Union

Inside Doop: Andre Blake's huge game spoiled in Union's 2nd straight loss

Inside Doop: Andre Blake's huge game spoiled in Union's 2nd straight loss

It looks like the Union’s big turnaround has been put on hold.

After starting the season on an eight-game winless streak and then following that with a club-record four-game winning streak, the Union lost their second game in a row over the weekend.

What went wrong in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to New York City FC? And how can the Union regroup during the league’s international break? Here’s a look in this week’s Inside Doop.

Three thoughts about Saturday’s game
1. Almost two months ago, David Villa embarrassed Union goalie Andre Blake with a goal from practically midfield. This time around, Blake showed Villa — who Union head coach Jim Curtin called the best player to ever play in MLS — that he’s got some magic in him too, making a handful of incredible saves and visibly frustrating the Spanish legend. Blake’s heroics even caught the eye of New York City FC coach Patrick Vieira, who said the Union goalie was “fantastic.” So the fact that it wasn’t enough for the Union to squeak out a road point must have been hard for them to swallow.

2. A couple of old problems from seasons past came back to haunt the Union in this one as they allowed two late goals to blow a lead, both of which were offset pieces. The Union had been much more organized in this regard in recent weeks but were forced to switch their center back duo because of injuries with Richie Marquez coming in for Oguchi Onyewu and Joshua Yaro coming in for Warren Creavalle with Jack Elliot then shifting to the midfield. It’s hard to pin too much blame on Marquez and Yaro since coming off the bench is never easy (especially in Yaro’s case since it was his season debut). But it’s certainly fair to think that the result would have been different if Onyewu and Elliott had been able to remain in their spots all game.

3. As far as storylines go, Fafa Picault scoring the Union’s only goal was a pretty cool one. Born in Manhattan to Haitian parents, Picault said that this was the first time playing a professional match in his home city and that it was the first time that his grandfather — who once played for the Haitian national team — got to see him play live. The fact that his family then saw him score shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise though. Picault has now scored in three of his last five games — which could be even better if he wasn’t robbed last week. If you look at the way Picault has been playing, along with fellow newcomers Onyewu and Haris Medunjanin, suddenly sporting director Earnie Stewart’s offseason looks a lot better than it did a few weeks ago.

Three questions for the week(s) ahead
1. The Union have been dealing with all sorts of international call-ups of late with Alejandro Bedoya missing Saturday’s game to be with the U.S. national team and Medunjanin, wearing the captain’s armband in Bedoya’s place, leaving afterward to meet up with his Bosnia teammates before a World Cup qualifier. Then there are youngsters Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty who will be returning to the team after the U.S. Under-20’s World Cup run ended with a loss to Venezuela in the quarterfinals Sunday. And finally, we also learned Sunday that striker C.J. Sapong and winger Chris Pontius will be joining Bedoya on Bruce Arena’s preliminary Gold Cup roster for a USMNT training camp later this month. These are all good things but it certainly makes Curtin’s day-to-day duties a little more challenging this time of year.

2. Because of the upcoming World Cup qualifiers, the Union are off until their U.S. Open Cup opener against the Harrisburg City Islanders on June 14, followed by a nationally televised home showdown vs. the rival New York Red Bulls on June 18. Getting four days in between those two games rather than three is a big deal and could mean Curtin won’t be afraid to have a lot of guys go the full 90 minutes in both, especially since he values the Open Cup. Or will Curtin instead opt to throw all his eggs into the Red Bull basket and hope some of the younger backups can prove their mettle against the lower-division City Islanders?

3. Will Curtin and the coaching staff also take this opportunity to reevaluate the backline? It had seemed likely, even with the current group playing so well, that Marquez, Yaro and Keegan Rosenberry would eventually regain their starting spots. But after Saturday’s game, is it fair to say that Onyewu and Elliott are simply better than Marquez and Yaro at this point? And will Rosenberry ever be able to take back his job with Ray Gaddis playing mistake-free soccer? It would be understandable if Curtin sticks with what’s working but it’s also understandable to ask what then happens to Marquez, Yaro and Rosenberry? Will they simply turn into three more once-hyped Union prospects who saw their development stalled and career trajectories altered?

Quote of the week
“Overall, a good performance that gets wasted without any points.” — Union head coach Jim Curtin

Stat of the week
The 14 saves Blake has made in the past two games matches his highest total in any two straight games with the Union.

Player of the week
Blake has had a lot of terrific games for the Union but Saturday’s performance at Yankee Stadium may have been one of his best.

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.