Union-Crew 5 things: Curtin expects reinforcements for crucial match

Union-Crew 5 things: Curtin expects reinforcements for crucial match

Union (6-9-5) vs. Columbus Crew (10-10-1)
7:30 p.m. on TCN

Feeling the sting of a punchless effort and defeat last Saturday, the hobbled Union return home Wednesday with revenge on their mind as they face the Columbus Crew at Talen Energy Stadium in the second half of a crucial Eastern Conference home-and-home series. 

Here are five things to know.

1. Quick recovery
After a season of relative health and fortune, the Union’s roster has taken a hit. The club lost Chris Pontius and Andre Blake to international duty, and spent Saturday without suspended Roland Alberg and injured Fafa Picault and C.J. Sapong.

The result? One goal and back-to-back losses. 

“At the midway point we had hoped to have everyone in the group back and clicking on all cylinders,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “For a variety of reasons we weren’t really together. Whether it was suspensions, injuries, the birth of a child, international call-ups, we had some tough variables to overcome and we didn’t pass the test on the road.”

Overall, the defense hasn’t been an issue for the Union, as they only allowed three goals over the last two games on the road. It’s the attack that is limping, a fact highlighted by the shot-less performance in their 1-0 loss to the Crew over the weekend. 

“Columbus did defend well but at the same time to not have a shot on goal is inexcusable,” Curtin, who expects to have Sapong back with Alberg in the attack, said. “It’s not a good indication of us. We are missing our front four in the game and it looked that way. We need to step up as a group and recognize we weren’t decisive enough, not good enough on attack and didn’t create enough chances.”

As a way to re-charge that offense Wednesday, the Union, who have scored 17 of their 26 goals this season at Talen Energy Stadium, will try to utilize that home field advantage. 

“The good news is we get to regroup quickly and I'm very confident in our group that we’ll have a good response on our home field against a Crew team we’re very familiar with,” Curtin said. “It’s a chance to get things right in our home building with our fans behind us.” 

2. Sold on McCarthy
While there hasn’t been much to celebrate for the Union over the last two games, there has been a lone bright spot that Curtin can look to.

“As disappointed as we are as a club over the last two games, the one thing we really learned is John McCarthy, across the board, has raised the bar in terms of where we view him,” the manager said. “He’s been excellent.” 

The third year backup goalkeeper has made 13 saves in his last three matches and is set to make his fourth start of the season Wednesday. Firmly planted behind starter Andre Blake, who has established himself as the star of the Gold Cup while captaining Jamaica, McCarthy kept the listless Union in games they otherwise shouldn’t have been.

“He’s shown he can start in this league,” Curtin said. “He makes you feel comfortable, he's done a great job and that’s something that maybe gets lost. We are still doing good defensive work, need to get a little sharper on offense but Johnny has really turned the head of the coaching staff in the last three games.” 

Thanks to Blake’s success, McCarthy will get another chance to impress Wednesday.

“[The Crew] is a team we’re real familiar with,” the goalkeeper said. “We have to get points at home, we need a big win here and take care of business.”

3. Stingy Crew
Coming off back-to-back shutout wins, including one of the Union, manager Gregg Berhalter, and the Crew are feeling confident entering Wednesday’s rematch.

“It gave us confidence,” he said. “It was a total team performance and it gives us confidence that we can break through and keep going. It was more about team defending than individuals, it was a really good compact unit and I thought we made it very difficult for them.”

Curtin didn’t disagree. With playmaker Federico Higuain likely out again for the Crew with a knee sprain, Berhalter could return to the efficient 3-4-3 formation that dominated the Union on Saturday.

“We didn’t do a good job against their three center backs, we really made it easy for them,” Curtin said. “They had a comfortable day and they basically stayed in the width of the center circle, we never pulled them out and made it uncomfortable for them.”

4. Keep an eye on …
Roland Alberg: After serving a one game suspension, Alberg will return to the Union on Wednesday. Expected at the No. 10 spot, the goal scorer will be the host’s desperately-needed offensive catalyst. “This will be an opportunity for Roland tomorrow to play another 90 minutes,” Curtin said.

Justin Meram: The midfielder leads the Crew in goals with nine and assists with six. If the Union want to keep a clean sheet at home, they’ll have to stop Meram.

5. This and that
• Union right back Ray Gaddis was a late arrival to the MLS injury report, listed as questionable with a hamstring strain. If Gaddis can’t play, Keegan Rosenberry would make his first start since April 14. 

• Along with Gaddis, Picault, who missed the match Saturday because of a hamstring strain, is questionable again for Wednesday. Forward Jay Simpson has a lower-body injury but is off the injury report. “Jay has the injury from the tackle, he might be able to go,” Curtin said. “Fafa did stuff on the side, he said it feels a lot better today.”

• The Union are 7-11-1 against the Crew all time and 5-4-0 at home.

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.