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.”

Union believe they found their missing piece

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Union believe they found their missing piece

David Accam is a dream come true for the Union.

“At the end of the season, we talked about adding players and David was at the top of our list,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said. “I didn’t think that would be a real option. When it comes along, it’s incredible.”

Shocking as it was for Stewart, the Union pulled 27-year-old Accam from the Chicago Fire for allocation money at the 2018 MLS SuperDraft on Jan. 19. With his ability to create one-on-one opportunities and punish teams on the counter-attack, Accam, who had 14 goals and eight assists last season, is a perfect fit in the Union’s 4-2-3-1 system, and the exact type of “difference-maker” the team was looking for.

“David is known in the league for his speed, but when we scouted him we noted just how good he is on the ball,” Union manager Jim Curtin said Tuesday at the official introduction of Accam at Talen Energy Stadium. “The space he creates for others because he is so dangerous. When he gets one-on-one, his quality will take over games and it’ll create a lot of space for the rest of our players.”

From Accam’s perspective, he’s joining an established attacking group. Specifically mentioning Union leading scorer C.J. Sapong and winger Fafa Picault, Accam expects to have space to work.

“We have enough quality on this team already,” he said. “I just have to do my part.”

On top of his offensive acumen, Accam knows MLS. What attracted the Union to the speedster is not only his skill but his familiarity with the league. Unlike European players that take time to adjust to the climate, travel and style of play, Accam should make an instant impact on the Union.

“He’s been now, for multiple years, a top attacking player in our league,” Curtin said. “He’s got the statistics to back it up. The fact that he has a familiarity with the league, he knows the defenders will be grabbing and kicking him for 90 minutes, and that matters a great deal. It makes the transition more seamless. 

“He’s a great fit for us.”

But snagging that perfect fit wasn’t free. Acquired in one of the largest trades in Union history, the attacker was moved by the Fire in exchange for $1.2 million in combined allocation money. According to Stewart, the speedster, who was ripe for a new deal, signed an extension with the Fire before the team moved him to Philadelphia.

“Our understanding is that David has an obligation now with the Union through 2020,” Stewart said.

Despite scratching out a significant name off their wishlist, the Union aren’t quite done adding players, with the expectation that they bring in a playmaking midfielder. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be going on a shopping spree.

“I think we are in a better place than we were last year with the acquisition of David,” Stewart said. “There will be a little more happening but not much more because I believe the foundation is solid. With the acquisition of David and one more player in the near future, we’ll be in good shape to compete for the playoffs.”

Union acquire electrifying winger in major trade

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Union acquire electrifying winger in major trade

The Philadelphia Union didn’t make a pick in the first two rounds of the MLS SuperDraft on Friday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

But the hometown team still made one of the biggest splashes of the day.

Between the first and second rounds, Paul Tenorio of ESPN FC reported that the Union had a trade in place for electrifying winger David Accam, sending a palpable buzz through the ballroom. Not long after, the move was officially announced and the Philly fans in attendance finally had something to cheer about after a quiet-to-this-point offseason.

“I know there was some impatience with the timing of things,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “But this is a special player we added — one that changes the whole dynamic of our team.”

The move wasn’t cheap as the Union dealt $1.2 million in allocation money to the Chicago Fire in exchange for the Ghanaian speedster, who’s bagged 33 goals and 15 assists over the last three MLS seasons.

But if he can stay healthy and keep producing at the rate he has been, the Union think it can be a bargain.

“A David Accam on the open market is significantly higher than what we paid today,” Curtin said. “I can tell you with confidence if we shopped around for someone of David’s quality and production, we’d spend a heck of a lot more money than we did today.”

Accam will likely start on one of the wings opposite fellow burner Fafa Picault with leading scorer C.J. Sapong up top. That still leaves a hole in attacking midfield that the Union need to round out their offense — a position which Curtin and sporting director Earnie Stewart said the club is still searching for.

“With Fafa, with Accam, with C.J. Sapong, those guys will create a lot of space for whoever plays in that No. 10 spot during the course of the season,” Curtin said. “That’s something that makes other teams worry. When we get off the bus, you have to account for David Accam. So that’s a real positive.”

Accam has a unique backstory, playing at the Right to Dream Academy from 2004 to 2008 in his native Ghana, before moving to England on a student visa and playing for Ledbury Town and Evesham United. After taking part in “The Chance” competition, a Nike event to find undiscovered soccer talent, he moved to Swedish club Ostersund in 2012 and then to top-flight side Helsingborg later that year.

After starring for both clubs, he was signed by the Fire as a Designated Player and has been a consistent goal-scoring threat in Chicago. Since he came to MLS in 2015, Accam is one of just six MLS players to total at least 33 goals and 15 assists in league play, along with stars Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa, Diego Valeri, Ignacio Piatti and Kei Kamara.

“As we said a while back, we’re trying to find some difference-makers for our team to help us over those humps in certain games,” Stewart said. “We believe a couple of difference-makers can help that. And once David Accam came around, it was really clear to us that was a target that we wanted to make sure happened. And we as the Philadelphia Union made sure we stretched ourselves to make sure this player came aboard. We’re just very pleased that we were able to accomplish this.”

The Union also made a couple of other smaller moves leading up to the draft, signing defenders Matt Real and Mark McKenzie to Homegrown contracts.

Signing both players when they did was a good indication that the Union valued them both as much, if not more, as any guys they may have been able to draft had they not previously dealt away their picks.

And it’s even better that both Real and McKenzie came through the Union Academy and are more familiar with the club than a kid coming out of college would have been.

“Everybody has a different path,” said McKenzie, an 18-year old center back from Bear, Delaware. “All of these guys that got drafted today are great guys. … But myself, coming through the academy and when I was at the pre-academy when I was 11 and 12 and worked my way up to the U-14s to the U-18s to the [Bethlehem] Steel, it’s been an absolute honor and a blessing. I’ve been pushed and challenged at each level, and I’m looking forward to the future and what that holds.”

“It’s a big moment for me,” added Real, an 18-year-old who played for USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC last year. “These last couple of weeks for me have been surreal. I’m still kind of soaking all this in.

“Mark is my brother. Me and him have been playing together since the academy started. We graduated together, we’re on the [U-20] national team together. So this couldn’t be any better for me to share a moment like this with him.”