Union

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.”

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.