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.