Union

Union scoring big on international soccer stage

Union scoring big on international soccer stage

CHESTER, Pa. — The Union were having a lot of fun at the end of Thursday's practice, firing shots from the edge of the box and going nuts when an equipment intern ended the session with a perfectly placed blast into the corner of the net.

Perhaps the only Union player having more fun was an 18-year-old about 7,000 miles away. That would be Philly homegrown kid Auston Trusty, who scored a great goal to help cap the U.S. Under-20 team's 6-0 pasting of New Zealand in the FIFA U-20 World Cup round of 16 in South Korea — and then celebrated in style afterward.

Along with fellow Union homegrown Derrick Jones, who's been a starter at the World Cup, Trusty is gaining valuable experience on an international stage. The same can be said for captain Alejandro Bedoya, who joined the U.S. senior national team ahead of two big World Cup qualifiers, as he usually does.

And then there's Bedoya's midfield partner, Haris Medunjanin, who was called into the Bosnia and Herzegovina national team for next Friday's World Cup qualifier vs. Greece.

"I always like to go back and play for my country because I was born there and it's a big honor," Medunjanin said after practice. "I think for anybody to play for their country, it's a dream come true."

If that's the case, Union players have been fulfilling a lot of dreams as the international break approaches. But devotion to the club is important too as Medunjanin decided he wanted to play in Saturday's game vs. New York City FC (1 p.m./6ABC) before meeting up with his Bosnian teammates.

For Union head coach Jim Curtin, that says a lot.

"Haris is a great professional," Curtin said. "He really will do anything for the Philadelphia Union badge. He's a guy who led our group through this good stretch of games … not just because of the goals or the assists but also the little things off the field, keeping the group together. He's a big part of the team.

"If you talk about a guy you want young players to emulate, to look up to for all the things he does on the field and off — he's a true professional."

Medunjanin has a unique national team history, suiting up for Netherlands youth teams before moving over to play for Bosnia, where he's earned over 50 caps and helped guide to its first World Cup berth in 2014. He lived in Bosnia until he was 7 before he fled with his mother and sister at the outbreak of the Bosnian War, growing up in Holland and learning the sport at Dutch club AZ Alkmaar's youth academy. He's since played in top leagues in Spain, Israel and Turkey, giving him quite the pedigree to be a leader on a young Union team.

And even though other European players have been snubbed by their national team coaches after coming to MLS, Curtin believes Medunjanin will continue to be a mainstay for Bosnia and help change the league's perception across the pond.

"On every roster, there's a great European player, a great South American player that plays in this league and goes, 'Wow, there's quality here, it's getting better,'" Curtin said. "The stadiums, the atmosphere, the way we travel, the hotels we stay in — the bar is getting raised. And it spreads quickly throughout the soccer world.

"When Haris talks about it with his teammates when he goes back to Bosnia, it just spreads more and more. And it's really spreading quickly. It's a rapid rise right now. If it was a stock, I'd invest."

Medunjanin certainly believes MLS is a growing league, admitting Thursday that he's been "surprised" by the quality and that it's "better than I thought." And while he's still learning to deal with some of the league's tougher aspects — like the kind of travel and jet lag that doesn't exist in European leagues — he's also trying to use his experience to teach a thing or two to the team's younger players.

One of those guys is Jones, who, with his strong performance for the U-20s, is looking more and more like he could have a bright future both in Philly and on the international stage.

"He has a comfort level on the ball that is unique," Curtin said. "He's brave and sometimes he'll try to dribble out of situations where I cringe on the sideline but he always bounces out with the ball at his feet. Some guys have that; some guys don't. He's one of them. When he goes into a tackle, the ball always comes out at his feet.

"Derrick's fearless. I think he's turned a lot of heads. We're not surprised here back in Philadelphia because he's a special player."

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.