Union

Union owner sets bar for final playoff push: 'We need to win two games'

Union owner sets bar for final playoff push: 'We need to win two games'

CHESTER, Pa. — After the ribbon was cut and the people applauded and the music stopped, Union owner Jay Sugarman remained by the stage outside the Union’s newly named training facility.

And when the conversation turned from what the state-of-the-art Power Training Complex can do for the franchise’s future to the team’s more immediate future this weekend and next, his words suddenly took on a more urgent tone.

“We need to win two games,” Sugarman said. “We have the talent. We have the ability. So I’m hoping the guys come very hungry. It would be a great thing to have a home playoff game here after a long five years.”

Things certainly were a lot different back in 2011 when, in just their second year of existence, the fledgling Union made the playoffs and hosted the Houston Dynamo in the first game of a two-game Eastern Conference semifinals series.

But the Union lost that game and the next one too to get bounced early from the postseason. And they haven’t returned since — a streak they hope to break this year if they can just snap out of their current five-game winless slide and beat already-eliminated Orlando City SC on Sunday at Talen Energy Stadium (3 p.m., The Comcast Network).

Another win the following week vs. the rival Red Bulls at Talen Energy might then prove to be enough to give them a home game in the first round of the playoffs — and, perhaps, wipe away some of the bitter memories of the past few years that saw two coaches fired and several more gut-wrenching setbacks.

“I know the difference between winning and losing can be very, very small,” Sugarman said. “It can be confidence, it can be one piece of the puzzle isn’t the same as it used to be. So I know how fragile it is to be on that emotional high where you think you’re going to win every game. I played a lot of sports — not very good at soccer unfortunately — and I know what that feeling is. And when you lose it, it’s hard to get back.  

“Our guys haven’t changed. Their talent isn’t different. Their abilities aren’t different. So it’s really about [sporting director Earnie Stewart] and the coaching staff getting them back to where they believe they should be. And I think the leadership on this team should be able to do it for two games that are going to lead to a playoff spot. I want to see that on the field.”

Off the field, Sugarman has done a lot of important things over the past year to bolster the club’s standing, removing controversial CEO Nick Sakiewicz and hiring the well-respected Stewart, launching a new minor-league affiliate in Bethlehem Steel FC, and providing significant resources for this summer’s marquee signing of Alejandro Bedoya.

Perhaps nothing’s been as valuable, though, as the investment that ownership made into their new indoor training facility — which celebrated its official opening Thursday after signing a naming-rights deal with Power Home Remodeling last week (the team had been using it for most of the year before that, however). The 16,500 square foot building, which is a stone’s throw from the two outdoor training fields inside the stadium complex, includes a weight training area, physical therapy and sports science development area, nutrition center, locker rooms, a video theater and players’ lounge. 

And Sugarman, Stewart and head coach Jim Curtin agree that it rivals any facility in MLS — and even globally.

“I’ve been to a lot of places in England, a lot of places in Germany, in top leagues,” Curtin said. “You’d be surprised where this one would stack up against them. It’s special. It’s a unique building. They kept the old aesthetic, which is really cool; I think it fits the city and the blue-collar elements to it. But also everything in there is state of the art and well thought-out.”

Curtin knows the facility has already been a great thing for his players, who he says have “smiles on their faces” when they walk in before practice. And he and Stewart also know it will continue to be an important recruiting tool for top talent, both foreign and domestic.

But even if Thursday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony marked another big step in the Union’s quest to become a more sought-after franchise for years to come, they know they still need to make the playoffs this year or risk taking a step backwards.

“We’re in the sports business,” Sugarman said. “We need to win. I don’t define winning as you have to win a championship every year but you want to show you’re a team capable of winning it all. And we have that ability. They know it, Earnie knows it, Jim knows it. So now it’s about performance. And I’m not a coach but we’re going to give them every opportunity — there should be no excuses. 

“The team has proved it’s good enough to not only get in the playoffs but go deep in the playoffs. We just need to show it.”

Alejandro Bedoya, CJ Sapong, Warren Creavalle called upon for international duty

uspresswire-union-bedoya-sapong.jpg
USA Today Images

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

uspresswire-union-earnie-stewart.jpg
USA Today Images

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.