Union

Union-Revolution 5 things: After Gold Cup, Pontius returns but Blake out

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Union-Revolution 5 things: After Gold Cup, Pontius returns but Blake out

Union at New England Revolution
7:30 p.m., CSN

CHESTER, Pa. — With the Gold Cup over, the Union (7-9-5) get some much-needed help as they face the Revolution (6-9-5) tonight at Gillette Stadium, looking to win their second straight and improve upon this season’s road struggles.

Here are five things to know:

1. Pontius returns, with a trophy
Chris Pontius didn’t get to play in the final two games for the U.S. national team during their run to the Gold Cup title, but that didn’t make it any less sweet to win a championship.

“It was pretty special,” Pontius said Friday, two days after the Americans beat Jamaica in the final. “With the national team, a lot of guys were talking, there’s not many times you get a chance to win trophies. So you enjoy it.”

For Pontius, just getting back into the national team picture was special after many years away. But he knows to stick around, he has to perform for the Union.

“I’m ready to get back,” said Pontius, who has missed the last three Philly games while on international duty. “It was my first time sleeping in my bed in a long time. … I gotta put up a lot of numbers here and hopefully we get wins on the road and get into the playoffs. That’s what I can control and that’s what I’m gonna do.”

In addition to Pontius’ return, head coach Jim Curtin said Fafa Picault is set to come back from a hamstring strain, giving the team a lot more depth than it had on the wing over the past week.

2. No Blake, for now
The other player to return from Gold Cup duty this week is Andre Blake. But the Jamaican goalkeeper had to come out of the final because of a nasty cut to his hand — and the injury will likely keep him out of at least one more Union game.

“It’s good to know it’s not too big of an injury but I feel for him,” Pontius said. “For me, he was the best player in the tournament, hands down. He’s a big part of our team as well.”

The good news for the Union is that backup John McCarthy has been sharp in Blake’s absence, picking up the shutout in Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Columbus Crew SC after making a couple of big-time saves vs. Columbus four days earlier.

But McCarthy’s start this weekend vs. the Revs may be his last, depending on how quickly Blake’s hand heals.

“We hope to get him back as quick as possible, hopefully for Dallas [next weekend],” Curtin said. “If he’s a quick healer, it could be a possibility.”

3. Dominating the Revs
The Union have beaten New England three straight times, outscoring the Revs by a whopping 11-0 margin in those games.

Does that give Curtin confidence they can win just their second game on the road in 11 games this season?

“You can throw that stuff out the window,” he said. “MLS makes no sense in terms of history or tradition, or rivalries, or whatever we want to talk about. It comes down to on the day, and on the day we know New England has five or six attacking players that can individually beat you yourself and score a goal.”

Even still, with many tougher road games looming ahead and the playoff red line probably higher than it was last last season in the East, Curtin knows they have to find a way to pick up points in games like this one.

“Even the one-pointers can come up and be so huge at the end of the year,” the Union coach said. “Not taking losses on the road is gonna be critical down the stretch.”

4. Players to watch
C.J. Sapong: The Union striker is coming off arguably his best game of the season, scoring his record 10th goal and adding a pair of pretty assists Wednesday. It also came with some drama as he argued with teammate Roland Alberg about who would take a penalty kick he drew. It will be interesting to see how Sapong responds just a few days later.

Juan Agudelo: The Union aren’t the only team getting players back from the Gold Cup as the Revs’ top striker returns, rejoining a potent attack that features Lee Nguyen, Kei Kamara, Kelyn Rowe and Teal Bunbury.

5. This and that
• The Revs are coming off a wild 4-3 win over the LA Galaxy last weekend in which Bunbury scored twice and Kamara also scored before revealing trade discussions after the game.

• The Revs bolstered their defense Friday with the signing of French defender Claude Dielna, who could be plugged into the lineup immediately vs. Philly.

• Union midfielder Derrick Jones has cleared concussion protocol after missing the last three games.

• The Union are 10-5-4 all-time vs. the Revs and 4-2-2 in New England.

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.