Union

Union-NYCFC 5 things: Union aim to end recent 'bad spell' against Villa, NYCFC

Union-NYCFC 5 things: Union aim to end recent 'bad spell' against Villa, NYCFC

Sitting alone at the bottom of MLS, C.J. Sapong and the winless Union (0-3-2) look to break the curse and avoid their fourth consecutive defeat when they host David Villa and powerful New York City FC (2-2-1) on Friday night (7 p.m., ESPN) at Talen Energy Stadium.

Here are five things to know:

1. Fighting the way out
With three straight losses and few ways to improve before Friday's clash with NYCFC, the Union will have to strong-arm their way out of this slump.

"We're in a bad spell right now, we've lost three games in a row and that's hard," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "We have to fight our way out. We have to stick together as a group and fight our way out of this thing."

Although the Union are at a low point, they do have hope. The club is doing well enough to create offensive chances and is in the league's upper echelon in shots against. This comes despite giving up the fifth-most goals in MLS.

"We are creating chances and we're not giving up a lot of chances," said Curtin, who insisted these type of numbers will pay off in the long run. "We're second in the league in shots conceded which is good. Every team goes on a good run and every team has a bad spell."

To help the Union avoid falling into listlessness, Curtin is working to boost confidence with a mix of perspective and pushing on-field passion.

"We're not happy with where are on the table, we've lost three games in a row now," he said. "It's important to keep perspective and recognize the good moments that we've had. We do still have a very good group, a good team and we had good meetings this week. We've stressed bringing the energy, bringing the passion on our home field."

2. Lineup changes
Following last Saturday's bitter loss, Curtin hinted that he would explore significant changes to his starting group. But during his press conference on Wednesday, the coach backed off.

"There's always a consideration for everything," he said. "We'll discuss things through. But we believe in this group and we believe in the formation we play. It just takes us executing. Making roles as clear as possible is something that we've stressed."

On Saturday, when the Union fell behind a goal in the second half to the Portland Timbers, Curtin tapped rarely used Roland Alberg to step in as the No. 10, while Alejandro Bedoya fell back deeper into the midfield.

"Roland has worked hard in that regard and we rewarded him with some minutes in this game," Curtin said. "We look forward to New York City now and will make the best decision and best group out there to get a win."

He also picked forward Jay Simpson to join Sapong in the attack. But despite the personnel to run a two-striker set, don't expect the Union to move away from their typical 4-2-3-1 formation on Friday.

"We still believe in what we're doing and we don't want to make it more complicated for the players," Curtin said. "We haven't performed how we want to on the field but if we continue to believe in the system that we have, we will get the results that we deserve. We've been beaten three times in a 34-game season."

3. Matching intensity
Aware of the Union's recent struggles, NYCFC knows what to expect on Friday when it faces a wounded club desperate for a win.

"It'll be a tough game for us, we have to be ready to compete," NYCFC manager Patrick Vieira said. "They are going through a difficult period. We need to be ready to fight.

"It will be two teams who need to win games. If we manage to play the way we know and add a little more aggressiveness in our game, we'll have a chance."

Ratcheting up the aggressiveness and tempo is something Vieira is pushing for Friday, especially following his team's 2-1 loss to D.C. United last weekend. The defeat brought NYCFC's record to a lukewarm 2-2-1 on the season.

"We need to add something more to our game too if we want to compete against MLS teams," Vieira said. "The way we want to play is positive and good, but we need to add a little bit more."

For Curtin, the match will be about meeting that tempo and keeping Vieira's club off balance.

"We know what they are going to do, but it starts with our initial pressure, not letting them get a rhythm," he said. "I'm confident our group will have a good response and do that on our home field."

4. Keep an eye on
David Villa: Villa isn't just a productive scorer (three goals on the season), he's also become an MLS playmaker. The forward ranks fourth in MLS with three helpers. "He's a guy who if you focus too much on him he'll set up goals, too," Curtin said. "He has that ability."

Haris Medunjanin: The Union season is not be going to plan, but that's not the fault of Medunjanin, a defensive midfielder with a flair for playmaking. With just two assists on the season, the MLS newcomer is overdue for a breakout game. "He's as good a passer as I've worked with," Curtin said. "He only has two assists but that could be up around seven or eight already if we catch those little breaks I've talked about before. He's a true professional." 

5. This and that
• The Union are 2-2-1 against NYCFC all-time, but 2-1-0 at Talen Energy Stadium.

• Union goalkeeper John McCarthy will miss his third straight game with a concussion.

"McCarthy still is not cleared to play yet," Curtin said. "We're in one of those holding patterns where he's not quite cleared yet." Jake McGuire will once again be the backup.

• Another injury to monitor is center back Jack Yaro, who is also close to being back in the lineup after missing all season. The second-year MLS defender is near full recovery from a shoulder injury suffered in the preseason. "Josh would tell you he's ready to go now," Curtin said. "He's getting closer."

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.