Jay Simpson propels Union in come-from-behind draw with Swansea

Jay Simpson propels Union in come-from-behind draw with Swansea

CHESTER, Pa. -- Jay Simpson shined and Auston Trusty, Anthony Fontana and Aaron Jones made their club debut, as the Union came from behind to tie English Premier League’s Swansea in a friendly Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium

“For our guys to test themselves against a top-tier team is good for everybody,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “We’re competitive, they’re pro athletes and they want to play against the best. A lot of guys rose to that occasion.”

With an MLS match on Wednesday against the Montreal Impact, Curtin used Saturday’s friendly as conditioning assignment for his starters and a show-me-something game for the players, like Union Homegrown Trusty, pushing to make an impression.

"I was always hungry before," Trusty said. "But now, you get a taste of it and you want more and you want more."

Simpson, who entered the game at the half for C.J. Sapong, tied the match at 2-2 with a miraculous play in the 58th minute. With possession and flying down the right side, he edged his defender off the rush and gained the box before sliding a right-footed touch that beat the outstretched arms of the goalkeeper and trickled over the goal line. Ilsinho received the primary assist.

“I was just trying to get it across the keeper,” said Simpson, a native of London who has friends on the Swansea side. “I didn’t get much power on it but I was trying to get it across the keeper. If he made the save, maybe someone could get the tap-in.”

But the Union's offense didn't start there. Preying on some early listlessness from the Swans, Marcus Epps, off a turnover at midfield, hit the right side with speed but was bumped down in the box by Martin Olsson, resulting in a penalty kick. Lining up for the kick was Sapong, who fooled Kristoffer Nordfeldt and placed his shot to the right for the early 1-0 lead. 

“The whole team caught them off guard,” Epps said. “I don’t think they thought we’d come out that strong and that fast. It was good that I could come on, change direction and catch them off guard a little.”

Union goalkeeper Jake McGuire wasn’t able to stop the Swans in the 28th minute and again in the 40th. Kyle Bartley followed up a mad scramble in the box to lock the game at one and Jordan Ayew took advantage of a missed clear from McGuire to give the Swans the 2-1 lead.

“Disappointing on the restarts, we talked about that,” Curtin said. “That is a team that is obviously very big, strong and physical. We didn’t do a good job, especially on the second balls. We have some takeaways, some things we can improve on. But overall I’m happy with the exercise tonight.”

Curtin made wholesale changes at half time. Entering the match was Simpson for Sapong, Charlie Davies for Fafa Picault, Ilsinho for Epps and Derrick Jones for Warren Creavalle. Brian Carroll replaced Haris Medunjanin, and Fabinho, Richie Marquez, Josh Yaro and Keegan Rosenberry entered for Giliano Wijnaldum, Trusty, Jack Elliott and Ray Gaddis. 

“It’s a great experience, especially playing against guys who play in a league you grew up watching,” McGuire said. “I think it was a great experience for all of us young guys who got to start for the first time tonight. It’s a real good experience for all of us.” 

Midway through the half, Ken Tribbett replaced Carroll, and took the captaincy, while Bethlehem Steel players Anthony Fontana and Aaron Jones replaced Keegan Rosenberry and Derrick Jones, to make their Union debut. Both young players made an impact.

“The debuts are special,” Curtin said. “To have it come against a Premier League team is unique, timing wise. Anthony gets it this year and he did a great job, he looked fearless and that’s what we want - we like players who aren’t scared. I think a lot of guys showed well tonight.”

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.