Union

Union have sunk to bottom of MLS standings, but who is to blame?

Union have sunk to bottom of MLS standings, but who is to blame?

It's only natural that Union head coach Jim Curtin has had to deal with speculation about his job security. The Union are off to an awful start, sinking to the bottom of MLS with an 0-4-2 record heading into Saturday's game against the Montreal Impact.

Combine that with the team's awful end to the 2016 season, its mostly awful 2015 campaign -- Curtin's first full one in charge -- and the fact that soccer coaches around the world tend to come and go with relative frequency (see: Bradley, Bob), and it all adds up to the chance that Curtin could be in trouble if not for a quick turnaround.

But the bigger question is: Should he be fired? And if he shouldn't, which I'll say up front is my personal opinion, who is most to blame for the Union's woes? 

Unlike in past years, it's harder to find an easy target. From former coach Peter Nowak hazing, chastising and trading popular players away, to former CEO Nick Sakiewicz playing fast and loose with the truth, to high-priced former goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi looking like he wanted to be anywhere but Philly, there have been people cut loose from the organization for very good reasons. Even the affable John Hackworth was responsible for creating his own roster, so his firing when the team struggled in 2014 certainly had merit.

But these days, the Union head coach no longer brings in all of his own players, like Nowak and Hackworth mostly did. And you could say that the deals Curtin did make, along with technical director Chris Albright -- acquiring Tranquillo Barnetta and Chris Pontius, among others -- were some of the franchise's better ones.

Which brings us to Earnie Stewart. Hired as the club's sporting director before the 2015 season, the former U.S. national team star was tasked with changing the direction of the franchise. There was little not to like about the move at the time, considering Stewart's front-office success in his native Netherlands, where he utilized a "Moneyball" style to get the most out of his team. And more than a year later, there's still plenty to like about Stewart's intelligence, patience and vision.

But it's also fair to question the makeup of this year's roster and offer an early evaluation of his offseason moves. To start, it's clear that World Cup veteran Haris Medunjanin, the marquee acquisition of 2017, will be a talented player in MLS. He already is, and could be a top assist leader with some better finishing. But he's a deep-lying midfielder, a standout passer, someone who plays a similar role as the team's two other most accomplished players (captain Alejandro Bedoya and the injured Maurice Edu), its best homegrown player (Derrick Jones) and two other MLS veterans (Brian Carroll and Warren Creavalle).

Meanwhile, while there's a glut in the defensive midfield now that Bedoya has dropped back to his more comfortable position, the attack has been barren for much of the season. C.J. Sapong continues to prove that he can score goals in bunches at times but two of Stewart's biggest foreign imports -- attacking midfielder Roland Alberg and striker Jay Simpson -- have struggled to stay on the field and make an impact while there.

Alberg showed he was capable of big things with one red-hot goal-scoring stretch last season, but the jury is still out on Simpson, a former fourth-division English striker who doesn't appear to offer much of an upgrade over Sapong or Charlie Davies. 

But, of course, big-time strikers cost a lot of money. Which brings us to Jay Sugarman. 

The Union's majority owner has admitted the team won't shell out the same kind of dollars on world-renowned players as other clubs. Instead, he's directed much of his resources toward the franchise's youth development program, a new practice facility and, perhaps down the road, an improved waterfront around the stadium. And anyone that's spoken with him will tell you he's a smart, sharp guy who did the right thing by cutting ties with Sakiewicz and bringing someone of Stewart's pedigree on board.

But at this point, you have to throw some blame at him -- and many fans are -- for not opening the wallet for a premier attacking player. Just look at what's happened to the Chicago Fire since they signed World Cup champ Bastian Schweinsteiger. Or look at how Nicolas Lodeiro led Seattle on a stirring MLS Cup run last year. Look at all the other teams around the league who have a true star on their team (including expansion side Atlanta United, who you can say is already far ahead of the Union) and how much it means that they can rely on that player for a goal, on any day, at any time. 

The Union don't have that. And aside from maybe Carlos Ruiz for a brief spell in 2011 and Barnetta, you can make the argument that they've never really brought in a star attacker from outside the league, typically relying on MLS stalwarts like Sebastien Le Toux, Conor Casey, Pontius and Sapong to provide the bulk of the offense.

Maybe Alberg will get hot like he did last year. Maybe Simpson will start scoring, too. Maybe Bedoya will emerge as the big-time playmaker the Union hoped. Maybe Keegan Rosenberry and Pontius will shake off slow starts and look more like the players that got them into the U.S. national team camp in January. Maybe Edu will finally get healthy and change the look of the midfield or offer a steadying presence on the backline. Maybe they really do just need to get that first win of the season to relieve the pressure that's hanging over them, like a black cloud, every time they step on the field.

But it's pretty clear that the most obvious fix for a team at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings is to find a true difference-maker in the attacking third. You could even contend that they're simply one player away from quickly charging up the table in a league known for parity and in-season turnarounds.

So if you're the Union, do you try to fill that glaring need, whether it's a high-priced foreign import or even just an underused goal scorer or attacking midfielder from inside MLS? Or do you fire a young, likable coach from Philly who has the respect of players in the locker room, understands this city and the franchise, values youth development, and would leave a big hole in the organization?

You make the call. 

Inside Doop: Lack of star power continues to doom Union

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Inside Doop: Lack of star power continues to doom Union

At long last, the Union’s season is coming to an end. Even better, they no longer have to play any games on the road this year.

In their final away match of a disappointing 2017 campaign, the Union let a lead slip away in a 3-2 loss to the Fire, finishing the year with a dismal 1-10-6 road record.

What went wrong? And what can we expect from next week’s regular-season finale at Talen Energy Stadium? Here’s a look in the final Inside Doop of 2017:

Three thoughts about Sunday’s game
1. The Union were once again reminded what star power can do for a team. On Sunday, the Fire’s Nemanja Nikolic put on a show with three goals — his 22nd, 23rd and 24th of the season — to all but wrap up a Golden Boot crown and put on his back a Fire team that was without fellow star Bastian Schweinsteiger. In Philly’s last road game, Atlanta also overcame the loss of star Miguel Almiron to ride Josef Martinez to a big win. That’s what happens when you spend a lot of money: you have a stable of difference-makers and their presence trickles down to the rest of the club. The Union, simply, don’t have anything close to that — one of the big reasons why they can’t play well for 90 minutes on the road and why they’ll be missing the playoffs for the sixth time in the franchise’s eight-year history.

2. The closest thing the Union do have to a true star, apart from goalie Andre Blake, is the midfield combo of Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. And both overcame their recent heartbreak of missing out on the World Cup (Bedoya with the U.S., Medunjnanin with Bosnia and Herzegovina) to put in strong shifts. Medunjanin’s pass to set up Bedoya’s second goal of the season was a thing of beauty — and marked his 11th assist of the season. Say what you want about the Union, but those two are consummate pros and locker room leaders who will do everything in their power to get this thing turned around in 2018.

3. Sadly for the Union, one of their best stories of the season — Jack Elliott — had a night to forget. The rookie center back, who went from fourth-round draft pick to Rookie of the Year contender, lost track of a long ball on the Fire’s first goal and then committed a penalty to set up Nikolic’s second goal. Elliott will still be an important piece heading into 2018, but it’s important to remember that he’s no sure thing, especially after seeing what happened to Keegan Rosenberry and Josh Yaro in their second seasons. Meanwhile, Richie Marquez continued his late-season revival with one of his better games of the year. Raise your hand if you have any kind of handle on the team’s center back situation right now.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. Home finales are usually special no matter how a season turns out but it’s hard to figure what kind of crowd and reception there will be when the Union take on Orlando next Sunday (4 p.m., 6ABC). This has been a trying season for Union fans who watched their team fail to build on any kind of momentum from last year’s playoff berth while lowly teams like Chicago or expansion teams like Atlanta (for the reasons listed above them) skyrocketed past them. At the same time, the Union have been mostly fun to watch at home, where they’ve set a franchise record with nine wins. The chance to go for a 10th victory and have C.J. Sapong break the single-season scoring record could be a couple reasons that people will flock to the stadium — that, and the realization that there will be no more soccer there until March.

2. Another big reason to come to Talen Energy Stadium is to see Kaka, the Brazilian legend who will play his last game in MLS. Who will play their last game for the Union? It’s hard to say for sure but Roland Alberg, Ilsinho, Chris Pontius and Brian Carroll are decent bets as an offseason potentially filled with turnover looms.

3. How will head coach Jim Curtin construct the lineup? He doesn’t like to switch things too much, but fans may be clamoring for young guys like Derrick Jones and Adam Najem while Curtin may want to give something of a send-off to Carroll or Charlie Davies, well-known veterans who have hardly played this year. And what about Maurice Edu? He hasn’t played in more than two years — but will a player who led the Union to back-to-back U.S. Open Cup finals in 2014 and 2015 get to say goodbye to fans in some way?

Stat of the week
Even after Bedoya’s goal Sunday, the Union’s four highest-paid players — Bedoya, Edu, Ilsinho and Jay Simpson — have combined for only seven goals this season.

Quote of the week
"It was definitely nostalgic to come back and play at Toyota Park. When I was younger in the U-16s and the U-18s, I played a lot here when I was with the academy. It was good to come back on the professional side and be able to play on the same field I play it on when I was younger." — Union rookie Marcus Epps

Player of the week
Bedoya scored a very nice goal, made a couple of perfectly timed tackles and generally looked sharp in his first game back from the USMNT’s World Cup qualifying failure. Maybe he should’ve played in Trinidad, huh?

Union blow another lead, beaten by Fire

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Union blow another lead, beaten by Fire

BOX SCORE

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — Nemanja Nikolic scored two of his three goals in the second half, increasing his league-leading total to 24, and the Chicago Fire rallied for a 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Union on Sunday.

The Fire (16-10-7) moved into third in the Eastern Conference, which would be good for a home game in the playoffs. Nikolic is four goals clear of his pursuers for the Golden Boot with one game to play.

Nikolic opened the scoring in the third minute, getting to a long feed from Brandon Vincent and aided by a bad angle by defender Jack Elliot before beating Andre Blake. Nikolic's penalty kick in the 64th tied it at 2 after David Accam was taken down in the penalty area. Nikolic completed his first career hat trick with an easy finish from the middle of the box on a feed from Brandon Vincent for the game winner in the 78th.

Chicago defender Johnan Kappelhof's own goal put the Union in a 1-1 tie at the six-minute mark and a feed from Haris Medunjanin to Alejandro Bedoya for a chip shot was good for the lead from the 13th minute.

Philadelphia (10-14-9) finished 1-10-6 on the road this season.