Union

Rookie Adam Najem hopes to prove he's the playmaker the Union need

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Rookie Adam Najem hopes to prove he's the playmaker the Union need

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.”

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.