Union

Union's Ken Tribbett has shot at redemption vs. Toronto FC

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Union's Ken Tribbett has shot at redemption vs. Toronto FC

CHESTER, Pa. — To say Ken Tribbett had a rocky game the last time the Union faced Toronto FC would be an understatement.

The first-year MLS defender out of Drexel scored a goal but was also victimized on three Toronto goals before getting pulled from the game at halftime.

Tribbett has played sparingly since then, losing his starting spot to Joshua Yaro, who he’s traded time with at center back for much of the season.

But when the Union face Toronto again this Saturday at BMO Field, Tribbett will return to the starting lineup while Yaro serves a one-game suspension for a red card he picked up in last weekend’s 2-1 loss to Portland.

“It’s a good opportunity for redemption,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “Ken’s a guy we’ve leaned on heavily this year. He’s had a lot of great games for us. Obviously it’s no secret the Toronto game was a difficult one for him. A lot of the instances where we gave up chances the last time against Toronto were actually off of balls in our attacking half of the field that were turned over quickly and there was a second ball that was bouncing and we fell asleep for a split second. And I think Ken learned from that game.”

Tribbett admitted his last game against Toronto wasn’t his best performance but he isn’t scared to face his former tormentors again. In fact, he said he’s “grateful” for another opportunity to show what he can do and apply the lessons he learned from his last outing.

“Of course there are certain things you can always improve on,” Tribbett said. “Spacing in behind a big strong guy, you’ve got to learn to use your body. There’s a bunch of different things. I’ve learned my lesson and hopefully it’ll pay off on Saturday.”

The good news for Tribbett is that reigning MVP Sebastian Giovinco has been out with an injury and likely won’t be back in time to face a Philadelphia team he’s scored against every time he’s faced them. The bad news is that Jozy Altidore is the hottest player in the league right now with eight goals in his last nine games for Toronto.

One of those goals came during Toronto’s 3-1 win in Philadelphia on Aug. 20 when Altidore muscled his way around Tribbett. Moving forward, the Union center back said the key to dealing with a big striker like Altidore is “maybe stay off and don’t wrestle with him so much.”

Of course, it won’t be just on Tribbett to contain Altidore but the Union’s entire young backline, as well as their midfield and goalkeeper Andre Blake.

“It’s always tough when you’re playing against a good player,” Tribbett said. “It’s even tougher when they’re scoring goals and in good form. All we can do is work together as a team to try to slow him down.”

One of those players who will look to slow down Altidore and the rest of Toronto’s vaunted attack is rookie Keegan Rosenberry.

Like Tribbett, he’s looking for a little bit of redemption after struggling in the Union’s last game in Portland. But also like Tribbett, he’s excited for the challenge this weekend’s north-of-the-border trip presents.

“Limiting his impact on the game is a challenge,” Rosenberry said of Altidore. “He’s feeling good right now. But we’re up for the challenge. It’s easy to get up for these types of games when you have those types of players that are feeling good.”

Normally, losing a player like Yaro — Rosenberry’s fellow rookie and old teammate at Georgetown — would be a big blow. But because Yaro and Tribbett have platooned for most of the year (be it for suspensions, injuries or whatever else), Rosenberry called it “lucky” that “both guys have plenty of experience.”

And although Curtin prefers stability along his backline, he too is glad that the two players have both logged a lot of big minutes in their first MLS seasons.

“They’ve both dealt with a lot of the top strikers,” the Union coach said. “I think it’s good. All these minutes and using all these different lineups that we’ve had to go to, it pays off in the big moments now — because it’s not a big deal for Ken to step in in Josh’s absence, and conversely I’d be completely comfortable with Josh jumping right back in.”

Tribbett said the competition between him and Yaro has been a good one because “both of us are true competitors” who naturally want to earn their spot.

But that will be on the backburner this weekend as Tribbett knows for sure he’ll be the one called upon with Yaro suspended.

And he’s ready to help the Union earn crucial points against arguably the best team in the East.

“I’ve been playing against top-caliber guys all year,” Tribbett said. “In the preseason, we played Toronto and we beat them 1-nil. We’ve shown that we can shut them down; we just need to do it again on Saturday.”

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.