Union

Union-Earthquakes 5 things: Desperate Union look for points in San Jose

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Union-Earthquakes 5 things: Desperate Union look for points in San Jose

Union vs. San Jose Earthquakes
10:30 p.m. on TCN

With the Union (8-11-5) now trailing in the race for the playoffs, the club, coming off a damaging loss to the Montreal Impact, must travel across the country to challenge Chris Wondolowski and the San Jose Earthquakes (9-10-5) on Saturday night at Avaya Stadium.

Here are five things to know.

1. Feeling the pain
The Union were devastated. With a chance to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff race last weekend, the club was instead dispatched, 3-0, by the Impact, sinking to 10th.

“It was a tough spot and really hard result for our guys,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “We’re upset in that regard but we have an opportunity to go on the road out to California, to San Jose and play against a revamped San Jose roster and try to get a result out there.”

It was a crushing defeat for the Union, who have just 10 games remaining and trail Atlanta United by six points for the final playoff spot in the East. Atlanta has two games in hand.

“It’s a hard loss to take for the guys because we knew a result there would put us back in the thick of things,” Curtin said. “Now we have to chase, which is tough.”

That tough endeavor begins Saturday against the Earthquakes, who are currently in a postseason position in a weaker Western Conference. The Earthquakes are 7-1-4 at home this season.

“We need a different mindset on the road,” Union attacker Chris Pontius said. “We’ve been tentative at times, it’s not easy playing away from home in this league but we need points now. We dropped three against Montreal so we need three against San Jose.”

2. Attack of the injury bug
Considering the Union’s current situation in the East, it’s a bad time for the club to get hit with injuries. But that’s exactly what has happened entering Saturday’s match.

Center back Oguchi Onyewu, playmaker Ilsinho, goalkeeper Andre Blake and midfielder Maurice Edu are all questionable for the game, with winger Fabian Herbers listed as out. Although the status of Edu, Blake and Herbers was expected, Onyewu, who missed last week’s match with a groin injury, hurts the Union most if he can’t make it Saturday.

“Gooch would have been in the starting lineup this past week,” Curtin said. “He’s done a really good job for us but a groin injury would have prevented him from playing. It’s just got a little too tough for him and we didn’t want to risk it.” 

Without Onyewu, the Union, like they did against the Impact, will be forced into using Josh Yaro at right center back, which would move Rookie of the Year contender Jack Elliott to his less natural left side. The scenario drew less than sterling results against the Impact, as Yaro struggled and Elliott appeared uncomfortable.

“We have decisions on the back line to make,” Curtin said.

The absence of Ilsinho, questionable with a right adductor strain, would also limit the Union’s lineup flexibility. Without the Brazilian, the Union will be forced into a combination of Roland Alberg or youngster Adam Najem at the No. 10 spot.

“He’s right in the discussion,” Curtin said of Najem. “Adam Najem is a good example of a guy who is pushing for minutes anyway, as is.”

3. Desperation Quakes
Holding the sixth spot in the Western Conference, the Earthquakes, led by Wondolowski’s nine goals and five assists, are hanging onto the playoffs by their fingernails. 

“We’re excited to be back at home,” said former Union man and current Earthquakes winger, Shea Salinas. “We’re playing well at home right now and we want to keep that momentum going.” 

Firing coach Dominic Kinnear in late June in favor of Chris Leitch, the Earthquakes have fared well of late, earning back-to-back wins before dropping a 3-0 decision to the Houston Dynamo last week.

“They’ve had an injection of life,” Curtin said. “They’re going to be an angry desperate team and we’re an angry desperate team, so you have two teams that need all three points at this stage, draws don’t do either of us any good right now. We’ll both have to be aggressive.” 

4. Keep an eye on
John McCarthy: With injured goalkeeper Blake expected to return to the lineup Wednesday against Toronto FC, Saturday could mark McCarthy’s last start of an eight game run. Despite the numbers and a 2-4-1 record, McCarthy has opened eyes with his stout play. He could make a statement against the Earthquakes. “He’s done a great job for us,” Curtin said.

Chris Wondolowski: His club’s leader in goals and assists, Wondolowski has three goals and eight shots on goal in his last seven matches. The crafty forward is the tip of the Earthquakes’ offensive spear.

5. This and that
• Between the Gold Cup and hand laceration, Blake is set to miss his eighth match Saturday. The goalkeeper did get his stitches out but remains questionable. “It’s still a noticeable cut,” Curtin said. “San Jose won’t be possible but Toronto is in the discussion for the target.” 

• The Union are 3-4-2 against the Earthquakes all-time and a respectable 1-2-1 in San Jose.

• The Union’s first-ever match in San Jose happened on Sept. 15, 2010, at Buck Shaw Stadium, which saw Wondolowski claim the game’s only goal past Brad Knighton with a header from Arturo Alvarez. Who else played in that match? New Earthquakes coach Leitch managed 90 minutes at right back.

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.