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Inside Doop: Questions mount as Union's road woes deepen

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Inside Doop: Questions mount as Union's road woes deepen

The Union know, that to have any shot of sneaking into the playoffs, they’ll need to find a way to pick off points on the road, especially against some of the league’s lower-tier teams.

Consider Saturday a lost opportunity, then.

After earning a good 3-0 home win over Columbus on Wednesday, the Union couldn’t keep it going with a disappointing 3-0 setback in New England over the weekend.

Here’s a closer look at the past week and what lies ahead for the Union as their playoff hopes grow dimmer.

Three thoughts about Saturday’s game
1. The Union had dominated the Revolution of late, winning their last three matchups by a combined score of 11-0 heading into Saturday’s game, including a 3-0 home win earlier in the month. But the Union’s road struggles were too much to overcome in this one as they fell to 1-7-3 away from home this season. And it’s not just that the Union are losing on the road; they often look punchless in the attack and lacking any sort of ideas. It’s a far cry from how they play at home, where they’re a healthy 6-3-2 and have generated some fun and exciting moments along the way.

2. It was another eventful week for Roland Alberg, who got into an argument with C.J. Sapong over who would take a penalty kick in Wednesday’s win a week after expressing displeasure at Fafa Picault on the field and getting suspended for a dangerous tackle. And while the Union downplayed the whole scene afterward, many wondered what kind of teammate Alberg might be. There’s no way to know for sure about his status in the locker room, but it is fair to say that his chemistry on the field, particularly with Sapong, has been lacking. So has his production as Alberg failed to impose his will on Saturday’s game from the vital No. 10 spot — a position that continues to be the team’s most glaring need, either now or in the offseason.

3. The good news for the Union’s future is that two of their 2017 draft picks — Marcus Epps and Jack Elliott — enjoyed good weeks with Epps scoring his first career goal Wednesday and Elliott making a phenomenal goal-line clearance, among other great defensive plays, Saturday. Considering both were picked after the first round, that’s some good bang for the Union’s buck. Of course, it makes sense why Philly fans may temper their expectations here considering the standout trio from the 2016 draft class — Joshua Yaro, Keegan Rosenberry and Fabian Herbers — followed promising rookie campaigns by being benched (either because of injury or inconsistent play) for most of 2017.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. After a brutal four-game-in-11-days stretch, the Union finally get a full week to prepare for their next one. Even more good news is that they get to play at home. The bad news is that the opponent is FC Dallas, one of the top teams in the Western Conference. Is it too soon to classify it as a “must win?” Perhaps. But considering how poor they’ve been on the road and how difficult their remaining schedule is, they really can’t afford to lose or draw at Talen Energy Stadium at this point in the season.

2. Will Andre Blake return? The star goalkeeper has now missed five straight Union games due to the Gold Cup and a hand injury he suffered in the Gold Cup final. And while backup John McCarthy has played well in his absence, it’s probably not a coincidence the Union are 1-3-1 in that stretch, given Blake’s unique ability to win his team points. There’s no sense rushing him back if he’s not ready, but Blake returning to face an excellent FC Dallas attack in front of the Sons of Ben would provide a nice bolt of energy to a fan base that certainly needs one right now.

3. Remember Rosenberry? The reigning MLS Rookie of the Year runner-up was supplanted as the team’s starting right back in April after playing every minute in 2016. And even the Union playing four games in 11 days wasn’t enough for head coach Jim Curtin to give Rosenberry any minutes over the past two weeks. Considering the second-year right back also isn’t getting time for affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC, it’s fair to wonder how these past few months may or may not stall his development — and whether he still remains as big of a piece to the club’s future as he seemed to be last year.

Stat of the week
In four road games in July — three losses and a draw — the Union finished with a combined eight shots on target.

Quote of the week
“For me, I think he’s been the Rookie of the Year.”

— Union head coach Jim Curtin on Jack Elliott after Saturday’s game.

Player of the week
Although he was kept off the scoresheet in New England, Sapong’s performance Wednesday was one of the best of any Union player this season as he scored his record 10th goal and added two fantastic assists.

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.