Union get 'creative' to acquire Adam Najem, a coveted college talent

Union get 'creative' to acquire Adam Najem, a coveted college talent

A year ago, the Union pulled off a heist at the MLS SuperDraft, snagging a trio of players in Keegan Rosenberry, Joshua Yaro and Fabian Herbers that they can very well build their team around for the next decade.

This year’s draft was a lot quieter for the Union, who had previously traded away their first-round pick in a deal that helped them acquire standout midfielder Alejandro Bedoya.

But thanks to Wednesday’s acquisition of Adam Najem, the club feels like it still enters the 2017 MLS season with one of the best players in college soccer over the past four years.

“It gives us a top-tier draft class with the addition of Adam to that group,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said in a call with reporters. “Last year we were rewarded for [sporting director Earnie Stewart] being very aggressive and creative in the draft room. This year Earnie and [technical director Chris Albright] were also creative to get Adam Najem.”

Curtin said Najem may have landed in the top five of this year’s draft had he been eligible. But since he was part of the New York Red Bulls’ academy, he bypassed the draft because of Homegrown rules. At that point, the Union put the wheels in motion to reel him in — which they accomplished after acquiring his right of first refusal from the Red Bulls in exchange for a second-round pick in next year’s draft. 

“We were excited to get the deal done,” Curtin said. “He’s a very talented player who’s excited to wear the Philadelphia Union uniform. He’s been showing his worth in the preseason and is a great addition to the group.”

Najem certainly showed his talent at the collegiate level, scoring 33 goals and logging 29 assists over his four-year career at the University of Akron. He was a second-team NSCAA All-American in 2015 and a third-team All-American in 2016 and was the MAC Player of the Year as a senior.

Before that, the midfielder was ranked as the No. 1 recruit in New Jersey, where he led the Red Bulls’ U-16 team to the U.S. Soccer Development Academy national championship in 2012.  

“He scores a lot of goals in practice and he scored a lot of goals in college as well,” Curtin said. “He has that skillset you can’t always teach or coach. Some guys just have a knack around the goal. I think Adam falls into that category.”

After first meeting with him, Curtin found Najem to be an “intelligent, humble and quiet kid” but someone “who makes a lot of noise” when he gets on the field. In addition to his goal-scoring ability, the diminutive midfielder also is a “a really clever player” who sees “one or two passes ahead,” Curtin said.

“He’s a great kid and I hope he has a great career with the Philadelphia Union,” the coach added. “It’s incredible to bring him on board.” 

Although all three of the Union’s top rookies saw significant playing time last season — with Rosenberry and Herbers emerging as two of the best rookies in the league — it may be a little tougher for Najem to get on the field in 2017.

The Union have a crowded midfield and are just now wrapping up a busy offseason that recently included signing second-round draft pick Marcus Epps, speedy winger Fafa Picault and playmaking central midfielder Haris Medunjanin.

The club is still looking to add a third-string goalkeeper behind Andre Blake and John McCarthy and may soon decide to move some of its other late-round draft picks to USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC. But other than that, its roster seems just about complete with the start of the regular season less than a month away.

And it’s almost certainly the deepest roster in franchise history with Curtin admitting there will be some “unhappy guys” who won’t even be able to make the 18-man gameday lineup this year.

“Earnie and Chris have done a really great job this offseason retooling our group,” the Union coach said. “I don’t think we lost a ton outside Tranquillo [Barnetta] in the offseason and we replace it on paper with a stronger roster. Nothing is won on paper, I’m not going to get ahead of myself. But it is a deeper group — a team that I think can compete into the playoffs and push past that first round.”

With new deal signed, CJ Sapong hungry to 'eat' for Union

USA Today Images

With new deal signed, CJ Sapong hungry to 'eat' for Union

CHESTER, Pa. — When the Union first traded for CJ Sapong ahead of the 2015 season, they knew they were getting a promising young attacking player.

What may have been less expected was Sapong developing into one of the top American strikers, a member of the U.S national team rotation and a foundational player that makes the Union’s entire system go.

So with Sapong’s contract set to expire at the end of the 2018 campaign, the Union knew they had to make sure to lock him up — which they did just one game into the season, signing him Wednesday to a new deal that runs through 2019 with a club option for 2020.

“I hope he continues to progress as a center forward,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart told reporters from the club’s training complex Wednesday. “I think CJ is a person that, [with] the way he takes care of his body and the professional that he is, has a long future in soccer. And he’s still growing as a soccer player.”

At 29, Sapong might not be considered young anymore. But it’s easy to make the case that his best soccer is still in front of him, considering he’s coming off a breakout 16-goal season — the first time in his career he eclipsed double digits — and is set up for even more success this year with the offseason additions of playmakers Borek Dockal and David Accam.

The combination of Dockal’s vision behind him with the speed of Accam and Fafa Picault on either side of him has Sapong as excited as inking a new deal.

“That gives me space to just chill in the box and eat when I can,” he said. “I find it hard to believe we’ll be kept off the scoresheet too many games this year.”

After opening his account in Philly’s season-opening 2-0 win over the Revolution on March 3, Sapong will look to find the back of the net again when the Union return to the field Saturday vs. Columbus at Talen Energy Stadium.

And putting all contract negotiations behind him should only provide further motivation to a player who can now rest easy that Philadelphia will be his home for years to come.

“He’s a guy who’s done everything for the badge, and it’s been a pleasure to work with him and watch him grow and take his game to another level,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “I’m looking forward to working with him for the next few years.”

Currently in his eighth MLS season, Sapong said he hopes to, at the least, hit double-digits in goals every year while continuing to do the dirty work and hold-up play that Curtin loves — and has endeared him to Philly fans.

“I owe a lot to Philadelphia,” Sapong said, “and how it’s transformed me as a person and a player.”

The kids are finally all right for Union in season-opening win

USA Today Images

The kids are finally all right for Union in season-opening win


CHESTER, Pa. — For years, the Union have yelled from the rooftops about their youth-first mentality and plan to win through player development.

On Saturday night, that plan finally came to fruition.

"It's a big step for us," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "The fact that some homegrowns weren't just on the field but left huge impacts on the game, it's special."

Anthony Fontana, 18, Auston Trusty, 19, and Derrick Jones, 21, all put their stamp on the Union's 2-0 season-opening win over the Revolution.

Fontana, hailing from Newark, Delaware, and who played 66 minutes at attacking midfield, opened up his MLS account in the 43rd minute when he gathered a tipped ball from C.J. Sapong and placed a confident shot past Matt Turner. 

“It’s always been a dream of mine to play here at this club,” Fontana said. “To be able to actually help the team today feels good.”

His teammates also couldn’t be happier. That includes Union and former U.S. Men’s National Team captain Alejandro Bedoya, who took Fontana under his wing throughout the preseason.

“I’m so happy for him,” Bedoya said. “He’s a good player so I hope he takes a good step this season. Not a bad way to start his debut, to score a goal. It’s just the beginning for him, he’s got a bright future.”

For Trusty, it was all about the clean sheet. Pairing with Jack Elliott on the left side of the Union defensive line, Trusty had the unenviable job of shutting down the Revs’ most potent option, Juan Agudelo. 

“It means a lot, but it’s also the challenge,” Trusty said. “The coach put me up to it and our organization put me up to it and they believe I can do it. I just set out to fulfill my role, do my task and keep the clean sheet and just play my role on the team.”

At one point in the first half, Agudelo beat Trusty and moved in on a breakaway, only for the rookie to catch up and steal the ball back.

“He made a couple key tackles in the box, won a lot of aerial duels in the box, did a lot of the things that don’t show up in the stat sheet for center backs,” Curtin said. “But the thing that makes me most proud is there was a zero at the end of the day. That’s what is most important. That means Auston did the job.” 

And while the win was a productive introduction for the Union’s crop of talented prospects, it was also an unforgettable experience for the local kids.

“It’s amazing,” Trusty said. “Imagine growing up in the Philadelphia area, being a little kid and coming to see these guys play, to be on the same field. I remember buying a ticket and coming to see these guys play and always dreamed of playing for the Union. For it to actually happen is amazing. It’s very humbling. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”