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Preaching patience, Union stay quiet during summer transfer window

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Preaching patience, Union stay quiet during summer transfer window

From Alejandro Bedoya last year to Tranquillo Barnetta the year prior, to Rais Mbolhi and Freddy Adu and Bakary Soumare and others before that, the Union have made some of their splashiest signings over the summer.

But current Union sporting director Earnie Stewart isn’t a splashy kind of guy. He’s about careful scrutiny, analytics and building a foundation.

And with that in mind, he decided that this summer’s MLS secondary transfer window, which ended Wednesday night, was not the time for the club to make a move.

“Sometimes I think people want to go very fast with some things,” said Stewart, who’s been in charge of personnel moves for the last 18 months. “It’s as simple as that. It’s up to us to judge if going that fast is good. And I don’t believe that right now.”

Few would argue against prioritizing long-term growth over short-term sizzle, especially for a franchise that’s struggled with consistency and roster turnover since their 2010 expansion season. 

The counterpoint, of course, is that acquiring a talented player at this point of the season, especially at a key position like attacking midfield, could provide a jolt of energy or even prove to be the missing piece for a team trying to sneak into one of the final Eastern Conference playoff spots.

But it seems like that kind of difference-maker wasn’t on the table when evaluating possible options — at least not for the kind of dollars ownership was willing to shell out.

“We don’t want to make a mistake and make a judgment for a significant amount of money where it’s not right for the Philadelphia Union,” head coach Jim Curtin said. “We’ve been smart and I think sometimes the best move is not to make a move.”

While many of the Union's midseason transfers haven’t panned out (the Mbolhi move, for one, may have been the worst in Union history), their last two summer signings yielded well-liked and talented players in Barnetta and Bedoya who certainly raised the bar.

But even in both of those cases, they struggled to adjust to the demands of joining a new team and new league with only a couple of months left in the season. It’s particularly hard for European-based players who are currently in their offseason or preseason.

“It’s a tough time to hit a home run, to have a [Nicolas] Lodeiro-type situation,” said Curtin, referring to Seattle’s prized acquisition last year who led them to the 2016 MLS Cup. 

“This is not an easy league to play in,” Stewart added. “It takes time to adapt to the physicality and travel that there is.”

Integrating new players into the club, of course, is much easier in January and February when MLS preseason begins. The Union will also then have much more money and roster space at their disposal when Maurice Edu, who’s been injured for the last two years, comes off the books, along with others who haven’t been giving the Union the necessary bang for their buck.

But it makes sense why fans may be upset no moves got done this week, especially when nearby rival D.C. United opened up its wallet as it never has before. (The fact that the Union announced the signing of a “Chief Tattoo Officer” on deadline day certainly didn’t help with the optics, either.)

For now, though, those fans will just have to try to be as patient as Stewart and hope the exciting changes come in a few months. Perhaps some may also take a little bit of solace in the fact that the Union are optimistic they can still do some damage in 2017 with their current roster — even though they’re currently in eighth place in the East, sport a 1-7-3 road record, and have a very difficult remaining schedule.

“The difference between being really good and where people perceive us to be, it’s not that big,” Stewart said. “It’s not as big as people think. Is there a difference between our home games and away games? That’s for sure. But you only want to add something you know will help you.”

Added Curtin: “We’ll have a lot of freedom, a lot of flexibility going into the next year and we still have a group we believe can get into the playoffs this year. That’s my main focus right now: getting this group into the playoffs. Because from there, we all know anything can happen.”

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.