Union

Union-United 5 things: 1st look at 'angry' Atlanta in inaugural clash

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Union-United 5 things: 1st look at 'angry' Atlanta in inaugural clash

Union vs. Atlanta United
7 p.m. on CSN

Coming off a difficult two game road swing in which they earned just one point, the Union (8-12-6) hope home cooking can get help them back in the win column, as they set to host impressive expansion side Atlanta United (10-8-5) for the first time Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium.

Here are five things to know:

1. Loss recovery
Wednesday’s defeat at the hands of Toronto FC wasn’t just one of many road losses for the Union, it was a beating. The best team in MLS dominated the Union and easily walked to the 3-0 victory.

“Against a Toronto team, to put it bluntly, we were outclassed on the road in their stadium,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “They are the best team in our league and I still think we can learn from it because that’s the standard.”

The Union can learn from the opportunity. Call it training at altitude, but Curtin believes the losing experience can only help as the Union head into the Atlanta match.

“We got 90 minutes in a loud atmosphere,” Curtin said after the game. “It’s a place which is good for our guys to grow and get better. They saw that we need to raise our level.

“It gives us room for major improvement. You can still take things away from the film session and implement it into Atlanta.” 

2. Angry Atlanta
When the Union hit the field Saturday night, they know they’ll be meeting an angry Atlanta club. While the Union were being defeated by the league’s best, the expansion side was losing to the league’s worst in D.C. United.

“They are an angry team coming into our building and in need of points,” Curtin said. “We’re going to do everything we can to take all three points.”

Atlanta has every right to be angry. The club has one win in its last four matches and is in desperate need for points in the Eastern Conference. As it stands, Atlanta, with a game in hand, is one point behind the Montreal Impact for the sixth and final postseason slot. With that type of playoff fight brewing, losing on the road to D.C. United would make any team disgruntled.

“It’s not a must win,” Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst told reporters. “But the mentality of the group is that we want to bounce back from that poor performance, that disappointment. We know if we put in a good performance that we’ll win the game.”

3. Ice cold opposition
One weakness the Union could exploit Saturday is Atlanta’s lack of scoring. Not a typically poor offensive team, Atlanta has only buried three goals in its last four games, which has led to its recent struggles.

“That final third is a place where players have to solve it themselves during the game, with imagination,” Atlanta coach Tata Martino told the media. “The first 75 meters of the field we’re doing OK, but in the last 25 meters or so, it’s something the players need to solve during the game.” 

But the Union aren’t buying into Atlanta’s offensive issues. It takes a simple look at the standings to see the visitors enter Saturday’s match with 42 goals this season, good for fourth in the East. 

“They have a dynamic front group of [Miguel] Almiron, [Josef] Martinez, [Yamil] Asad, [Hector] Villalba, and they have a deep bench, too,” Curtin said. “They throw their outside backs forward, especially on the left-hand side, so we’ll have to deal with that.” 

4. Keep an eye on …
Alejandro Bedoya & Haris Medunjanin: When Martino discussed the Union, he mentioned two players — Medunjanin and Bedoya. “They have some dangerous players and two really good holding midfielders in Blake and Medunjanin,” he said. “Those are two guys we don’t want to give time and space on the ball."

Hector Villalba: In a crowded group of productive offensive weapons, Villalba, Atlanta’s leading scorer, leads the club with 10 goals and four assists on the season. There’s a good chance that if Atlanta does break its scoring slump, Villalba will be the guy to do it.

5. This and that
• During Martino’s media availability, the coach stated the Union “scores a lot of goals but also gives up a lot of goals.” With three games in hand over Atlanta, the Union have only allowed six more goals on the season than Atlanta but scored eight fewer.

• If the Union come alive for a big effort, it’ll happen at home. The club is 7-4-2 at Talen Energy Stadium this season, while Atlanta is a respectable 4-6-4 on the road.

• Union goalkeeper Andre Blake returned to game action on Wednesday after missing eight matches. He allowed three goals on four shots.

• Atlanta midfielder Carlos Carmona will miss Saturday’s match because of a yellow-card accumulation suspension.

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.