Union hoping for another deep U.S. Open Cup run — but 'want more'

Union hoping for another deep U.S. Open Cup run — but 'want more'

CHESTER, Pa. — In 2014 and 2015, the Union were galvanized by the U.S. Open Cup, brushing aside all of the rough moments they endured in MLS play and charging into the title game of the historic tournament that’s open to American soccer teams at all levels.

This year, things might seem a little different as the Union sit in first place in the Eastern Conference heading into their first U.S. Open Cup game Wednesday vs. the Harrisburg City Islanders.

But when asked if the team may approach the knockout tourney differently based on their league success, head coach Jim Curtin gave a hard “no,” insisting that winning the whole thing remains the ultimate goal.

“The only thing that changes is mentally, when you’re a team that’s struggling or maybe having a difficult year, you can use it as a way to bring the group together and get confidence,” Curtin said after Tuesday’s practice. “We’re confident right now. It is the first time we’ve gone in [to the U.S. Open Cup] where we’re clicking on all cylinders. We have a much deeper squad so we can feel more comfortable going to reserves. It sets up nicely for us.”

Open Cup games are often a balancing act for teams as games are usually sandwiched in the middle of the week between MLS contests. So the fact that Curtin may utilize his team’s depth when its former USL affiliate pays a visit to Talen Energy Stadium on Wednesday (7 p.m.) should come as no surprise.

Still, it’s probably fair to say the Union have put a higher priority on the Open Cup than a lot of other MLS teams over the years. And that’s something that will continue, even if they do sprinkle some reserves into their lineup to keep other players fresh for Saturday's road tilt with New York City FC at Yankee Stadium.

“We still value it,” veteran midfielder Brian Carroll said. “We still want to win it. Obviously in the past, we’ve kind of used the tournament to propel us and help our season. Now we just want to continue to do well in the tournament, regardless of having some league success.”

Before the Union’s resurgence this season, you could probably make the case that the majority of the franchise’s best moments came in the Open Cup. From winning games in shootouts to overcoming red cards and weather delays to finding unlikely stoppage-time and extra-time winners, the Union rode a whole lot of cool — and bizarre — moments to the finals in back-to-back years.

But they also understand that part of the tournament's magic is lower-division teams pulling off upsets of MLS teams — or coming close. Last year, the Union needed John McCarthy to stand on his head in a shootout to beat the Rochester Rhinos in their first tourney game. And two years ago, they needed extra time to eliminate the City Islanders.

“For whatever reason, a lot of times they go long,” Curtin said. “I don’t want 120 minutes or penalty kicks. I’d like to come out and dictate the tempo and take our chances and score and be organized and tough to play against.

“I’m proud of our record at the Open Cup. Good teams make it to the finals. I think it’s something to build on, and we have some experience knowing what it takes to get through the tough early-round games.”

The City Islanders pose an interesting challenge to the Union, who were closely tied to the club for several seasons before launching their own USL team — Bethlehem Steel — this year. Curtin credited Harrisburg with being essential to the development of the Union's current starting center back combo of Richie Marquez and Ken Tribbett. And there have been many other players that have played for both clubs, including Harrisburg forward Aaron Wheeler, who has three goals so far this season, including two in a game against the Steel last month.

“There are a lot of close ties there and we’re very grateful for what Harrisburg did,” Curtin said. “But tomorrow they’re the enemy. We want to win and move on.”

Chris Pontius wasn’t with the Union during their last two runs to the title game. But he does know from experience both how difficult the early-round games can be and also how great it feels to win in the Open Cup.

Back in 2013, D.C. United went down two men in extra time before scraping by the Richmond Kickers in a shootout. That turned out to be the beginning of a historic run that saw D.C. win the Open Cup crown despite finishing the MLS season with one of the worst records in league history.

“That was the highlight of my career,” said Pontius, who took some time off of training during the Copa America break last week to rest. “Winning a championship, that’s what we’re all in this business for. For me, that was it.”

As a two-time MLS Cup champion, Carroll has gotten to hoist trophies before. But the 14-year MLS veteran has still never won an Open Cup, which is something he’s eager to accomplish — especially after the Union’s two straight heartbreaking home losses in the finals.

“We’ve had some recent success in the tournament but we want more,” Carroll said. “We want to get a trophy out of it. And it starts tomorrow.”

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.