Union

Inside Doop: Union still searching for first win of season

Inside Doop: Union still searching for first win of season

Nothing like playing the Union to get your season kickstarted.

After failing to score through the first three games of the 2017 season, D.C. United capitalized on what head coach Jim Curtin called "two self-inflicted errors" to score twice and hold off the Union for a 2-1 win Saturday at RFK Stadium.

In this week's Inside Doop, we'll take a closer look at the game and what lies ahead for the Union, who return home still seeking their first win of the year.

Three thoughts about Saturday's game
1. It was not the best first half for the Union's defense. D.C. striker Jose Guillermo Ortiz, in for the injured Patrick Mullins, scored their first goal after a silly giveaway from Fabinho and a shot that appeared to ricochet off Oguchi Onyewu. And the second goal came on a Luciano Acosta penalty kick after Richie Marquez was whistled for a questionable hand ball just inside the box. Marquez, who ranked third in the league in minutes played last year, then came out at halftime with a head injury, which only added to his rough night and led to a daunting debut for rookie Jack Elliott. A center back pairing of Onyewu and Elliott was certainly not something anyone could have predicted in the preseason, and at this point, many Union fans are probably clamoring for the quick return of Joshua Yaro to add a much-needed boost to the beleaguered backline.

2. Don't tell C.J. Sapong that his role has been diminished. Despite being turned into a reserve this year after two seasons as Philly's starting striker, Sapong has been the team’s hottest player, scoring three goals in as many games after netting the team's only goal Saturday less than 10 minutes after coming in. And he could have very well added a second if not for a sparkling save from D.C. goalie Bill Hamid. At this point, you have to wonder if Sapong will get back his starting job over Jay Simpson -- who struggled to get involved in his first game back from a ribs injury -- or if Curtin prefers the spark that Sapong brings off the bench.

3. To be fair to the Union, they did dominate parts of the game and won almost all of the major statistical categories, including possession (57.4 percent-42.6 percent), shots on goal (9-3) and passing accuracy (80 percent-73 percent). And while that will do little to appease fans who are used to seeing this franchise make untimely mistakes to blow games, it does perhaps show that the Union do have the ability to go on a run once they get out of their own heads and into the win column.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. The Union are coming home at just the right time. After playing three of their first four on the road, their next three will be at Talen Energy Stadium. But getting their first win still won’t be easy as they meet one of the league's top teams in the Portland Timbers on Saturday before then facing star-studded New York City FC and the Montreal Impact. It's still too early to call anything a must-win or say head coach Jim Curtin is on the hot seat. But if they fail to get more than one or two points over their next three games, might his seat get a little bit warmer?

2. The health of Richie Marquez will be a major concern heading into a matchup with a dynamic Timbers team that leads the league in goals scored. With Yaro already hurt, that means the center back pairing could be a player who, until last month, was out of pro soccer for over a year (Onyewu) and a fourth-round pick in the 2017 draft (Elliott). That could be a recipe for disaster against a very dangerous Portland attack.

3. One of the big questions circulating around the Union right now is of the play of Alejandro Bedoya, their star and captain. It's no secret the team hasn't won too many games since Bedoya came on board last summer and that he hasn't really been "the guy" that the Union need him to be. It also remains to be seen if the No. 10 position is his best spot on the field. Will Curtin consider moving him into more of a box-to-box role while unleashing perhaps their one true attacking midfielder in Roland Alberg, who’s played a grand total of 15 minutes this season?

Stat of the week
Including the playoffs, the Union haven't won in their last 12 games dating back to last season. Their last victory was a 2-0 home triumph over Sporting Kansas City on Aug. 27.

Quote of the week
"I know this group. The performances are not indicative of the point total that we are on right now." -- Union head coach Jim Curtin

Player of the week
Sapong only played 31 minutes but, along with fellow second-half sub Elliott, proved to be a major bright spot for the Union.

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.