CHESTER, Pa. -- Jim Curtin has made it clear he won’t use falling out of playoff contention as a reason to throw the team’s youngest, most untested players into the fire.
But the Union head coach also made clear Adam Najem doesn’t necessarily fall into that category, saying this week the rookie midfielder is “right in the discussion” to see more time regardless of where the team might be in the standings.
For Najem, though, just getting onto the field during Philly’s last 10 games of the 2017 season — starting with Saturday’s road tilt vs. the San Jose Earthquakes — is only a short-term goal. Long term, the 22-year-old New Jersey native hopes to emerge as the kind of attacking midfielder the Union can build their team around — in a role that’s usually been occupied by international imports.
“I want to kind of get rid of the stigma that Americans can’t be playmakers,” Najem said after Thursday’s practice. "And if they give me the opportunity to continue improving at the No. 10, I’ll try to show what I can do.”
The Union have struggled to find a consistently good option at that No. 10 spot — an important position that sits behind the striker (CJ Sapong) and in front of the two other central midfielders (Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya). Roland Alberg, a native of the Netherlands, and the Brazilian Ilsinho have both shown occasional flashes of brilliance but not nearly enough consistency, leading to speculation that both could be on their way out when the season ends.
At that point, the Union will likely chase a high-priced player, possibly from South America or Europe, to fill that void, as MLS teams are prone to do. But Najem believes he can be the guy, and that more starts as the season winds down can perhaps prove it.
“For me, I want to cement myself as the No. 10 wherever I am,” he said. “Right now, I feel if I continue improving, that can be here. I want to reward Philly for giving me the opportunity to be here. And I want to be that player they look upon to win games. If I get the opportunity, I have to continue working and show I can be the No. 10 they’re looking for.”
Although most of his game action has been with affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC, where he’s made 14 starts, Najem has seen more MLS minutes of late, playing three straight games last month, including his first career start in Columbus on July 22.
And while he felt like he showed for the ball and maintained possession well in that game, he knows he didn’t do nearly enough to help jumpstart a stagnant offense in a 1-0 loss.
“That’s something I want to improve on,” he said. “It kind of left a sour taste in my mouth.”
Najem knows there are other things he can improve upon, and he’s been trying his best to pick up little lessons from other midfielders on the team.
Medunjanin’s quality on the ball? Bedoya’s vision and awareness? Alberg’s striking ability? Ilsinho’s dribbling moves? Najem has been paying close attention to all of it.
“The type of player I am, I like to take the best out of everyone around me,” he said. “Everyone brings their own style to the game and you try to pick up anything you can and implement your own style of play into that as well.”
Najem has seemed to do that well in training, where he often looks sharp and in control of short-field scrimmages. But as his rookie season winds down, it could be time for him to take the next step — if he’s given the chance.
“In my position, it’s obviously an important one on the field,” he said. “Being a young guy, you have to learn how to deal with that and deal with the pressures.
“If the coaches see I’m working hard enough or improving enough, I’ll be on the field. And if not, I’ll just continue working.”