Union

Union-Crew 5 things: Jim Curtin's depleted club begins crucial home-and-home series

Union-Crew 5 things: Jim Curtin's depleted club begins crucial home-and-home series

Union at Crew
7:30 p.m. on TCN

Looking to rebound from a disappointing road loss Wednesday to the Montreal Impact, Fafa Picault and the Union (6-8-5) kick off a crucial Eastern Conference home-and-home series at MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday night against the Columbus Crew (9-10-1).

Here are five things to know:

1. Fighting a slump
All of the Union’s losses this season have come from a pair of lengthy losing streaks, one of four games and one of three. After dropping Wednesday’s match against the Impact, 2-1, the club hopes to avoid its third consecutive losing run in 2017.

“Consistency is what we’re striving for,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “You see around the league all different kind of streaks, the highs and lows, and it’s something you definitely want to avoid. Consistency is what we’re working for, it was something we were pretty good at last year in terms of bouncing back and not being a team that loses two in a row.”

Despite that lack of consistency and streaky nature of his team, Curtin does see positives. He believes that when the Union do slip down the losing path, they never let the bottom completely fall out.

“We’ve been in every game if you look over the course of the season,” he said. “We’re in every game but it is clear we have to all be pretty darn good on the night for us to get a win.”

Avoiding another losing streak is crucial for the Union’s playoff hopes. Six points out of playoff position with 15 games remaining, the Union, who have an extremely tough stretch of matches to finish the year, can’t afford to drop games in bunches this late in their campaign.

“We can’t have long losing streaks,” Curtin said. “We’re at the stage in the year where if you go on a long losing streak, that could be the end of it. There’s still a lot of games to play and we have a good team, but the series here vs. Columbus is one where we need to get results.”

2. Roster recovery
Between injuries and international call-ups, the Union enter Saturday’s match with a uniquely lean roster. 

“It’s a hard time for us in terms of personnel,” Curtin said. 

The club will be without Derrick Jones (concussion) and Fabian Herbers (sports hernia), but will also miss Andre Blake and Chris Pontius to Gold Cup duty.

“The good thing is you have guys getting called into the national team, which is a real positive,” Curtin said. “The international call-ups are one thing, the freak injuries, losing Herbers, losing Jones to the concussion, that can compound things and make it harder.”

What limits the Union, even more, is the suspension of Roland Alberg, who was dinged by MLS for a reckless tackle against the Impact. Losing Alberg means the Union are limited at both center attacking midfield and the right wing position. 

“The suspension to Roland makes it difficult, it makes your group thin,” Curtin said. “The one thing we do have is not a huge drop-off from our starters to our second-teamers, we do have that depth. But you do worry though that if you lose your top-end guys, it becomes challenging.” 

That means young talents like Marcus Epps and Adam Najem will see significant action.

“It’s a big opportunity for them,” Curtin said. “Two guys that have been very close to getting a starting nod regardless of injury or whatever it is.”

3. Potent Crew 
If the Union want to make the playoffs, they’ll have to get through the Crew. Gregg Berhalter’s club is currently outside looking into the postseason picture but sitting five points ahead of the Union, who have a game in hand but face the Crew in an upcoming home-and-home series. 

“We need to do it now with urgency and it has to start this weekend against Columbus,” Curtin said of his team playing with consistency. “This will be a big two-game stretch for us.”

But that’s easier said than done. Although Higuain is listed as out with a knee sprain, the Crew still possess a potent attack featuring Ola Kamara and Justin Meram. The club has tallied 30 goals in 20 games this season, good for fifth in the conference.

“They’re a team that really pass out of the back well, they’re one of the best passing teams,” Curtin said. “You have to disrupt that, you can’t let them walk the ball up the field because they are coached too well and they can pick you apart. We have to do a good job in terms of how we handle them in possession. They’ve conceded some goals but they’ve scored a lot of goals, too — they can really attack.” 

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: Alejandro Bedoya is back from Gold Cup duty with the U.S. men’s national team and is expected to help his club Saturday in Columbus. The Union captain will be a welcome sight for Curtin. “Getting Alejandro back in our group is very important,” Curtin said. “We have a group that will go on the field able to get a result against Columbus.”

Crew: Ranking sixth in MLS in saves, Zack Steffan, who was born in Coatesville and grew up in Downingtown, was on the Union’s Homegrown Player radar before he left the country for Germany’s SC Freiburg. The goalkeeper has since returned and is motivated to impress in front of his hometown club.

5. This and that
• Union speedster Picault tweaked his hamstring on Wednesday and was pulled from the game as a result. Although the club is tentative about the injury, Curtin expects Picault to play on Saturday. “There is an injury there but we’re confident it’s one he can play with,” the coach said. “That would be another difficult one to lose at this time.”

• The Union are 7-10-1 against the Crew all-time and 2-6-1 on the road in the series.

• Road struggles continued for the Union on Wednesday, as their record away from Talen Energy Stadium moved to 1-5-3 on the season. The Crew are 6-3-1 at home in 2017.  

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.