Union

Union-Timbers 5 things: Desperate Union host best in West

Union-Timbers 5 things: Desperate Union host best in West

Union vs. Portland Timbers
7 p.m. on TCN

Reeling from back-to-back losses and two points through their first four games, the winless Union (0-2-2) return to Talen Energy Stadium on Saturday (7 p.m., TCN) to face the Western Conference-leading Portland Timbers (3-1-1) to kick off a crucial three-game homestand.

Here are five things to know.

1. Restarting the season
After dropping their second consecutive match, a 2-1 loss to D.C. United last weekend, the Union find themselves in the Eastern Conference basement. They are one of three MLS teams without a win through the first four games of the season. 

"There's a sense of urgency," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "If you look at the table, we're in a bad spot."

But there is hope. Beginning on Saturday against the Timbers, the Union kick off a three-game homestand that could revitalize their young season. 

"We've played three of four games away so we're definitely looking forward to a long streak of home games," Union defender Oguchi Onyewu said. "Hopefully we can start winning and get the points we feel is deserved from our work ethic on the field. Hopefully, we can turn things around right now."

Although it's early, this home set is crucial for the Union to remain competitive in an improved East. As it stands, the Union are four points out of the postseason picture. Curtin's club made the playoffs last season with 42 points, taking the tiebreaker winner over the New England Revolution.

"You don't want to fall too far behind," Curtin said. "The good news is only one team has three wins in the East right now so we're not too far off the pace. But there is a danger that if you don't take care of business at home, you can fall into a hole. It's a tough league to chase from behind."

Because of that, the pressure will be ramped up Saturday.

"We now have three at home and still have 30 games left of the season, so we have time to get things right," Curtin said. "But there's urgency. We've lost two games in a row and it doesn't taste good to anybody and we're not happy with that."

2. Union center back shuffle
If the Union want to revitalize their season Saturday, they might have to do it with a rookie at center back. Jack Elliott, a 6-foot-5 defender drafted in the fourth round of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, teamed up with center back Oguchi Onyewu when one of the club's most valuable players, Richie Marquez, suffered a concussion at D.C. United last weekend. 

"Jack came into the game in a tough spot," Curtin said. "I thought he passed the ball very well. D.C. was sitting back a little bit but he was good positionally in stopping counters. We're happy with how he played."

Marquez, who wasn't able to practice with the team all week, is expected to be cleared by Saturday but would be a coach's decision after that. Marquez has played 58 games over the last three seasons for the Union.

"There will be a tough decision to make," Curtin said. "We're confident in both guys, we're confident in Jack to play in MLS. He has the size, the feet, the passing ability to play in the league. He showed that against D.C. United, it was a good performance."

3. Slowing the Timbers
The Timbers enter Saturday's match tied for the MLS lead with 10 points. And it's easy to see why, as the club is armed with players like Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, Fanendo Adi and Darlington Nagbe.

"They are dangerous, there's no question about it," Curtin said. "They are fluid in their attack, great in possession. You have to be decisive against them in transition because they recover so quickly with the speed that they have. They present a lot of problems and can beat you a lot of different ways."

But while his team is more individually skilled, Timbers manager Caleb Porter knows his club is facing a wounded animal in the Union. He's coming prepared.

"They'll definitely play in a way they are desperate for a win," Porter said. "That could be tough to deal with but also maybe help us open up some opportunities. We're going to focus on what we want to do and respect the individuals and their team. It'll come down to the matchups and who executes.

"They are a lot better than their record, I think they are a dangerous team because they haven't won." 

4. Keep an eye on …
Diego Valeri: When it comes to the Timbers, Valeri is the player to stop. He's currently on pace for a career season, sitting second in MLS in goals with five, including two penalty kicks. He has 16 shots in five games.

C.J. Sapong: One of the few bright spots in the first four games, the Union forward is riding a three-game scoring streak while coming off the bench. "C.J. is giving us some life now," Curtin said.

5. This and that
* The Union are 1-3-3 against the Timbers all time but are 1-0-2 at Talen Energy Stadium in the series. 

* Despite the lopsided lifetime series, the Timbers haven't scored a goal on the road against the Union in three games. The Timbers were crushed, 3-0, in 2015, during their latest trip to Talen Energy Stadium.

* Union backup goalkeeper John McCarthy is still suffering a concussion and will be out for his second-consecutive game Saturday. He will be replaced by Jake McGuire.

* According to Opta, Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin leads MLS in chances created with 13. He has one assist on the season, however.

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.