Union

Union boss Earnie Stewart is optimistic about a turnaround — but why should fans believe him?

Union boss Earnie Stewart is optimistic about a turnaround — but why should fans believe him?

CHESTER, Pa. — In some ways, Earnie Stewart should be commended for not panicking. 

Even as his team is in the midst of a near-historic winless streak, the Union sporting director firmly stated this week that making a change just for the sake of making a change is “not something I believe in.” 

And it’s hard to fault him for that line of thinking. If Stewart really believes that Jim Curtin is a promising young coach — a notion many seem to agree with — then he shouldn’t fire him for the short-term gain of possibly changing the team’s current momentum and abandon the long-term foundation he’s trying to build with him.

But it seems clear that something should be done — or, at the very least, for Stewart to provide some sort of cogent rationale as to why the Union’s epic streak could match an all-time MLS record following two more games without a win. And that’s where things get a little dicier.

When asked this week to discuss the current state of the team, Philly’s second-year sporting director mostly talked in generalities about things like momentum and confidence and how players are “human beings” who feel the weight of such a streak.

“If you win four, five games in a row, the chances that you win number six and seven are pretty good because everybody feels good about it,” Stewart said. “But it also works the other way around, and that’s the situation that we are in right now. The key is to get out of that as quickly as possible.”

Momentum in sports is certainly a real thing, though perhaps not something you’d expect to hear as much from a guy who specializes in data and analytics. Not to mention the fact that if the Union were expected to do well this season (they weren’t, according to most pundits), you could make a better case that the terrible start is a blip rather than a predictable regression. 

But, sure, fine. Most people would probably agree that a win could do wonders for morale and help transform the club from a potentially historically bad one into a run-of-the-mill mediocre one.

But that brings us to Stewart’s next claim. When asked if the talent is there to make the playoffs, Stewart said that it is, pointing to the fact that the lineup is similar to last year’s postseason team, save for a couple of spots. While this may be true, it likely won’t ease many fan concerns considering the 2016 Union limped into the playoffs, finished with an 11-14-9 overall record, and then lost a player in Tranquillo Barnetta that Curtin called “the best player that ever wore a Philadelphia Union jersey.”

Haris Medunjanin — Stewart’s top offseason acquisition — has helped to fill the void left by Barnetta and Vincent Nogueira (a major departure in the middle of the 2016 season) but he’s a deep-lying midfielder that plays in a crowded position for the Union while questions remain in the attacking midfield. And the club’s other high-priced signing this past offseason — striker Jay Simpson — has been “unlucky,” according to Stewart. Others would probably put it in less kind terms, considering he’s the team’s fourth-highest player and rarely plays more than 10-to-15 minutes at the end of games.

But Medunjanin looks like a good pickup and Simpson still has time to turn it around. A bigger issue right now, Stewart said, is the regression of certain players who enjoyed breakout seasons last year — which he said, “is totally normal.”

“And unfortunately we have a couple of dips all together,” he added, “and that is never the situation that you want to get in.”

Sure, “sophomore slumps” can certainly be an issue and that seems to be something that Keegan Rosenberry — last year’s star rookie and MLS All-Star — is dealing with as he’s been benched for the last two games.

But is there any guarantee that Rosenberry will regain his All-Star form, or that the other promising youngsters like Fabian Herbers, Joshua Yaro, Andre Blake, Derrick Jones and Jack Elliott will improve and grow with the club? 

Think about all the other exciting young players that have worn a Union jersey. From Roger Torres and Danny Mwanga to Jack McInerney and Amobi Okugo to Michael Farfan and Zach Pfeffer, there have always been guys the Union have touted as prized building blocks, only to see their development stalled and their suitcases packed. When does a “normal” dip just become the norm?

Curtin can be prone to pumping up unproven youngsters at times, too. He called Leo Fernandes the sharpest player in preseason camp last year but that never materialized to anything. Ken Tribbett looked to be a revelation as the 2016 season kicked off but it seems unlikely he’ll ever have much of an impact on the team again.

So when a rookie like Jack Elliott comes out of nowhere to start at center back, ask yourself if it’s more likely that he’ll be a starter in this league for the next few years or if he’ll fall back into the shadows like Tribbett? Will Rosenberry be a star in Philly for the next decade or will he suffer from the same developmental problems as other Union players? Or is the problem more that the league keeps getting better and better every year and that’s why guys who once looked like promising upstarts or sure things suddenly no longer do? Will the Union ever be able to keep up? 

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare current players to past ones. Rosenberry, for what it’s worth, does have a shot to be a foundational player, even if such a thing has been hard to find on a team with so much roster turnover over the years. This is, after all, being billed a new era under Stewart and Curtin, and they rightfully don’t want to be lumped in with the mistakes of their predecessors.

But Stewart would be wise to realize that Philly fans have seen it all, the ghosts of Union past lurking around every Talen Energy Stadium corner. And while there’s certainly nothing wrong with expressing optimism during a brutal stretch, you can forgive those fans for treating it with a whole lot of cynicism.

Union notes, quotes and tidbits: Brian Carroll's 'very special' farewell tour ends perfectly

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Union notes, quotes and tidbits: Brian Carroll's 'very special' farewell tour ends perfectly

CHESTER, Pa. — Union midfielder Brian Carroll accepted his framed jersey and watched a tribute video from the field at Talen Energy Stadium, prior to Sunday’s 6-1 win against Orlando City SC. 

Playing in his final MLS game, the veteran took it all in.

“Tonight was special,” said Carroll, who wrapped up his 15th season after announcing his retirement earlier in the week. “Especially the win, but really just the whole week and the handshakes and the hugs and the pictures and the little interviews. It all made for a very special week. And to top it off this way was really icing on the cake.”

Carroll entered the match for Fafa Picault at halftime and played a flawless 45 minutes.

“I felt OK,” he said. “I just needed five minutes to catch my breath. Then I was all right. The game was pretty settled at that point so I could just sit in and try to help the guys around me so it was fun.”

Then, with the same class and grace that he carried throughout his career, Carroll rode off into the sunset after one final professional match in front of the fans.

“It was really special and I’ll never forget it, said Carroll, who is moving to Indianapolis and beginning a career as a financial planner. “I love this club and I will always do anything I can to support it and be there for the club. I thank you for all the kind words and support and I’ll miss you guys.”

On the hot seat
Finishing the season outside of the playoffs with an 11-14-9 record, Union manager Jim Curtin’s future has become a topic of conversation. And although it’s unlikely he goes anywhere this offseason, the coach was asked if he thinks about his future.

“You might as well just ask me if I’m a human being,” Curtin said. “Of course you think about things like that. When you guys ask, “Do you hear the boos?” Do you think I have ears? These are silly questions.”

From the sound of it, Curtin believes his job is safe. 

“I have a decent understanding of where I stand in the organization,” he said, “and I’ll continue to work to try to get it better and I know it’s not good enough right now, but I’ll continue to work as hard as I possibly can.”

Looking to the future
Despite the overall disappointing season, the Union used the finale Sunday to put on a show.

“There was something in the air,” said Union forward C.J. Sapong, who scored a pair of goals in the 6-1 rout. “It definitely felt like it was our day and it’s a good way to close the season. What can we take from this to implement for next season to do better.”

While the victory might feel like a deodorant that covers up the stink of another lost season, it did something interesting: It gave the Union the same record and point total as 2016 when they made the playoffs to only be dispatched by Toronto FC. 

“I think it just depends on which way you look at it,” Sapong said. “For me personally, given the talent we have in this locker room, I feel like we should be playing in the playoffs, playing for hardware. Give credit to my teammates, staff and fans for dealing with a very up and down year, but now it’s behind us. We put our heads down and look forward.” 

As Sapong said, the Union’s focus is on next season.

“We have offseason now to prepare,” Curtin said. “We’re not satisfied, but at the same time, the effort of the players, they gave everything. We asked them to bring a knife to a gunfight and they don’t complain. We recognized it wasn’t enough but there are still good things happening at the club.” 

Ilsinho's status
Ilsinho may not have a spot on the Union next season, but he played like he wanted one. The Brazilian playmaker buried two goals and had a key assist in Sunday’s season finale in an inspired performance.

‘I love it here,” he said. “I’m so happy here. All season I tried to help, I tried to do my best. Sometimes yeah, sometimes no, but it’s soccer you know. I love everything here, I like it here, I hope to be back.” 

But despite the output, it still wasn’t a productive season from Ilsinho, who has a team option on his contract for 2018. With six goals and five assists in 27 games, he was better than his two goals, two assist line in 2016, but still uninspiring. 

Still, the club liked what it got from Ilsinho at the No. 10 spot down the stretch.

“Ilsinho raised his game toward the end of the year,” Curtin said. “We’re happy for him. But again, the challenge is always to do it for 90 minutes, do it on the road. He shows he has incredible talent and he’s raised his level.” 

Record-breaking Sapong
With his 15th and 16th goals Sunday, Sapong finally snapped the Union franchise mark for goals in a season set by Sebastien Le Toux in 2010. While Sapong has brushed away talk of individual accolades throughout the year, the forward was able to appreciate the honor after the season finale. 

“Obviously, to have my name somewhere for hopefully a very long time, it feels good,” he said. “I still feel like we could’ve done better. We’re not playing for anything meaningful, but it’s good to get those individual accolades. At the end of the season, I feel like I impacted my team in a positive way and that’s all I try to do.” 

And to break the record in Carroll’s last game made it even sweeter. When Sapong was subbed out in the final minutes of the match to an ovation, he hugged Carroll. 

“I told him I loved him and it was a pleasure to play with him,” Carroll said. “I told him this week, too, that I remember in his days on an opposing team, I would have to mark him on set pieces. It seemed really unfair, so I’m really thankful that he’s on my team and I don’t have to mark him anymore.”

Union-Orlando City observations: Breaking records in season-ending rout

Union-Orlando City observations: Breaking records in season-ending rout

BOX SCORE

CHESTER, Pa. —  In less than three minutes Sunday at Talen Energy Stadium, the match was effectively over. Ilsinho and the Union began their scoring assault in the third minute and didn’t stop until team records and Orlando City were thoroughly broken. The Union easily won the season finale, 6-1.

It was an impressive finish to an unimpressive season for the Union, as the club completed 2017 with an 11-9-14 record and 42 points — a mirror image of 2016. On the other side, equally disappointing Orlando City finished at 10-9-15 and more questions than answers.

• Before fans got settled into their seats, Ilsinho and the Union took the 1-0 lead. In the third minute, Alejandro Bedoya, off the rush, sent a trailing pass from the right side of the box that found a seam and Ilsinho, who easily placed the open shot past Earl Edwards Jr.

• Stunning Orlando City, the onslaught continued three minutes later. Breaking down the right side of the box, Ilsinho’s centering pass found Fafa Picault, who beat his man for a header that went bar-down and in for his sixth goal of the season.

• With the quick goal and assist Sunday, Ilsinho was playing out of his mind. And while it may not make a difference regarding his future with the club, the second-year Union player treated Sunday’s match like a guy facing a team option on his contract at the end of the season.

• Continuing to dominate Orlando City, C.J Sapong produced in the 26th minute, when he buried a cross-box feed from Picault. The goal made it 3-0 Union, but more importantly, gave Sapong 15 goals on the season, setting the Union franchise record for goals in a single season.

• But he wasn't done. Sapong netted his second of the game in the 74th minute, cleaning up a Haris Medunjanin shot and rebound. Totaling 16 goals on the season, Sapong snapped his career high by seven. He was pulled in the 86th minute for the curtain call and ovation.

• Even with the three-goal lead, Picault showed no mercy to Orlando City. The speedster broke free in the 30th minute and fired a shot through the legs of Edwards, who didn’t stand a chance. Picault left the match at halftime with what was suspected to be a concussion.

• While that goal was Picault’s second of the game and fourth for the Union, it also set a record for most goals scored in a single half by a Union team.

• Like a U.S. Open Cup match against an amateur team, the Union made it 5-0 in the 63rd minute. Medunjanin captured his team-leading 12th assist on the season by sending Ilsinho on a clean breakaway for the goal. Sapong made it 6-1, a little over 10 minutes later.

• Orlando City’s goal in the 72nd minute, scored by Dom Dwyer, broke Andre Blake’s shutout and kept the goalkeeper’s 2017 total at nine for the season. That’s three above his career high earned last season when he won MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. Blake was outstanding Sunday, making four stops.

• Chris Pontius, who came off the bench in the second half, found himself on a breakaway with minutes remaining in the match. His shot hit the post to perfectly sum up his forgettable season.

• Playing his final game in MLS, Brian Carroll, who announced his retirement from professional soccer earlier in the week, received a pre-game name chant and ceremony. Playing his final minutes of the season, the veteran of 371 MLS games, took the captain’s armband and entered the match at halftime

• With the win Sunday, the Union pushed their record at Talen Energy Stadium to 10-4-3 — the best home record in team history. But with a putrid road record of 1-10-6, it’s easy to see why the club struggled in the Eastern Conference.