Union

Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Facing the league's best team

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Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Facing the league's best team

Union at Toronto FC
8 p.m. on TCN

Fresh off a frustrating draw in San Jose, the Union (8-11-6) have an even tougher road game as they face first-place Toronto FC (14-3-8) at BMO Field on Wednesday night.

Here are five things to know:

1. Road woes
The Union have won only once on the road this season — one of five teams in MLS with less than two away wins in 2017. And of all those results, perhaps none were as disheartening as Saturday’s 2-2 draw with the Earthquakes, as a penalty in the final minutes caused them to blow a very late lead.

The result spoiled an overall good performance, including the first career goal from rookie Jack Elliott, and did little to help them in their playoff chase. With 30 points, the Union currently sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, six points out of the final playoff spot.

“It was a good team performance and a heartbreaking ending to the game,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “Guys put a ton into it. I thought it was one of our better road performances, so there are positives in that regard.”

They’ll need an even better road performance to get a result against a Toronto side that’s a whopping 9-0-3 at home. 

2. The league’s best ever?
With 50 points in 25 games, Toronto FC is not only comfortable in the Supporters’ Shield lead but also on pace to become just the third MLS team this millennium to reach the two-points-per-game plateau and finish with the best record in league history.

So is this the best team Curtin has ever seen?

“I know with the Twitter world, you have to talk about best ever everything, best eclipse, best whatever,” Curtin said. “I don’t like comparing generations because it’s always challenging to do. But I do think they’re a special team.”

And the reason they’re special, he said, is not only because of Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley but the effective role players they’ve filled out around their star trio. Curtin shouted out last week’s MLS Player of the Week Justin Morrow, midfielders Victor Vasquez and Marky Delgado and defender Drew Moor as just a few examples.

“Toronto has three key guys but then people forget about the pieces they have around them now,” Curtin said. “They’ve done a heck of a job assembling their roster.”

3. Blake set to return
The good news for the Union is that they’ll have a big weapon to try to slow down Altidore, Giovinco and the rest of TFC’s star-studded attack.

Curtin announced that reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Andre Blake, who missed the last eight games because of the Gold Cup and a hand injury, is set to once again man the net.

“It’s good to have him back,” Curtin said. “I think Johnny [McCarthy] did an excellent job in his absence. But to have Andre back in net is a good thing for the group.”

With Blake returning and even Maurice Edu finally on the mend, the Union are quite healthy for their upcoming stretch that includes a home game vs. Atlanta on Saturday. Only Fabian Herbers is out with Curtin saying that Ilsinho (right adductor strain) and Oguchi Onyewu (left groin strain) will be available for selection. 

4. Keep an eye on …
Jack Elliott: The Union center back and MLS Rookie of the Year hopeful had arguably his best game of the season in San Jose and is now set for his toughest test yet. Curtin thinks he’ll be up for the challenge, though he does want to see the rookie improve his defensive heading. “He’s playing way behind the years,” the Union coach said. “He’s playing against some of the top forwards in the league and has been our most solid guy back there.” 

Sebastian Giovinco: Curtin thinks the Italian playmaker is maybe the best player the league has ever seen. And Giovinco often shows that against the Union, scoring in his first five games vs. Philly before that streak ended earlier this year when he left a game with an early injury. “Giovinco can beat you 100 different ways,” Curtin said. “You give him a free kick and it’s all but a certainty that it will at least be a scare for Andre. You have to be smart, have to be disciplined.”

5. This and that
• Keegan Rosenberry, last year’s Rookie of the Year runner-up, made his first appearance since May on Saturday after Giliano Wijnaldum was forced to exit with an injury. And he might see some more action this week. “Whether it’s Toronto or Atlanta, he will play a role in these games moving forward,” Curtin said.

• TFC are unbeaten in their last 13 regular-season home games, winning 10 of them and drawing three. 

• Toronto’s scored four goals in each of their last two home games. They’ve never scored four goals in three straight home games.

• The Union are averaging 16.2 aerials won per game this season, the most of any MLS team.

• In 17 regular-season meetings, the Union and Toronto have each won six times to go along with five draws.

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.