Union

Union-Red Bulls thoughts: Focus on future but still reasons to fight

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Union-Red Bulls thoughts: Focus on future but still reasons to fight

Union (8-12-8) at Red Bulls (12-10-5)
1 p.m. on ESPN

Separated by nine points in the Eastern Conference standings, there’s little at stake when the Union and New York Red Bulls meet Sunday afternoon at Red Bulls Arena. But that won’t stop either team from preparing for a fight as the familiar clubs clash in New Jersey.

No handouts
With six games remaining in the regular season and the Union sinking to the bottom of the East, the focus turns to the future. But as Union manager Jim Curtin explained Wednesday, that change in focus doesn’t mean playing time will come as a charity for up-and-coming players.

“It won’t just be to throw six or seven guys out there and say good luck, I don’t think that’s a good idea for the development of young players,” the manager said. “We need to continue to fight for points, we have six games left. Is there a window and dip in form from certain guys, maybe we’ll find a way to get them in.”

Players like Adam Najem, Marcus Epps, Derrick Jones, Keegan Rosenberry and even defender Auston Trusty, are considered the next wave of talent for the Union, a team with little to be excited about. Yet if those young players want more playing time, they’ll have to earn it. 

“We still pick the team each week based on how they perform in training and things won’t be just handed to people,” Curtin said. “If Warren Creavalle is outperforming Derrick Jones in training, in every practice session, and I choose for Derrick because he’s young, I think it sends a bad message to the team.”

But that process doesn’t mean the Union are analyzing every move from their prospects. Curtin explained that if you can’t impress with the Union’s USL affiliate, Bethlehem Steel, you probably won’t thrive with the Union.

“Right now, how many guys do we have dominating those Bethlehem Steel games? It’s not enough, it’s not enough right now,” Curtin said. “The performances that happen in those games are judged and judged harshly. We will play young players but we’ll also play the team that gives us the best chance at getting three points.” 

Defensive changes
One of the Union’s young prospects that is getting an opportunity to shine might not dress Sunday. Defender Josh Yaro, who sat out last weekend’s draw with Minnesota United because of a red-card suspension, injured his knee in training this week.

“Yaro picked up a knee injury, it swelled up on him,” said Curtin, who also noted that Yaro could still make Sunday’s starting lineup. “A knock he took on the knee in training.” 

If it lingers, however, the injury puts the Union in a tough position. With center back Oguchi Onyewu suspended against the Red Bulls because of yellow card accumulation, the Union could pull Richie Marquez out of mothballs to play next to Jack Elliott at center back.

“Richie had a very good day of training and that’s how we trained today, with Elliott and Richie on his left,” Curtin said. “It’s something that we’re confident in, something we’ve seen a bunch of the years.”

If Marquez does make the starting roster, which isn’t a given, it will be a golden opportunity for the 25-year-old. After making 53 starts over the last two seasons, Marquez only made eight starts in 2017 as he fell behind Elliott and Onyewu on the depth chart.

“Richie is a guy who is a pro, keeps his mouth shut and does his work each and every day,” Curtin said. “He’s a guy that I trust and still believe in. I know it’s been a difficult year for him, he’s been kinda the odd man out, but he can easily get in. He knows what we’re about with our back line and a guy whose number could be called.” 

Up for the fight
Despite the difference in the standings, the Union have played the Red Bulls with vigor in the club’s first two matches. The Union dominated the first game, 3-0, but dropped the second, 2-0, after falling to 10 men.

“We know what they’re about, they are a team that will high press, have a ton of fight and energy,” Curtin said. “It’s a rivalry game in their building, which will be difficult because they are in a good run of form now and we need to give maximum effort to get three points.”

If the two previous matches weren’t a signal to the Red Bulls to take the Union seriously, playoff implications will. As it stands, the Red Bulls, who have an Open Cup finals against Sporting Kansas City match Wednesday, hold the final playoff spot in the East with 41 points — five more than trailing Montreal Impact.

“They are a better team than their results,” Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch said about the Union, “They are a dangerous team. I know they are always up to play us, especially at Red Bulls Arena. We know that will be a really important one.”

Keep an eye on …
C.J. Sapong: The Union leading scorer buried his 13th of the season last weekend against Minnesota United, and he should have had a second. Sapong is playing well and will be a person of interest for the Red Bulls back line.

Bradley Wright-Phillips: With the Open Cup Finals on Wednesday, it’s not a given that Wright-Phillips will even play Sunday. But if he does, he’s the guy to watch. BWP had both goals in the 2-0 win over the Union back on June 3. He has 15 on the season.

5. This and that
• The Union are 6-12-3 against the Red Bulls all time, with much of that damage coming on the road. They are 1-7-1 at Red Bulls Arena.

• The Union enter Sunday’s match winless in their last five matches, with a 0-2-3 record. Meanwhile, Red Bulls are 1-1-3 over the same span.

• With 13 goals on the season, Sapong is one away from the Union franchise record of 14, set by Sebastien Le Toux in 2010.

• The Union will get captain Alejandro Bedoya back in the midfield after he missed last week’s match because of a yellow-card accumulation suspension.

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.