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Inside Doop: Union stuck in neutral after another draw with expansion team

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Inside Doop: Union stuck in neutral after another draw with expansion team

For the second straight game, the Union played an expansion team. And for the second straight game, the Union walked away from the game with a point.

In this week's Inside Doop, we'll take a closer look at Saturday's 1-1 road draw with Minnesota United and what lies ahead with six games left in this disappointing season.

Three thoughts about Saturday's game
1. Compared to their expansion brethren, Minnesota is not a particularly dangerous team, built more for the future than Atlanta's expensive roster. But the Union were fortunate to escape TCF Bank Stadium with a point after a penalty on Oguchi Onyewu was overturned by video review because of a foul on Michael Boxall right before the hand ball. How big was that for the Union? Not only did they avoid facing a penalty kick in a tie game, but Onyewu also got to stay on the field after his second yellow card was rescinded. Considering the Union also had a big video review go their way vs. Dallas a few weeks ago, it's fair to say they're loving the new system — for now. It should also maybe make fans nervous that the club is enjoying some good fortune while still falling in the standings.

2. For the first 15 minutes of Saturday's game, the Union looked ready to coast to a victory. The first goal — in the 5th minute — showed off Fafa Picault's speed and CJ Sapong's precision as Picault set up Sapong's 13th goal of the season — one shy of the club's single-season record. But, aside from Andre Blake's making a huge save, the team had little to hang their hats on after that as the Loons tied the game on a Union defensive collapse and mostly took control of the game from there. That kind of inconsistency is maddening but not surprising at this point of the season for a club that's winless in its last five and has won only one road game all year.

3. With Alejandro Bedoya suspended for the game, the Union turned to Warren Creavalle to start in his place. And while Creavalle played fine, the fact that Derrick Jones didn't get a chance to take the field was somewhat alarming. Their top homegrown prospect, Jones has mostly fallen off the map since a strong start to the season and a promising performance at the U-20 World Cup. At this point, the 20-year-old midfielder may just need an offseason to rest and a preseason to regain his mojo. Still, with the Union essentially out of the playoff race, it seems silly not to throw Jones and other young guys out there for the final few games.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. The schedule only gets tougher from here for the Union, who travel to a place they rarely win, Red Bull Arena, to play a nationally televised game vs. the rival Red Bulls on Sunday, before tough games against Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle and Chicago again. How many points will the Union gain from this stretch heading into their season finale vs. Orlando? It's certainly possible they won't get many and will end up finishing with one of the league's worst records. And adding insult to injury there, their first-round draft pick belongs to New England from the trade that brought in Charlie Davies, who played (less than) one minute on Saturday, upping his total to 25 minutes on the year.

2. It's another week so it must be time for another Maurice Edu question. The Designated Player recently returned to full health but is trying to get his fitness back up through rehab appearances with affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC. At the very least, you'd think he could be ready for a 20-30 minute assignment this coming week or the week after. But then the question is what that does for the Union, who are deep at his position and don't really need a boost for the playoff push since there likely won't be one. They could throw him out there to see if they'd be interested in bringing him back next year (on a much cheaper contract), or they could just want to do him a favor by letting him show other potential bidders something leading into the offseason.

3. Speaking of veteran defensive midfielders, what about Brian Carroll? One of the league's longest-tenured players hasn't logged an MLS minute all season and appears close to retirement, whether by choice or not. An all-time good guy, Carroll could be in line for a job in the Union organization if he so chooses. But it might be nice for the 36-year-old to get back on the field at least once more for some type of farewell.

Stat of the week
With his 13th goal, Sapong passed three players who had previously scored 12 in a Union season: Jack McInerney in 2013, Sebastien Le Toux in 2014 and Chris Pontius in 2016. The all-time record was set in the Union's expansion season of 2010 when Le Toux scored 14 in 2,520 minutes. Sapong currently has 13 in 2,263 minutes with six games left to tie or break the mark.

Quote of the week
"I guess it felt OK to still get on the field despite everything else that's going on back home. Now I get to go back and see my parents and play the waiting game." — Fafa Picault, putting things in perspective after Saturday's 1-1 draw.

Earlier in the week, his parents evacuated their home in Miami due to Hurricane Irma, making a 27-hour drive to stay with Picault in Philly.

Player of the week
Sapong's the choice here as his career year continues — though he's probably kicking himself for not scoring a second after coming inches away.

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.