Union

Union turn focus to Dallas after memorable win

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Union turn focus to Dallas after memorable win

CHESTER -- With a dominating win over the New York Red Bulls last Saturday, the Union moved to the top end of the Eastern Conference, while also delivering one of the most memorable victories in team history.

But with dangerous FC Dallas entering PPL Park on Saturday, head coach John Hackworth has ordered a club-wide refocusing.

“We need to try and stay focused and stop thinking about New York,” Hackworth said. “So far this week, the team has responded positively. We’re focused on Dallas. There’s always a letdown because you build up the rivalry game and that importance, but we knew this stretch would be tough the whole time, so in our planning and the way we presented it, we talked about this four-game stretch being pivotal to our season.”

The players seem to have received the coach’s point.

“We can’t take any breaks or feel too good about ourselves,” Brian Carroll said. “We need to be focused all the time or [not] think too highly of ourselves. We don’t have that luxury. We understand how good Dallas is. Everybody is grounded and focused on what we need to do.

“They are one of the best teams in the league. They are dangerous, experienced and have a lot of young talent. It’s going to take everything we have for us to get a good result here.”

Yet, shedding potential overconfidence and contending with FC Dallas is easier said than done.

Armed with Union-killer Kenny Cooper and leading goal scorer Blas Perez, FC Dallas, 8-3-5 overall, poses difficult matchup problems for the Union with its size up front. In five career games against the Union, Cooper has scored five goals, including a pair of two-goal games.

“[Cooper] has been a player against this club in particular, he’s been tough to contain,” Hackworth said. “We’ll have to do a good job against Kenny. And if they are able to put both Kenny and Blas on the field at the same time, it gives you a two-headed monster. They haven’t gone that way much but we’re preparing for it. We will have to contend with some big-target forwards.”

Though FC Dallas is 1-2-3 in their last six and 1-3-3 on the road -- a record which saw them drop to third in the West, Hackworth hasn’t been able to find their vulnerability.

“FC Dallas has had a great start to the year, they’ve been near the top of the table all year,” the coach said. “They’ve had a very productive first half and are a very good team in all ways. We don’t see many weaknesses in their lineup. They’ve been consistent in the way they’ve played and it will be another big challenge at PPL.”

The confidence that Hackworth is trying to keep measured is also what could help the 7-5-4 Union come away with a result. While the club is coming off a pair of 3-0 wins over the Columbus Crew and Red Bulls, it’s how they’ve done it that’s been impressive.

Over the two-game winning run, the Union received three goals from veteran Conor Casey and single goals from Carroll, Sheanon Williams and Antoine Hoppenot. Union leading scorer Jack McInerney, who will miss much of July as part of the US Men’s National Team for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, was kept off the board.

“What we’re doing right now is working pretty well,” Hoppenot said. “We’ve won a few games and offensively, we’re creating a lot of chances. We’re hitting our stride right now and it’s the perfect time to do that.”

Coinciding with red-hot offensive output, the Union also feel that by defeating the Red Bulls, a mental hurdle has been cleared -- a hurdle that can help them on Saturday.

“Our team knew we had to beat someone above us and that we hadn’t done it this year,” Hackworth said. “So beating a team in front of us in the standings, in particular, one of our rivals, was really important. We know we can do it.”

While spirits are high, the Union’s roster is at a low. Losing Keon Daniel to the Trinidad and Tobago Gold Cup team, the Union will also be without Kleberson (hamstring) and potentially Danny Cruz (bone bruise).

“The midfield is a little thin,” Hackworth said. “Kleberson is about the same place he was last week and that’s a negative. You would think he’d be getting better. Danny has been evaluated and got an MRI. While he doesn’t have a fracture, he can’t train right now. He is questionable for this week.”

Michael Farfan is expected to fill in for Daniel and Kleberson at center attack midfielder. As for potential Cruz replacements as an attacking winger, the cupboard is thin.  

“Hoppenot, [Leo] Fernandes, [Don] Anding -- We have guys that are ready,” Hackworth said. “A lot of those guys give you similar things to what Danny does. We’re also hopeful that he can play, we’re not counting him out yet. If I know Danny, he’ll do anything he can to put himself on the field 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.