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. 

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.