Union

Union-D.C. United 5 things: Union desperate for first win

Union-D.C. United 5 things: Union desperate for first win

Union (0-1-2)  at D.C. United (0-2-1)
7 p.m. on TCN

Fresh off a much-needed international break, Sebastien Le Toux and stumbling D.C. United host Alejandro Bedoya and the Union (0-1-2) on Saturday night (7:00 p.m., TCN) at RFK Stadium, in what has become a crucial early-season battle between the two winless clubs.

Here are five things to know:

1. Looking for three points
Three games into the 2017 campaign and the winless Union are already feeling pressure. 

"I do know we lost a game to Orlando, which we weren't happy about,” said Union manager Jim Curtin regarding his club's recent 2-1 loss to Orlando City SC. "We would have liked to get at least a point out of it, we would have liked to get three out of [Toronto FC on March 11]. We didn't, so our players and staff know the task at hand. We have to get points early on in the year because it's important." 

While it was only the first defeat for the Union in 2017, the loss was another reminder that the club hasn't won a game since August 2016. Still, Curtin isn't worried about the continuation of last season's late struggle.

"It's important to recognize that this year's team is different from last year's in terms of personnel," Curtin said. "It's a new year, a new group. While we were happy to make the playoffs, we weren't happy with the ending of the year. It's in the past. We had months and months of off time between that, so I don't think you can connect the two years together."

But Curtin does recognize that if the Union don't begin to pull in points soon, starting on Saturday against D.C. United, the situation could get dire for the Union. You can only go so far without a win before the hull begins to crack.

"You don't want to be a team that's chasing," he said. "It's a hard league to come from behind and chase in. You saw last year with the [Seattle Sounders] and D.C. getting hot late in the year. But that's not a situation we want to put ourselves in. It starts with a good performance against D.C. and building into the three-game homestand that we have."

2. Keeping D.C. at Zero
Although the Union and D.C. United are cuddling at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, the scenario appears much more dire for Ben Olsen's club. Through three games, United has yet to score a goal and has conceded a conference-worst six.

"It's a scary thing," Curtin said. "You don't want to be the team they break out against. Ben is as hard a worker as there is in our league and he has a good team. If you actually look at their performances and watch the games as we have now on tape, they are creating chances. They are dangerous."

More troubling for United is that their primary striker, Patrick Mullins, is out for three or four weeks with a left hamstring injury. That leaves the club to lean on Jose Guillermo Ortiz, Lamar Neagle or former Union legend, Sebastien Le Toux as the go-to forward.

"I'm sure he'd like to be out there," Curtin said of Le Toux, who played six seasons with the Union before being traded last season to the Colorado Rapids. "I'm sure he'd like to score against us. You see it so often, guys move from one club to another and there's a chip on their shoulder to score against their old team. Knowing Ben, I wouldn't be surprised if [Le toux] plays a bunch of minutes against us."

Regardless, the Union are treating United as a defensive problem.

"They have a lot of dynamic attackers," Curtin said. "You look at guys like Lloyd Sam. [Patrick] Nyarko has given us fits over the past years. [Luciano] Acosta, when he gets going, he's a handful, he pops up all over the field."

3. United Urgency
While the Union may have had a rougher than expected start to their season, D.C. United's season has been a nightmare. The club kicked off the year with a scoreless draw but followed that effort up with a 4-0 loss at the hands of New York City FC. 

On March 18, Olsen's team dropped a 2-0 decision at home to the Columbus Crew.

"We have to trust in the process of getting better right now," Olsen said. "We're getting plenty of looks and plenty of chances, we just have to clean up the final stuff on the offensive end."

But according to Olsen, the pressure United feels to find a result on Saturday isn't irregular, despite the team's rocky start.

"There's always an urgency to win games in this league," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's the first game, third or what your record is. We're always looking to get three points at home and this is no different." 

4. Keep an eye on …
Patrick Nyarko: The speedster, with a goal and two assists in his last three games against the Union, continued that into the preseason when he fired on the Union with a goal in the 14th minute of a United win. He's a problem the Union will have to solve on Saturday.

Jay Simpson: Simpson's first goal with the Union came minutes before he had to leave the match against Toronto FC and head to the hospital with a rib injury. But after a few weeks of rest and recovery, the forward is healthy and ready to make an impact against D.C. United on Saturday. 

5. This and that
• The Union are 7-7-4 against D.C. United all time and 2-0-1 in their last three games against the rival club.

• Union goalkeeper John McCarthy has been diagnosed with a concussion and will not travel with the team. Third-string goalkeeper Jake McGuire will travel. 

• Union forward Chris Pontius suffered a broken hand against Orlando City but is expected to play in a full capacity Saturday.

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.