Union

Inside Doop: Fighting for points on a brutal road trip

Inside Doop: Fighting for points on a brutal road trip

Over the past few days, the Union embarked on their toughest road trip of the season, if not ever.

And although they didn’t get at least one win like they craved, they did come home with a very respectable pair of points following two hard-fought draws to remain in first place in the Eastern Conference.

What did we learn about the team as they played in the heat of Orlando and the altitude of Colorado this past week? And what can we expect with one more game coming up before the league’s two-week Copa America Centenario break? Here’s a look in this week’s Inside Doop:

Three thoughts about this past week
1. Each of the two draws left the team with different taste in their mouths as the Union felt robbed by the refs in Wednesday’s 2-2 draw with Orlando City SC — particularly on a non-penalty call and also Orlando’s two semi-controversial goals — but grateful to escape with a point in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with the Colorado Rapids in a game they were mostly outplayed. Still, despite those very different feelings, the Union fought back from a second-half deficit to surprise the home crowd with a tying goal in both. It can’t be said enough how this is different than past Union teams, most of which never would have come from behind in hostile environments like these.

2. While there were plenty of crazy things to happen in the second half of Wednesday’s game, it all paled into comparison to what transpired in stoppage time Saturday. That’s when, with the Union trailing by a goal, defensive midfielder Brian Carroll scored for the first time in nearly three years — with his left foot, no less — to tie the game and cause Colorado to drop points at home for the only time this season. Perhaps equally impressive, Carroll ended up playing all 90 minutes in both Orlando and Colorado — and still found the energy to make a late run into the box to score the equalizer. That’s an exhausting stretch for anyone, let alone a 34-year-old veteran who was initially signed for this season just to provide depth.

3. What a week for Ken Tribbett. Taken on the road trip mostly for precautionary measures, the rookie center back ended up scoring his first MLS goal and bagging his first MLS assist in Orlando after coming on for Josh Yaro, who dislocated his shoulder. Tribbett then got to start against Colorado, helping to limit the Rapids to just two shots on target while playing in front of 30 family members in the state which he grew up. Head coach Jim Curtin may not have made as many lineup changes as some expected in the two games this week but Tribbett and Ray Gaddis — who spelled Fabinho at left back and got a secondary assist on the tying goal in Colorado — are giving the team some excellent defensive depth.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. The biggest question heading into Wednesday’s home game against Columbus (7 p.m., TCN) is who will man the goal, as starter Andre Blake has left to join Jamaica for Copa America Centenario. Curtin said recently it’s basically a toss-up between backups John McCarthy and Matt Jones. McCarthy started 11 league games for Philly last season and provided the club with some memorable moments, but Jones had a good pedigree in Portugal before coming to Philly this year. Either way, the Union will be glad to only lose Blake for one game, barring a deeper run for Jamaica than most expect (although the way Blake has been playing this year, some Copa upsets for the Reggae Boyz may be possible).

2. With the exception of captain Maurice Edu’s long-term stress fracture, the Union have been pretty healthy of late. That changed when Yaro dislocated his shoulder, but Philly is fortunate enough to have a player like Tribbett — who started the first five games before an injury of his own — to fill in for him. Considering the Union are off for two weeks after Wednesday’s game, it seems likely they’ll keep Tribbett in the lineup so Yaro has more time to heal. A bigger question may be whether Yaro returns to the starting role following the Copa break if Tribbett has another strong game. 

3. Will the Union’s streak of unlikely goal scorers continue? Before Tribbett scored his first career goal and Carroll followed with his first since 2013, it was center back Richie Marquez opening his MLS account to lift Philly to a 1-0 win over D.C. United on May 20. And earlier in the month, right back Keegan Rosenberry scored a big goal to lift Philly to a come-from-behind point over the L.A. Galaxy. If you would have told most people that three defenders and Carroll would score this season, they might not believe you. The fact it all happened this month makes it even crazier — and, of course, a great thing to ease some of the scoring burden off striker C.J. Sapong and the rest of the attackers.

Quote of the week
“I’m happy for the resilience that my group showed. It’s difficult to go on the road to Orlando with the turf and the heat and then coming here to altitude and get points in both places shows a lot of character and grit.”

-- Union head coach Jim Curtin

Stat of the week
Through 13 games, 14 different Union players already have at least one goal or one assist this season. To compare, that’s only two fewer than all of last season, the same number as the entire 2013 campaign and three more than in 2010. 

Player of the week
Teaming up with Warren Creavalle in the defensive midfield, Carroll did a good job against Kaka on Wednesday. And although he could have done better to prevent Colorado’s goal, his equalizer more than made up for it.

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.