Union

Inside Doop: Philly kid Derrick Jones enjoys memorable MLS debut

Inside Doop: Philly kid Derrick Jones enjoys memorable MLS debut

You could say the Union traveled a long way and spent a lot of time in Vancouver to end up playing in a game without any goals.

But there are still some exciting things the Union can take from their season-opening scoreless draw with the Whitecaps -- a very promising MLS debut from one Philly youngster at the top of the list.

In the first Inside Doop of the 2017 season, we'll take a look at that debut -- and a few others -- before peering ahead to the Union's challenging home opener.

Three thoughts about Sunday's game
1. Two years ago, head coach Jim Curtin decided to take a high school senior named Derrick Jones with the Union to preseason camp in Florida. From there, the skilled 6-foot-3 midfielder who emigrated to Philadelphia from Africa graduated from YSC Academy, signed with USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel as their first-ever player, signed a Homegrown contract with the Union last year, and on Sunday, was inserted into the starting lineup in his first MLS game. And, boy, did he deliver. The best thing you could say about his performance is he didn’t look like a kid who just turned 20; he looked like a seasoned pro putting out fires in the central midfield all night. The Union have had promising young players flame out in the past, but this one sure looks like he could be a bright star.

2. Jones wasn't the only Union player to make his league debut Sunday. Haris Medunjanin joined him in the midfield in front of veteran center back Oguchi Onyewu, while Jay Simpson started at striker and Fafa Picault came in on the wing. And all in all, the Union looked like a cohesive unit with all of those MLS newcomers playing key roles -- a testament, perhaps, to how Curtin ran the preseason. Onyewu and Medunjanin were especially effective in their roles and Picault showed the kind of speed that will make him a dangerous second-half sub. Simpson didn't do much but he also didn't really get many touches in the box, either.

3. Simpson wasn't the only player to fail to get going offensively. While the Union did put five shots on target (to Vancouver's one), they didn't look especially dangerous in front of goal, aside from a couple of Alejandro Bedoya shots. Because of that, some fans might question why offensive playmaker Roland Alberg didn't come in late to push for the game's first goal. But it was clear that Curtin and company were more than happy to stay compact defensively and leave Vancouver with a well-earned road point.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. Philly's defensive backline of Keegan Rosenberry, Onyewu, Richie Marquez and Fabinho had about as solid of an opening-day performance as you could expect. But things are about to get a lot tougher for them Saturday when the Union welcome star-studded Toronto FC to Talen Energy Stadium for their home opener (4:30 p.m., CSN). Will TFC's star strikers Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore continue to torch the Union as they did last season? Or will the Union find a measure of redemption after Toronto knocked them out of the 2016 playoffs?

2. As far as injuries go, Joshua Yaro and probably Maurice Edu aren't coming back soon. But a more pressing matter is the status of Ilsinho, the Brazilian midfielder who suffered a minor hamstring injury while in Vancouver and was held out of the match. Ilsinho was pushing Fabian Herbers for the team's starting spot on the right wing and had enjoyed a good preseason, so his absence could be a tough one if he's not ready in time for Toronto.

3. Now that he got his MLS debut out of the way, there are naturally more questions about Jones. Can he continue to be a 90-minute player, as he was on Sunday? Will he remain in the starting lineup ahead of the more seasoned Warren Creavalle, Brian Carroll and even Edu when everyone is healthy? How will he perform against Toronto captain Michael Bradley, one of the best American-born soccer midfielders ever?

Stat of the week
The Union are 1-4-3 in season openers and have been outscored, 11-4, in those eight games. They've been shut out in four season openers, including the last three.

Quote of the week
"My opinion may be biased but I thought he was the best player on the field, for both teams."

- Union head coach Curtin on Jones

Player of the week
See above. We'll agree with Curtin on this one.

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.