Union

Inside Doop: Don't look now but the Union are suddenly surging

Inside Doop: Don't look now but the Union are suddenly surging

Wait, who are these guys?

For the second straight game, the suddenly resurgent Union obliterated a rival, rolling to a 4-0 road rout of D.C. United a week after walloping the New York Red Bulls, 3-0.

Before that, you might recall, the Union were winless in a whopping 15 straight games dating back to last season. So what changed? And can the Union continue to streak in this direction? Let’s take a look in this week’s Inside Doop.

Three thoughts about Saturday’s game
1. The only thing more unlikely than the Union's winning 4-0 was four different players scoring their first goals of the season — and three of them scoring the first goals of their MLS careers. But it may not have been surprising to sporting director Earnie Stewart and head coach Jim Curtin, who have insisted there is quality depth up and down the roster. Perhaps they have a point. Fafa Picault and Fabian Herbers, two wingers who have battled for minutes, scored terrific goals; Oguchi Onyewu, who had lost his place in the starting lineup as recently as two weeks ago, scored his first goal of any kind since 2014; and Haris Medunjanin, a deep-lying midfielder who specializes in passing, opened his own MLS account with a rocket from distance. If the Union can continue to get this kind of offensive production from wingers, defenders and defensive midfielders to help out top scorer C.J. Sapong and others, they’ll continue their charge up the Eastern Conference table.

2. Speaking of Onyewu, it was quite the way to ring in his 35th birthday as his nice header that found the back of the net helped the Union begin to run away from 10-man D.C. United. Perhaps more importantly, he had another good game anchoring a backline that also features rookie Jack Elliott and fullbacks Ray Gaddis and Fabinho as the Union picked up their third straight shutout, matching a club record. Considering Richie Marquez and Keegan Rosenberry — their two top defenders last season and probably two of the most important pieces for the club’s future — were on the bench, the shutout streak is a surprising one. But even if Marquez and Rosenberry — and another potential rising star in Joshua Yaro — eventually make their way back into the lineup, veterans Gaddis and Onyewu deserve a lot of credit for steadying a leaking ship and Elliott for not playing anything like a rookie.

3. As good a night as Onyewu had, no one was better than Medunjanin, who shredded through D.C. United even before they went down a man and added two assists on top of his goal. The Bosnian World Cup veteran had shown glimpses of potential before but had yet to put together a complete game like this since arriving in Philly in the offseason. And while the Union will still have questions behind him and in front of him, the partnership of Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya in the defensive midfield may yet turn out to be one of the league’s best.

Three questions about the week ahead
1. Don’t look now but the Union, once on the verge of a historic winless streak, can finish the week with a not-too-shabby 4-4-4 record, which would put them right back in the thick of a playoff race. More than anything else, that shows the parity that exists in MLS, as well as the fact that too many teams probably make the postseason. Regardless, if the Union can win two straight home games — against surging Houston on Wednesday and struggling Colorado on Saturday — all the talk of Curtin’s job security will go out the window and the club will suddenly be one of the hottest in the league.

2. Playing three games in eight days is never easy, of course, and all eyes will be on Curtin to see what kind of moves he’ll make to keep guys fresh. He probably won’t want to change the backline considering they’re coming off a shutout, nor will he want to mess with the Bedoya-Medunjanin midfield combo. That leaves the attack, where reserves like Herbers and Jay Simpson could make a claim to start one of the two games. And then there’s the question about who starts as the attacking midfielder, which we’ll get to below ...

3. With Roland Alberg out injured last week, Curtin made the somewhat surprising decision to start Ilsinho at the No. 10. attacking midfield spot. And the crafty Brazilian, to his credit, was on the ball a lot and made some nice plays to kickstart the attack. Considering the Union are looking strong on the wing with Herbers, Picault and Chris Pontius, could Ilsinho remain in a more central role, perhaps in a platoon with Roland Alberg? Or will Curtin use this week as an opportunity to throw rookie Adam Najem, who he called a “true No. 10” last week, into the fire? The third option of signing a big-name No. 10 this summer may be the best one, but let’s not rain on the Union’s parade too much right now.

Stat of the week
Saturday marked the first time the Union have had three players score their first MLS goal in the same game.

Quote of the week
“When I saw it go in the back of the net, just emotions took over me. At first I think I was calm, and then it just hit me. And I was like, ‘Alright, let me just run around like a little boy, like I was back to being 23.’” — Union defender Oguchi Onyewu

Player of the week
A lot of guys played well but Medunjanin, whom Curtin called “the best passer” he’s ever been around, is still an easy choice.

Alejandro Bedoya, CJ Sapong, Warren Creavalle called upon for international duty

uspresswire-union-bedoya-sapong.jpg
USA Today Images

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

uspresswire-union-earnie-stewart.jpg
USA Today Images

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.