Union

Union-Impact 5 things: Playoff-hungry teams face off in East showdown

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Union-Impact 5 things: Playoff-hungry teams face off in East showdown

Union vs. Montreal Impact
8:00 p.m. on CSN

Attempting to claw into the Eastern Conference playoff picture, the Union (8-10-5), coming off a dominating 3-1 win over FC Dallas last weekend, want to keep the momentum rolling as they host the Ignacio Piatti and the Montreal Impact (7-8-6) on Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium.

Here are five things to know:

1. Elliott’s rise
Jack Elliott has been a revelation for the Union. 

The quiet and unassuming fourth round selection in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft will make his 19th consecutive start at center back for the Union against the Impact. 

“Jack Elliott has been the Rookie of the Year,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “He’s been excellent.”

And that’s not just a coach spewing positives for an undeserving player, there’s momentum behind Elliott for Rookie of the Year. The Union, who are 8-10-5, are 8-7-3 with Elliott as a starter, including seven of the team’s eight shutouts.

“It’s good to see a young center back playing at the high level he is,” Curtin said of the 6-foot-5 standout. “It is my duty as a coach to get the word out for my guy and Jack has been exceptional.”

But despite his worthiness, Elliott might not stand a chance. As Curtin explained, and as the Union experienced in 2016 when Keegan Rosenberry lost out to Seattle Sounders forward Jordan Morris, goals open eyes. Currently, Atlanta United’s Julian Gressel, with three goals and six assists in 18 starts, may have the edge.

“I always want to be a voice for the defenders,” Curtin said. “When people start banging in goals, that’s what stays in people’s minds. You wish there were more quantifiable metrics for defenders. It is tough to really get recognition as a defender for awards because if you’re winning games, 3-0, they are talking about the guys who score three goals, not who kept the zero.” 

2. Learning from the past
Before the Union were able to turn their season around, they hit the ground. That thud happened against the Impact at home on April 22 when they blew a three goal lead to draw the visitors, 3-3.

“That was probably rock bottom,” Curtin said.

The Union were winless in their first six games of the season entering that contest. Claiming the opening three goals was a breath of air for the struggling club, and to lose it was devastating. 

“We got up three goals and gave up the one to [Ignacio] Piatti before the half,” Curtin said. “It was a time when we didn’t have a lot of confidence and when that goal went in you could feel the life go out of the stadium and go out of the group. It’s two points that we dropped and two big points.”

But the club recovered. Though disappointing, the draw was the start of a six game unbeaten run that sparked the Union’s come back to Eastern Conference relevance.

“That was the low point for the group but they stuck together and rebounded well,” said Curtin, whose team is three points out of playoff position. “We still have an opportunity to get ourselves back into the discussion for the playoffs.” 

3. Impactful match
Separated by two points in the East standings and with two games in hand, Saturday’s match means as much for the Impact as it does for the Union.

“Getting a result is really important right now,” said Impact’s Dominic Oduro. “Because we can come home for a couple of games, and if we can win those, will be right in playoff position.”

But the Impact understand what they’re stepping into. The Union have been fantastic at home of late, currently on a 4-0-0 run while outscoring the opposition, 10-1, over that span.

“Philadelphia is a team that always comes out strong when they play at home,” said Impact manager Mauro Biello, who mentioned C.J. Sapong, Ilsinho and Haris Medunjanin as players his club needs to watch. “They score goals early so we have to be ready for that. It’s about being aware of those elements and being able to focus on what brings us success.”

4. Keep an eye on …
Ignacio Piatti: The dynamic midfielder was out for the Union’s 2-1 loss to the Impact at Saputo Stadium in late July, but was key to the Impact comeback draw. “When you talk about Montreal, it starts with Ignacio Piatti and trying to contain him the best you can,” Curtin said. “He’s not the kind of guy you can shut down for 90 minutes.”

Ilsinho: The Brazilian had the game of his MLS career last weekend by putting up a goal, two eye-popping assists and five shots in a 3-1 rout of FC Dallas. It was exactly what the Union needed from the No. 10 position.

5. This and that
• The Union will once again be without goalkeeper Andre Blake, who is set to miss his third game with a laceration to his hand suffered in the Gold Cup title game. Blake hasn’t played for the Union since July 2 - a 3-0 win over the New England Revolution.

• With Blake out, John McCarthy will get his seventh consecutive start on Saturday. He’s been solid in reserve, making 28 stops and allowing eight goals over that span.

• Masterful at home of late, the Union are 7-1-0 at Talen Energy Stadium since May 1. 

• The Impact are 1-5-5 on the road this season and have never won at Talen Energy Stadium (0-2-5). However, the Union are 3-6-6 all time against the Canadian side.

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.