Union open preseason camp with hungry returning core, intriguing newcomers

Union open preseason camp with hungry returning core, intriguing newcomers

CHESTER, Pa. — There were some new faces out there at the Power Training Complex on Tuesday as the Union officially opened preseason camp. And there were some guys missing because of their inclusion in U.S. national team camp (Alejandro Bedoya, Chris Pontius and Keegan Rosenberry) or visa issues (new additions Jay Simpson and Giliano Wijnaldum).

But as the team gathered on a cold, windy day in Chester before it flies south to Florida for the bulk of its preseason next week, this much was clear: almost the entire core from the 2016 season has returned.

For a franchise that’s often lacked stability, that was reassuring to head coach Jim Curtin as he looks to build upon the team’s first playoff berth in five years — and an early playoff exit that still stings.

“We got a taste of the playoffs last year and we want more,” Curtin said following Tuesday’s training session. “A good core of them have now played in two U.S. Open Cup finals and the playoffs. And there’s a whole ’nother level and next step we need to go to.”

The one big player the Union did lose is attacking midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta, who decided to end his career in his native Switzerland. But Roland Alberg or Bedoya could fill those spots, and the midfield should be bolstered by Maurice Edu, who’s hoping to return from injury before the start of the regular season on March 5.

Perhaps the best part is welcoming back young players like Rosenberry, Josh Yaro and Fabian Herbers — all of whom had productive rookie campaigns last year and are looking for more in 2017.

“I think guys did really well in the offseason,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said. “I was very pleased with how they came back. From a general sense, you can see it already, just talking to Fabian Herbers and Josh Yaro … they’re at a young age but almost veterans the way they perceive themselves and the way they go about their business.”

Rosenberry, too, has those same qualities. But Stewart has yet to welcome in the MLS Rookie of the Year runner-up, who’s currently with the U.S. national team in California, along with Pontius and Bedoya. 

Both Pontius and Rosenberry are looking for their first cap when the USMNT plays Serbia on Sunday and Jamaica on Feb. 3. The alternative isn’t too bad either — at least from the Union’s perspective.

“The hope is that they’ll play,” Curtin said. “The feedback we’ve gotten is good. Keegan, it’s his first time going through it. Chris is Chris — a great professional that I’m sure is showing well. And Alejandro is a guy in and around a starting spot at all times for the national team. The hope is they get minutes because it would be a great experience. But if they don’t, then we get them back here and they’ll be confident, flying and fit. It’s a win-win.”

There were plenty of other guys to help fill their void Tuesday with Curtin calling on some youth academy players as well as some from the affiliate Bethlehem Steel to round out training. Perhaps the most surprising addition was Oguchi Onyewu, a former U.S. national team star who Curtin said was just there to keep his fitness level up.

But even if it’s unlikely, Stewart didn’t rule out that the player known as “Gooch” could be signed, especially with the team in the market for an experienced center back.

“Never say never,” Stewart said. “That’s going a bit too far right now. But it didn’t take Jim and myself too long to say yes when Gooch asked if he could maintain his fitness. We’re open to that. I think Auston Trusty will be better for that, I think Josh Yaro will be better for that, I think Ken Tribbett will be better for that, just by being able to stand next to him, talk to him and speak about the game situation.”

On top of signing a veteran center back — Onyewu or not — Stewart is in the market for a new defensive midfielder. The Union also could move to sign Fafa Picault and Adam Najem, two players who are currently on trial. The club appears to be especially high on Picault, who was called into the U.S. national camp as recently as last May. 

“He has a bounce in his step,” Curtin said. “He’s a guy who can add pace to our wide areas and has played up top as a 9, too. He checks a lot of boxes of someone we need.”

Whether or not they sign one or both of those trialists, the Union will likely continue to make moves throughout the rest of the preseason, as they’ve done in past years. The difference now is those players will be added to a stabler, hungrier locker room.

“The expectations from fans should rise,” Curtin said. “Certainly on paper we added good pieces, and I think there’s more to come. The roster is still fluid and evolving."

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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.