Union

Union 2016 awards: From best goal to most surprising moment

Union 2016 awards: From best goal to most surprising moment

The Union’s 2016 is hard to explain.

There were jaw-dropping ups, headshaking downs and an impressive playoff berth that felt hollow after a late-season collapse. The club had young players, like Keegan Rosenberry, Josh Yaro and Andre Blake, give fans a taste of the future, while old guys like Chris Pontius, Brian Carroll and Fabinho outdid themselves. Maurice Edu broke his leg. Twice. Alejandro Bedoya and Charlie Davies joined the team, and Vincent Nogueira disappeared almost overnight. 

To wrap up this crazy year, here are Ryan Bright and Dave Zeitlin’s 2016 Union awards. 

Most memorable moment
Ryan:
The 2016 MLS SuperDraft 
It’s rare that the MLS draft changes a franchise, but that’s exactly what it did for the Union, who snagged Yaro, Rosenberry and Fabian Herbers with the second, third and sixth overall picks. While Yaro had a promising learning year, Rosenberry became a star, playing every minute of the season and getting U.S. Men’s National Team attention. Herbers led the club with seven assists. 

Dave: Big roster moves
The thing that stands out the most in 2016 might be something that happened off the field. It’s not every year, after all, that the Union sign a U.S. national team World Cup starter. But that’s what they did when they locked up Bedoya to a long-term deal during the summer transfer window, before signing his good friend and former USMNT veteran Davies while trading away franchise legend Sebastien Le Toux. When they stopped to catch their breath, the club’s future suddenly looked a whole lot different. 

Most disappointing moment
Ryan:
Not hosting a playoff game 
After back-to-back wins against the Columbus Crew and Sporting Kansas City in late August, the Union had the opportunity to not only make the playoffs but host a playoff game. That didn’t happen. The club went winless in their final seven games, traveling to BMO Field, where the club lost the first-round playoff match to the eventual Eastern Conference champions, Toronto FC.

Dave: Playoff washout
It wasn’t a surprise that the Union lost their first-round game in the playoffs considering they went on the road to face a superior Toronto FC team that ended up hosting the MLS Cup final. But it still stung to get bounced from their first postseason berth in five years so quickly and finish the season winless in their last eight. Making the playoffs was an accomplishment, but the fact remains the club has never won a playoff game in seven years.

Best game
Ryan:
Union vs. D.C. United, May 20
It wasn’t a goal-scoring fest, but the Eastern Conference win at Talen Energy Stadium sent a message throughout the league that the Union might be for real. Richie Marquez scored his first-ever goal in the 91st minute from Le Toux, and Blake stood tall for the two-save shutout, as the Union’s unbeaten streak ran to five games, which they eventually pushed to eight. It was the club’s fifth win in their first 11 games, marking an unprecedented start for the unsuspecting Union.

Dave: Union vs. Orlando City SC, May 25 
This won’t sit well with the ties-are-terrible crowd but Philly’s 2-2 draw with Orlando on May 25 had a little bit of everything. Among the highlights: Drexel grad Ken Tribbett had his first career goal and first career assist after only coming in because of an injury; Blake saved a penalty kick from the legend Kaka; Orlando scored two controversial goals that had Union head coach Jim Curtin fuming; Philly’s Warren Creavalle was taken down in the box without the ref blowing his whistle, which had Curtin even more upset; Orlando’s David Mateos was shown a straight red card in the final minute; and the Union ran a smoothly designed set piece that should have resulted in a goal. When all the smoke cleared, the Union upped their unbeaten streak to six, which they would extend to eight leading into the Copa America break. 

Best goal
Ryan: Alejandro Bedoya’s chip against Toronto FC 
Just when Bedoya began feeling the criticism for not being as impactful as his new MLS contract warranted, he struck on Sept. 24 against Toronto FC. Accepting a pretty pass from Herbers, Bedoya accepted possession with one turn and lofted a volley that found space between Clint Irwin and the crossbar for his first with the Union.

Dave: Fabian Herbers’ rocket against Columbus Crew
With all due respect to Tranquillo Barnetta’s masterful free-kick goals and Bedoya’s jaw-dropping chip, I’ll go with the fans on this one and say the best one — perhaps because it was the most unlikely — was winger Herbers’ perfectly placed rocket into the top corner vs. Columbus on June 1. The goal not only was the eventual game-winner to push Philly’s unbeaten run to eight with an exciting 3-2 win over the Crew but it was also the first of the rookie’s MLS career. Not a bad way to open your scoring account.

MVP
Ryan: Andre Blake
Selected as the league’s best goalkeeper, Blake was responsible for being the fixer when the Union’s young back line faltered. Though the keeper wasn’t flawless, he was good for at least one game-saving stop per match, earning countless points for the Union throughout the year.

Dave: Chris Pontius
All-Star selections Blake and Rosenberry rightfully won most of the praise for their breakout seasons. Perhaps slightly more overlooked was Chris Pontius, who finished with a team-leading 12 goals and six assists in his first year in Philly while overcoming the injuries that had plagued him with former club D.C. United. Pontius is now back in the U.S. national team conversation, earned MLS Comeback Player of the Year honors, and is my choice for team MVP.

Unsung hero
Ryan: Chris Pontius
Even though he was recognized with MLS Comeback Player of the Year, Pontius was the most consistent attacking force on the Union. In 2016, he had the most productive season of his career, leading the Union with 12 goals, adding six assists in 33 games. On a team with a plethora of up-and-coming talent and budding star power, MLS veteran Pontius was the club’s attacking MVP.

Dave: Richie Marquez
While much was made of Rosenberry being the only MLS player to play every minute of the season, center back Marquez quietly finished third in the league in minutes played, having played all but one game. Philly’s defense wasn’t always great, but Marquez still provided a steadying presence in the back in his first full season starting, and should only improve in 2017 if paired with a more experienced center back. 

The surprise of the season
Ryan: Vincent Nogueira leaving
With the Union rolling midway through June, the worst-case scenario happened -- their most important midfielder abruptly terminated his contract. Nogueira, who had been with the Union for the previous two seasons, cited a medical condition before heading back to France. The move was a stunner and sent the Union into a tailspin they couldn’t recover from, going 5-11-4 the rest of the way.

Dave: Vincent Nogueira leaving
Nogueira leaving in the middle of the season for a personal health reason naturally took a lot of people by surprise. And it was not a good surprise, as the well-liked, talented and underrated playmaker left a big hole in the midfield that the club could not recover from as they sputtered to the finish line.

One word to describe 2016 Union
Ryan: Promising
Dave: Rising

Why 2017 will be better
Ryan: With a year in MLS under his belt, Union sporting director Earnie Stewart knows what he needs and will go out and get it. Hosting a playoff match will be the 2017 end goal and there’s reason to believe Stewart will add to his core and put the right pieces in place to do that.

Dave: Losing an influential midfielder like Barnetta will be difficult, but giving Bedoya a full preseason and possibly getting Edu back from injury could make the midfield even more potent. The fact that players like Rosenberry, Herbers and Blake are coming off such great seasons gives the team a good young core to build around. And Stewart and head coach Curtin seem well aware that finding a big-time striker and experienced defender are holes that need to be filled before preseason begins.

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.