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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.”

Inside Doop: Lack of star power continues to doom Union

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Inside Doop: Lack of star power continues to doom Union

At long last, the Union’s season is coming to an end. Even better, they no longer have to play any games on the road this year.

In their final away match of a disappointing 2017 campaign, the Union let a lead slip away in a 3-2 loss to the Fire, finishing the year with a dismal 1-10-6 road record.

What went wrong? And what can we expect from next week’s regular-season finale at Talen Energy Stadium? Here’s a look in the final Inside Doop of 2017:

Three thoughts about Sunday’s game
1. The Union were once again reminded what star power can do for a team. On Sunday, the Fire’s Nemanja Nikolic put on a show with three goals — his 22nd, 23rd and 24th of the season — to all but wrap up a Golden Boot crown and put on his back a Fire team that was without fellow star Bastian Schweinsteiger. In Philly’s last road game, Atlanta also overcame the loss of star Miguel Almiron to ride Josef Martinez to a big win. That’s what happens when you spend a lot of money: you have a stable of difference-makers and their presence trickles down to the rest of the club. The Union, simply, don’t have anything close to that — one of the big reasons why they can’t play well for 90 minutes on the road and why they’ll be missing the playoffs for the sixth time in the franchise’s eight-year history.

2. The closest thing the Union do have to a true star, apart from goalie Andre Blake, is the midfield combo of Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. And both overcame their recent heartbreak of missing out on the World Cup (Bedoya with the U.S., Medunjnanin with Bosnia and Herzegovina) to put in strong shifts. Medunjanin’s pass to set up Bedoya’s second goal of the season was a thing of beauty — and marked his 11th assist of the season. Say what you want about the Union, but those two are consummate pros and locker room leaders who will do everything in their power to get this thing turned around in 2018.

3. Sadly for the Union, one of their best stories of the season — Jack Elliott — had a night to forget. The rookie center back, who went from fourth-round draft pick to Rookie of the Year contender, lost track of a long ball on the Fire’s first goal and then committed a penalty to set up Nikolic’s second goal. Elliott will still be an important piece heading into 2018, but it’s important to remember that he’s no sure thing, especially after seeing what happened to Keegan Rosenberry and Josh Yaro in their second seasons. Meanwhile, Richie Marquez continued his late-season revival with one of his better games of the year. Raise your hand if you have any kind of handle on the team’s center back situation right now.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. Home finales are usually special no matter how a season turns out but it’s hard to figure what kind of crowd and reception there will be when the Union take on Orlando next Sunday (4 p.m., 6ABC). This has been a trying season for Union fans who watched their team fail to build on any kind of momentum from last year’s playoff berth while lowly teams like Chicago or expansion teams like Atlanta (for the reasons listed above them) skyrocketed past them. At the same time, the Union have been mostly fun to watch at home, where they’ve set a franchise record with nine wins. The chance to go for a 10th victory and have C.J. Sapong break the single-season scoring record could be a couple reasons that people will flock to the stadium — that, and the realization that there will be no more soccer there until March.

2. Another big reason to come to Talen Energy Stadium is to see Kaka, the Brazilian legend who will play his last game in MLS. Who will play their last game for the Union? It’s hard to say for sure but Roland Alberg, Ilsinho, Chris Pontius and Brian Carroll are decent bets as an offseason potentially filled with turnover looms.

3. How will head coach Jim Curtin construct the lineup? He doesn’t like to switch things too much, but fans may be clamoring for young guys like Derrick Jones and Adam Najem while Curtin may want to give something of a send-off to Carroll or Charlie Davies, well-known veterans who have hardly played this year. And what about Maurice Edu? He hasn’t played in more than two years — but will a player who led the Union to back-to-back U.S. Open Cup finals in 2014 and 2015 get to say goodbye to fans in some way?

Stat of the week
Even after Bedoya’s goal Sunday, the Union’s four highest-paid players — Bedoya, Edu, Ilsinho and Jay Simpson — have combined for only seven goals this season.

Quote of the week
"It was definitely nostalgic to come back and play at Toyota Park. When I was younger in the U-16s and the U-18s, I played a lot here when I was with the academy. It was good to come back on the professional side and be able to play on the same field I play it on when I was younger." — Union rookie Marcus Epps

Player of the week
Bedoya scored a very nice goal, made a couple of perfectly timed tackles and generally looked sharp in his first game back from the USMNT’s World Cup qualifying failure. Maybe he should’ve played in Trinidad, huh?

Union blow another lead, beaten by Fire

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Union blow another lead, beaten by Fire

BOX SCORE

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — Nemanja Nikolic scored two of his three goals in the second half, increasing his league-leading total to 24, and the Chicago Fire rallied for a 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Union on Sunday.

The Fire (16-10-7) moved into third in the Eastern Conference, which would be good for a home game in the playoffs. Nikolic is four goals clear of his pursuers for the Golden Boot with one game to play.

Nikolic opened the scoring in the third minute, getting to a long feed from Brandon Vincent and aided by a bad angle by defender Jack Elliot before beating Andre Blake. Nikolic's penalty kick in the 64th tied it at 2 after David Accam was taken down in the penalty area. Nikolic completed his first career hat trick with an easy finish from the middle of the box on a feed from Brandon Vincent for the game winner in the 78th.

Chicago defender Johnan Kappelhof's own goal put the Union in a 1-1 tie at the six-minute mark and a feed from Haris Medunjanin to Alejandro Bedoya for a chip shot was good for the lead from the 13th minute.

Philadelphia (10-14-9) finished 1-10-6 on the road this season.