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.”