Union

Inside Doop: Absences, losses continue to pile up for Union

Inside Doop: Absences, losses continue to pile up for Union

The Union gave us a glimpse into their future as two rookies made their first MLS starts over the weekend. But, in the end, a slew of key veteran absences were too much to overcome as the Union lost their second straight to fall further out of the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Here’s a closer look at the rough past few days and what lies ahead during another busy week that, if they don't turn things around, could sink their playoff hopes.

Three thoughts about the past week
1. The biggest surprise Saturday may have come before the game in Columbus even began — when the lineups revealed the Union’s attacking four consisted of two rookies making their first career starts (Adam Najem and Marcus Epps), their backup striker (Jay Simpson) and a winger who’s been mostly deployed centrally of late (Ilsinho). That’s because regular starters Chris Pontius, Fafa Picault, C.J. Sapong and Roland Alberg, among others, were all absent due to injury, suspension or Gold Cup duty. And, well, it showed. While Najem did look comfortable on the ball at times, the chemistry was lacking up top, the team strung together very few passes moving forward, and they finished with a grand total of zero shots on target in a 1-0 loss to the Crew. Head coach Jim Curtin likes to talk about his team’s improved depth but there’s only so much you can overcome on the road.

2. Although he’s yet to win in three starts since replacing Andre Blake, who’s currently at the Gold Cup, John McCarthy has looked sharp in net. And in Columbus, he made a couple of big-time saves to keep his team in the game. Now, the Union will need him once again Wednesday when they face Columbus in the second half of a home-and-home series. That’s because Blake continued his stirring run in the Gold Cup by leading Jamaica to a huge 1-0 upset of Mexico on Sunday night and into the title game vs. the U.S. You could say that’s a tough break for the Union in the short term — Curtin has admitted part of him has been rooting for Jamaica to lose so he can get Blake back sooner — but having a player shine on such a national stage could end up being one of the high points of the year for Philly, especially given the current trajectory of the club.

3. While the Union’s offense was virtually nonexistent in Columbus, they did have a glimmer of life four days earlier in Montreal when Fafa Picault scored his fifth goal of the season. But even that moment was marred by the fact that Alberg and Ilsinho appeared not to want to celebrate with him. Afterward, Curtin revealed that there was a heated discussion at halftime with those players angry that Picault didn’t square a ball for Ilsinho that would have likely resulted in a tap-in goal. Curtin said he didn’t mind hearing that but you have to wonder if there may be some rifts growing in certain corners of the locker room.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. It’s something of a bizarre scheduling quirk that the Union meet the same Crew team Wednesday that they just played four days ago on Wednesday night at Talen Energy Stadium. But Curtin will hope that the game — and Philly’s lineup too — will look a lot different. Although Pontius and Blake will still be gone, squaring off in the U.S. vs. Jamaica Gold Cup final across on the same night, Picault and Sapong could return from their minor injuries and Alberg's set to come back from his one-game suspension. Of course, the Crew could also get some reinforcements with star playmaker Federico Higuain working to recover from a right knee sprain.

2. Even if the Union weren’t missing guys anyway, Curtin might still tinker with the lineups during a four-game-in-11-days stretch; after Wednesday’s matchup vs. the Crew, they travel to New England to take on the Revolution on Saturday. Veteran center back Oguchi Onyewu will likely be plugged back into the lineup after he was given a rest this past weekend and his fill-in, Josh Yaro, had what basically amounted to an own goal in the loss. Will Curtin opt to give any other guys a rest in either of the next two games?

3. Almost lost in the storylines of Saturday’s game was the return of captain Alejandro Bedoya, who had missed the three previous contests due to captaining the U.S. national team at the Gold Cup group stages and the birth of his second child. The true test now for the Union captain will be to see if he and fellow veteran central midfielder Haris Medunjanin can right the ship before it’s too late.

Stat of the week
With his season debut in Columbus, Charlie Davies became the 23rd Union player to play in a league game this year.

Quote of the week
“It feels amazing. As a kid when you dream of playing professional soccer in front of big crowds and stuff, it’s great to have that first start and put it in the books.”

— Union winger Marcus Epps

Player of the week
John McCarthy was one of the only bright spots in Columbus, making the kind of saves that would make Andre Blake proud.

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.