Union

Union-Rapids 5 things: Closing in on a record winning streak

Union-Rapids 5 things: Closing in on a record winning streak

Union vs. Colorado Rapids
7 p.m. on TCN

Not long after setting one of the longest winless streaks in MLS history, the resurgent Union (3-4-4) can now set a franchise record for consecutive wins when they host the struggling Colorado Rapids (2-7-1) on Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium. 

Here are five things to know:

1. Going streaking
Yes, the same team that started 0-4-2 has rebounded from that dreadful start to go unbeaten in five games with three straight dominating wins by a combined score of 9-0.

It marks just the third three-game winning streak in history for a club that's never had a four-game winning streak. But they have a golden opportunity to do just that with a very winnable home match against an equally tired Colorado team playing on the other side of the country.

Remarkably, the Union can also move their shutout streak from four games — already a club record — to five.

What do these records mean given the 15-game winless streak that came before it?

“I think it’s a testament to the players,” Curtin said following Friday's practice session. “They stuck together through a difficult time. I think we’re stronger because we did stick together through as difficult a stretch as you can go through.”

2. All about the defense
The only thing more surprising than the fact that the Union haven’t given up a goal in four straight games is the personnel they are doing it with.

Rookie Jack Elliott, one of the last picks in the 2017 draft, has been starting at center back along Oguchi Onyewu, who was out of soccer for two years. And Ray Gaddis, who had been relegated to a reserve role last season, has supplanted Keegan Rosenberry at right back, at least for now. 

“I think it’s a testament to how they hard they train, the preseason they go through,” Curtin said. “We treat each guy the same way, whether you’re old or young, the reps that you get in training are all equal. It’s not a big surprise now when a guy gets thrown in.”

Interestingly enough, oft-overlooked left back Fabinho has been the only defender to play every minute as he prepares to play his 100th MLS game.

“He’s a guy who is a great player for us,” Curtin said. “He’s been with the club for a while, has a good idea of what we ask out of our left back. He’s done a better job I think this year of not running himself into the ground in the first 20 minutes or so with those 80-, 90-yard tiring runs, and has been very disciplined and has had a great season for us so far.”

3. Rotating the attack?
No one on the Union has been hotter than their two wingers with Fafa Picault scoring in each of the last two games and Chris Pontius leading the way with two assists in Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Houston to match his career high with six assists on the season.

But with the Union playing their third game in eight days, will both get the start once again — especially with a talented winger like Fabian Herbers waiting on the bench?

“We’ll have to look at what makes the most sense,” Curtin said. “Do we use one as a reserve? It’s a possibility. But they’re confident right now, they’re flying, and they’re getting goals and assists, which is a bonus.”

4. Keep an eye on …​
Rapids: Perhaps the best goalkeeper in American history, Tim Howard, will face the Union for the first time. It’s fair to say Curtin thinks highly of the 38-year-old stalwart who’s had a remarkable career, including an epic performance for the U.S. national team at the last World Cup. “Anytime he’s in the goal,” the Union coach said, “there’s a darn good chance he’s going to get a clean sheet. … It takes a special effort to beat a guy like Timmy.”

Union: Curtin said that attacking midfielder Roland Alberg won’t be able to return from a quad injury in time for the game, which means Ilsinho, fresh off a great game Wednesday, should be in line to get his third straight start in that position. But can he handle another grueling shift just three days after the last one? “Ilsinho is in a newer position for him,” Curtin said. “I think he has adjusted well to it. He’s doing a lot of running defensively. It is tough on the legs, so we’ll look at everything.”

5. This and that
• Union goalkeeper Andre Blake hasn’t allowed a goal in 363 minutes and counting — currently the second longest shutout streak in Union history. The longest currently belongs to Zac MacMath, who went 408 minutes without surrendering a goal in 2012 and will be in town Saturday as Colorado’s backup goalkeeper.

• The Union have beaten the Rapids just once in nine all-time meetings and never at Talen Energy Stadium (0-2-3). 

• In last Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing of D.C. United, Haris Medunjanin became the second Union player to have a goal and multiple assists in the same game, joining Sebastien Le Toux. 

• The Rapids rank last in MLS with eight goals scored this year and have only scored one total goal in their last seven regular-season road games

• The Rapids are 0-5-0 away from home this year and have been outscored 10-1 in those games.

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.