Inside Doop: Union start crucial road trip with frustrating loss

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Inside Doop: Union start crucial road trip with frustrating loss

The Union started a three-game road trip on the other side of the country against the defending champions in one of the toughest stadiums to play in … and played pretty well.

Just not quite well enough to win.

Here’s a look back at the Union's 2-1 loss to the Portland Timbers on Saturday and what they need to do to get points as two more daunting road games approach and the regular season nears its conclusion.

Three thoughts about Saturday’s game
1. Lack of finishing killed the visitors is this one as the Union put a very respectable eight shots on target but were robbed a couple of times by Timbers goalkeeper Jake Gleeson. C.J. Sapong also hit the post after an incredible setup by Tranquillo Barnetta, continuing the run of bad luck from the Union striker. Over his last six games — all starts — Sapong hasn’t scored and has only put two shots on frame. And he’s only scored two total goals since mid-May — a troubling statistic for a player that was counted on for a lot coming into the season. It almost goes without saying that Sapong needs to turn it on over the next couple of months or the Union could be facing a short stay in the playoffs, if they get there at all. (But it should be noted that thanks to some other results in the East, they still remain in very good position to get there.)

2. Keegan Rosenberry has been touted for MLS Rookie of the Year by many Union teammates and fans throughout the season. And he probably deserves it, even if the award is likely to go to Sounders striker Jordan Morris. But for one of the only times this season, Rosenberry looked like, well, a rookie, as he struggled to deal with the speed of Darren Mattocks, who assisted on both Portland goals. And his fellow first-round pick from Georgetown, Joshua Yaro, also had a tough night, getting shown two yellow cards. Before he was ejected, Yaro actually made a couple of very nice defensive plays, including a goal-line clearance, so his presence will be missed next week when he serves his one-game red card suspension.

3. Chris Pontius proved once again that when the Union need a goal, he’s the player to turn to. Continuing his remarkable comeback season after an injury-riddled stint in D.C., Pontius upped his team-high goal total to 11 — one off his career high. And he probably could have had another if not for a great kick save from Gleeson. Like Sapong, Pontius is going to be counted on for a lot of offense in the home stretch. And he looks like he’s poised to deliver.

Three question for the week ahead
1. With Saturday’s loss, the Union’s road record dipped to 3-8-4. And two of those three wins came against Columbus Crew SC, who are tied for the second fewest points in MLS. That probably doesn’t inspire much hope in Philly fans as the Union prepare to hit the road to face Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls, the two best teams in the Eastern Conference. But getting at least one or two points during that stretch could be vital so the Union can avoid going back on the road in the playoffs. If they can remain in fourth place or higher, they’ll host an opening-round game. If they fall to fifth or sixth, they could make a trip to, say, Montreal where their chances of moving on to the Eastern Conference semifinals drop precipitously. 

2. Could it be time to give Sapong a day off? Sometimes that’s the perfect remedy for a slumping player and the Union do now have a solid option to replace him in the seasoned Charlie Davies, who head coach Jim Curtin likes to say heats up when the weather gets cooler. The Union could also give rookie Fabian Herbers time up top and return Ilsinho to his starting role on the right wing now that he’s healthy. Or perhaps Curtin will keep riding Sapong, who to be fair does do a lot of little things well even when he’s not scoring. 

3. With Yaro suspended, Curtin will almost certainly turn to Ken Tribbett, who’s been platooning with Yaro for much of the season anyway. The big question is how Tribbett will fare against arguably the league’s best attack that features reigning MVP Sebastian Giovinco and U.S. national team standout Jozy Altidore. It didn’t work out so well the last time when Tribbett was repeatedly burned by Giovinco and pulled from a 3-1 loss on Aug. 20 at halftime. Perhaps he learned something from the experience. Or perhaps it will help him to have a defensive specialist like Brian Carroll shielding the backline — or, dare we say it, Maurice Edu, who’s now made three rehab appearances with Bethlehem Steel FC as he looks to finally make his season debut.

Stat of the week
After missing the previous six games with plantar fasciitis, Brian Carroll made his 366th career appearance Saturday. That moved the midfielder ahead of Jeff Cunningham and into fourth all-time for field players in MLS history, behind Kyle Beckerman, Brad Davis and Steve Ralston.

Quote of the week
“It’s tough on the road in this league. I think the data shows it’s the toughest league in the world actually, percentage-wise, to win on the road.” — Union head coach Jim Curtin

Player of the week
On top of his goal and other near-goals, Chris Pontius also had a couple of nice setups and was unlucky not to get at least one assist. Andre Blake made another superhuman save but Pontius was the man of the match for Philly. 

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.