Union

Union-Impact 5 things: Both teams missing key players in Eastern Conference tilt

Union-Impact 5 things: Both teams missing key players in Eastern Conference tilt

Union at Montreal Impact
7:30 p.m. on TCN

After a 13-day break from MLS play because of the Gold Cup, the Union (6-7-5) enter a busy stretch with a tricky road trip that starts in Montreal tonight and ends in Columbus three days from now. Here are five things to know for Wednesday’s matchup vs. the Impact (5-6-6):

1. Missing players
The Union will be without a slew of key guys as Chris Pontius (U.S.) and Andre Blake (Jamaica) are still with their respective national teams heading into the Gold Cup quarterfinals. And even though Alejandro Bedoya was released from the U.S. national team, that was only so he could welcome the birth of his second child, which he did Tuesday morning.

That means Bedoya understandably may not want to leave his newborn daughter, Milena, behind to fly to Montreal for Wednesday’s game. Instead, the Union captain will likely join the team for the second half of their road trip in Columbus for Saturday’s game.

“Obviously, we’re a much better soccer team when he’s there with us, but there are certain things that are more important for soccer for sure,” said Union head coach Jim Curtin, a father of three. “The birth of a child, for me, is always something that is an incredibly unique experience. … It would be pretty darn selfish to take that away from him.”

Among other injuries, the Union will also be without Bedoya’s midfield replacement in Derrick Jones, who suffered a concussion in Saturday’s friendly vs. Swansea City and will, according to Curtin, “be out at least until Saturday.”

But the Impact will also likely be without some important players, including Patrice Bernier and Anthony Jackson-Hamel (with Canada at the Gold Cup), Ambroise Oyongo (right knee surgery) and star playmaker Ignacio Piatti (groin injury).

“You dodge a bullet because he’s as talented a guy in the league that there is,” Curtin said of Piatti. “We’re missing guys, they’re missing guys — it will be a real fight.”

2. Brutal schedule
It was recently revealed that, of every team in MLS, the Union have the toughest remaining schedule for the second half of the season with trips to home powerhouses Toronto, Chicago and Atlanta looming.

That means that even though it’s tough to win on the road in this league, the Union know they need points in Montreal and Columbus — two teams near them in the standings — before coming home to face Columbus again next Wednesday.

“It’s a tricky time, with the combination of the Gold Cup and the schedule,” Curtin said. “They gave us Saturday off, which was I guess nice. But then they crammed in Wednesday-Saturday-Wednesday, so you’re playing the same amount of games. I’d rather almost that they kept us in the rhythm of a weekly game. It’s a challenge.”

According to Curtin, there is at least one positive about hitting the road for a midweek game, however.

“The old Wednesday night is good for us because it’s not quite the same atmosphere on a Wednesday night in a home stadium,” the Union coach said. “We have to jump on them and take advantage and try to take points.”

3. Ilsinho back to the wing?
With Pontius on U.S. national team duty in Philly and Fabian Herbers out indefinitely after undergoing sports hernia injury, the Union are a lot thinner on the wing — once arguably their deepest position.

Fafa Picault will start on one side and it looks like Ilsinho will slide back over to the wing from the central midfield position he had been occupying for the last couple of months. That means Roland Alberg, who had lost that No. 10 spot, is in line to start his first MLS game since early May and play alongside Ilsinho in Montreal.

“They’re both experienced players, and I’m totally comfortable with them being on the field together,” Curtin said. “We will have a little more possession. They’re guys that are very good on the ball. I’m comfortable in that regard.”

Curtin added that speedy rookie Marcus Epps will continue to be a top winger off the bench while Herbers recovers from surgery (which could be up to the next eight weeks).

“Every time he comes into a game he changes it,” Curtin said of Epps.

4. Players to watch
Union: If Bedoya doesn’t make the trip to Montreal, Warren Creavalle will almost certainly get the start in the midfield alongside Haris Medunjanin. Although it will only be his second start of the season, Creavalle is a seasoned MLS player who started 21 games last season, so he should be up for the challenge. And look for veteran Brian Carroll to back him up and possibly make his season debut if the Union are holding a late lead.

Impact: Since coming over in May as a Designated Player, Swiss midfielder Blerim Dzemaili has three goals and four assists for Montreal in only 626 minutes.

5. This and that
• The Impact are 5-1-1 all-time vs. the Union in games played in Montreal.

• The Union had a stunning collapse when the Impact visited Talen Energy Stadium earlier in the season, blowing a 3-0 lead for a 3-3 draw.

• Montreal just acquired Shaun Francis, but Curtin said he thinks the experienced Jamaican left back may be immediately thrown into the fire and see time tonight

• Union striker C.J. Sapong remains one goal away from hitting double digits for the first time in his career.

• With Blake gone, John McCarthy will get his second straight start in net after making six saves in a 1-1 draw with Sporting Kansas City two weeks ago.

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.