Union

Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Embracing the playoff underdog role

Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Embracing the playoff underdog role

Union vs. Toronto FC
7:30 p.m. on ESPN2

Riding a seven-game winless run entering their first playoff match since 2011, the No. 6 Union (11-14-9) will attempt to hit the reset button and unseat the third-ranked and heavily favored Toronto FC (14-9-11) on Wednesday at BMO Field.

Here are five things to know.

1. Playing underdog
The struggling Union are happily accepting the role as underdogs against MLS Cup-hungry Toronto FC.

"It's a difficult task but it’s not impossible,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. "Not many people are giving us a chance. We've been a good team when we're considered the underdog and my guys have responded well in that situation. This is no different."

To fully embrace that underdog role, and in an attempt to wash away the stink of how they ended the regular season, the Union are treating Wednesday as a hard reset. For them, the playoffs will be a fresh chance to prove themselves.

“It’s a new season now,” said Union center back Ken Tribbett, who helped his club draw Toronto FC at BMO Field on Sept. 24. “In the playoffs, anything can happen. We go up to Toronto and it’ll be a good test. We have to stay sharp for 90 minutes and hopefully we can come back here with a win.”

And there is a reason to be slightly optimistic about the Union’s chance. Despite a 1-0-1 record against the Canadian side this season, the Union, who lost 3-1 in the first match, played much better Sept. 24 at BMO Field. They clogged the midfield and ground the Sebastian Giovinco-less club into a 1-1 draw.

“It’s encouraging that we have gone there recently and played well,” Curtin said. “I think we have a group that has a belief, and one that is pissed a bit about how things have ended. They are motivated.”

2. Leaning on experience
While the 2016 Union will ultimately be known for their reliance on youth — a group that included Keegan Rosenberry, who has played every minute this season, Fabian Herbers, Josh Yaro and Ken Tribbett — it’s the veterans that will lead them Wednesday.

“This is a pressure game for everybody,” Curtin said. “We have a good balance of guys who have played in big spots, like (Chris) Pontius, Tranquillo (Barnetta), (Alejandro) Bedoya. (C.J.) Sapong has played in big games, you can go through the list.”

Yet despite Curtin’s need for his veterans to lead, his reliance on youth means the younger players need to be reliable. The manager admitted that pressure can change how people play, and he is making sure the Union youth movement remains steady Wednesday.

“We have young guys, there’s no question about it,” Curtin said. “These guys will play in their first playoff game and a lot of the guys on our roster have never been in a playoff game. You hope they rise to the occasion and I’m confident they will.”

3. Pressure on Toronto
Making their second-ever postseason appearance, high-priced Toronto FC has its sights set on bigger things than the Union in the play-in playoff round. That’s why Curtin believes the pressure is squarely on his opposition.

“I’d say the pressure is on them, they are the home team,” the manager said. “My guys should be loose, they have nothing to lose. It’s fair to say, they are the home team and they want to make a deep playoff run. We want to make some noise.”

Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney knows his team will be excited, so he’s trying to instill a high intensity but controlled start for his club.

“We expect a little of the unexpected at the start,” he said. “The game settles down eventually, but at the start, there’s a lot of emotion into it and you want to play with the right kind of caution but the right kind of intensity to put the opposing team on their back foot.

“The guys are ready to go, ready to go after Philadelphia.”

4. Keep an eye on ...
Jozy Altidore: It would be easy to go with Giovinco here, but Altidore has a recent history of crushing the Union. He has two goals in his last three games against the Union and buried 10 in 23 games this season.

“Jozy is a guy who can stretch the field and is dangerous,” Curtin said. “He’s not a guy you can shut down, it’s not possible. He’ll have his moments, you just have to make those looks as predictable for (goalkeeper Andre Blake) as you can. You hope he’s a little off on the night.”

Tranquillo Barnetta: Without added inspiration, the Union offensive catalyst has been one of the club’s best players all season. On Wednesday, Curtin expects a little extra from Barnetta, who is not returning to the Union in 2017.

“I’ve talked a ton about how special he is, he’s been a great attribute for the Union and a guy we want to prolong the season for,” Curtin said. “He’s played in the big spots, the big games and there’s something extra there for him.” 

5. This and that
• On the injury front, Union center back Yaro sprained his MCL while returning from a concussion. “It’s a two-week injury,” Curtin said, “so it will be unfortunate he won’t be part of the Toronto game.”

Warren Creavalle is also fighting injury. The defensive midfielder left Sunday’s match with a rib injury but could be available for Wednesday. “It’s painful for him,” Curtin said. “He’s a tough kid and he wants to be a part of this game.”

• The Union and Toronto FC are deadlocked all time, with a 6-6-5 record against each other. 

• The Union are 2-4-3 at BMO Field.

• Both clubs enter Wednesday limping. Since Aug. 27 (the Union’s last win), Toronto FC is 2-1-4, while the Union are 0-5-2.

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.