Union-Orlando City 5 things: Returning home with playoffs in sight

Union-Orlando City 5 things: Returning home with playoffs in sight

Union vs. Orlando City SC
3:00 p.m. on TCN 

With a week to regroup from a troublesome road swing, the confident Union (11-12-9) will have an opportunity to take a step closer to the postseason Sunday, when they host Orlando City SC (7-11-14) at Talen Energy Stadium.

Here are five things to know.

1. Union Regrouping
The Union enter Sunday’s match slumped over, riding a five-game winless streak and going 0-3-2 over that span. But with two weeks away from game action before facing Orlando City, manager Jim Curtin hopes the club hit a reset button.

“We’ve had a good week and a half of training and we’re looking to finish the season strong,” Curtin said. “This is about getting back to basics, doing the things that have made us a successful team this year and executing our roles. It’s about staying within ourselves and not trying to get out of our comfort zone.”

Aside from a focus on the basics, the Union hope the remedy to their slump is home cooking. For the first time since Sept. 10, the club will play at Talen Energy Stadium, where they are 8-3-4 on the season.

“We’ve been a very strong team at home,” Curtin said. “We set the goal of 10 wins in Talen Energy Stadium, and we look to set ourselves up in a position to reach that goal, it’s something we will try to do in these final two games. We know it’ll be a tough task but the guys are confident and they’re playing well.”

2. Saving Sapong
The Union’s outlook could get much better if C.J. Sapong could break out of his slump. As the club’s backbone target forward, Sapong has just two goals since May 20 and has gone eight games without a goal. 

“There’s no secret the goals haven’t been coming for C.J.,” Curtin said. “Nobody wants to score more than C.J., but he also knows the most valuable thing is helping the team get three points. That’s what we need. All strikers go through droughts and … he’s a guy we believe in and he’s done a great job for us this year.” 

But the more concerning aspect is his shot totals. Sapong isn’t just getting unlucky, he only has one shot on goal in his last seven games. Whether that’s on him, the opposition’s defensive plan or lack of service, the Union want more opportunities from Sapong. 

“We’d like more shots and looks at goal, it’s something we’re working on in training every day, so when he does get his opportunity in games he’ll take care of them,” Curtin said. “He’s a guy who is working hard.”

Curtin is working to get his top scorer back on track by injecting confidence and keeping Sapong’s head in the right space, with the goal of avoiding poisonous frustration.

“He’s unique, he’s his own person, so you have to get your message across the right way and find out what makes him tick,” Curtin said. “When he’s confident, he’s unstoppable in our league. We want to get him going again and get him back to his form.” 

3. Spoiler Orlando City
Although Orlando City is officially outside of the playoff race and 2-7-7 on the road this season, the Union are considering Jason Kreis’ club a very dangerous opponent and possible spoiler.

“It’s a tricky one,” Curtin said. “You have a team that has dangerous attacking pieces, but how Jason will handle it, I don’t know. It’s a dangerous one. Guys are fighting for their positions in the team, not just for the rest of this year but for the future. They really want to impress a new coach.”

While Orlando City, which still features leading goal scorer Cyle Larin and leading playmaker Kaka, is 0-4-1 in its last five, Curtin isn’t sure whether to expect a similar team to the one the Union faced in a 2-1 win on April 8, a 2-2 draw on May 25, or a completely different club.

“It becomes about us, it becomes about the Philadelphia Union winning a game at home and everyone just executing and doing their job,” Curtin said. “Who Orlando puts on the field, we can’t control. Regardless of how they approach the game, we have to be executing and doing our jobs in front of our home fans."

4. Keep an eye on
Union: After receiving a cortisone shot in his foot to help the pain associated with plantar fasciitis, Ilsinho, who hasn’t made a start in seven matches, appears to be back in the starting conversation for the Union. When he plays, Ilsinho is a dangerous option for the Union on the right side of the midfield. “One way or another,” Curtin said, “he will influence the match on Sunday.”

Orlando City SC: Though he has only one goal in his last six games, Cyle Larin could punish the Union on Sunday if the hosts aren’t careful. Despite the slump, the forward has 14 goals in 30 games this season.

5. This and that
• In the Union’s last match (New York Red Bulls on Oct. 1), Alejandro Bedoya left the match with an injury to his rib area. But according to Curtin, the rangy midfielder is ready for Sunday. “He has a little pain when he plays any longer ball and his body has to twist in a certain way," Curtin said. "He feels it, it’s nothing that will prevent him from playing.”

• The Union have never lost to Orlando City, with a record of 2-0-2 all time. 

• Union center back Josh Yaro, who left the club’s last match against the New York Red Bulls with a concussion, has not been cleared for Sunday and is not expected to play. He’s officially listed as questionable.

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.