Union's Chris Pontius embracing time with U.S. national team as Gold Cup stops in Philly

Union's Chris Pontius embracing time with U.S. national team as Gold Cup stops in Philly

CHESTER, Pa. — Chris Pontius wasn’t even supposed to be on the U.S. national team’s Gold Cup roster.

But after getting called in at the last minute as an injury replacement, the Union winger has emerged as an important member of the team — now with a unique opportunity to wear his country’s colors in front of his hometown fans.

After playing the full 90 minutes in the Americans’ 3-0 defeat of Nicaragua on Saturday — a result that clinched Group B — Pontius was kept on the roster after head coach Bruce Arena switched six players ahead of Wednesday’s quarterfinal game vs. El Salvador at Lincoln Financial Field (9 p.m., FS1). 

What does Arena’s confidence mean to Pontius?

“It’s huge for a player,” Pontius said from Penn’s Rhodes Field, where the USMNT has been training this week. “If you have a coach that instills confidence in you, it allows you to go play your game a little bit more freely. He’s always talking to us about our roles and what he wants from us. It’s different game to game, so that’s translated through him, and we knew what we needed to do, especially going into that last game. And we got it done.”

The 30-year-old Pontius got a few national team sniffs early in his career but had been mostly out of the picture until Arena was hired to succeed Jurgen Klinsmann in November. Soon after, he made his official debut in a friendly vs. Serbia in January and has since seen the field in the last two Gold Cup games.

“I’ll just say it this way: Bruce knows exactly what he’s gonna get from Chris,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “And Bruce has a tendency to like guys he can rely on.”

Curtin added that Union captain Alejandro Bedoya is equally reliable, which is why Arena leaned on Bedoya’s leadership to help the USMNT win Group B with a mostly young, untested roster. Bedoya was then one of the six players to be cut loose from the squad but only because he wanted to be with his wife, who gave birth to their second child Tuesday morning.

For Curtin, seeing two Union players start for the U.S. national team in a tournament game was an important step for the franchise. He’s also happy to see the Gold Cup stop in Philly for a pair of quarterfinal games — Panama faces Costa Rica before the U.S. and El Salvador tangle — a year after the Linc played host to a Copa America Centenario game between the U.S. and Paraguay.

Well, maybe not entirely happy.

“It makes me angry I’m out of town,” said Curtin, whose Union team will be in Montreal to face the Impact (7:30 p.m., TCN) during Wednesday’s Gold Cup doubleheader at the Linc. “Any time the national team can come to Philadelphia, you want to be able to attend those training sessions, to be at the games, to get a feel — because Philadelphia is a great soccer town. It’s got a rich history in soccer. The Philadelphia Union is still a newer club and trying to grow and become stronger. But when the national team is here, it’s special.

“Hopefully our fans in Philly can make this as hostile of an environment as possible for El Salvador.”

Considering the new additions to the retooled U.S. national team include four of the most accomplished players in USMNT history in Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, it may be tough for Pontius to see the field Wednesday.

But should the opportunity come to play in front of Philly fans, he’ll seize it.

“That would be great,” he said. “I’m ready.”

Either way, just being at USMNT camp for the second time this year after such a long hiatus is an “honor” he knows “every American strives for.” And he hopes the experience will translate to more success with the Union after an up-and-down first half of the season in which he logged a healthy six assists but failed to score a goal.

“Sure, I’ve had multiple games where I could’ve easily scored and I needed to do better with my chances,” said Pontius, who was shifted from the left wing to the right earlier in the season. “I know that. I’m well aware of it. Hopefully just playing at this level translates to success on the field with Philly for me.”

Union believe they found their missing piece

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Union believe they found their missing piece

David Accam is a dream come true for the Union.

“At the end of the season, we talked about adding players and David was at the top of our list,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said. “I didn’t think that would be a real option. When it comes along, it’s incredible.”

Shocking as it was for Stewart, the Union pulled 27-year-old Accam from the Chicago Fire for allocation money at the 2018 MLS SuperDraft on Jan. 19. With his ability to create one-on-one opportunities and punish teams on the counter-attack, Accam, who had 14 goals and eight assists last season, is a perfect fit in the Union’s 4-2-3-1 system, and the exact type of “difference-maker” the team was looking for.

“David is known in the league for his speed, but when we scouted him we noted just how good he is on the ball,” Union manager Jim Curtin said Tuesday at the official introduction of Accam at Talen Energy Stadium. “The space he creates for others because he is so dangerous. When he gets one-on-one, his quality will take over games and it’ll create a lot of space for the rest of our players.”

From Accam’s perspective, he’s joining an established attacking group. Specifically mentioning Union leading scorer C.J. Sapong and winger Fafa Picault, Accam expects to have space to work.

“We have enough quality on this team already,” he said. “I just have to do my part.”

On top of his offensive acumen, Accam knows MLS. What attracted the Union to the speedster is not only his skill but his familiarity with the league. Unlike European players that take time to adjust to the climate, travel and style of play, Accam should make an instant impact on the Union.

“He’s been now, for multiple years, a top attacking player in our league,” Curtin said. “He’s got the statistics to back it up. The fact that he has a familiarity with the league, he knows the defenders will be grabbing and kicking him for 90 minutes, and that matters a great deal. It makes the transition more seamless. 

“He’s a great fit for us.”

But snagging that perfect fit wasn’t free. Acquired in one of the largest trades in Union history, the attacker was moved by the Fire in exchange for $1.2 million in combined allocation money. According to Stewart, the speedster, who was ripe for a new deal, signed an extension with the Fire before the team moved him to Philadelphia.

“Our understanding is that David has an obligation now with the Union through 2020,” Stewart said.

Despite scratching out a significant name off their wishlist, the Union aren’t quite done adding players, with the expectation that they bring in a playmaking midfielder. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be going on a shopping spree.

“I think we are in a better place than we were last year with the acquisition of David,” Stewart said. “There will be a little more happening but not much more because I believe the foundation is solid. With the acquisition of David and one more player in the near future, we’ll be in good shape to compete for the playoffs.”

Union acquire electrifying winger in major trade

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Union acquire electrifying winger in major trade

The Philadelphia Union didn’t make a pick in the first two rounds of the MLS SuperDraft on Friday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

But the hometown team still made one of the biggest splashes of the day.

Between the first and second rounds, Paul Tenorio of ESPN FC reported that the Union had a trade in place for electrifying winger David Accam, sending a palpable buzz through the ballroom. Not long after, the move was officially announced and the Philly fans in attendance finally had something to cheer about after a quiet-to-this-point offseason.

“I know there was some impatience with the timing of things,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “But this is a special player we added — one that changes the whole dynamic of our team.”

The move wasn’t cheap as the Union dealt $1.2 million in allocation money to the Chicago Fire in exchange for the Ghanaian speedster, who’s bagged 33 goals and 15 assists over the last three MLS seasons.

But if he can stay healthy and keep producing at the rate he has been, the Union think it can be a bargain.

“A David Accam on the open market is significantly higher than what we paid today,” Curtin said. “I can tell you with confidence if we shopped around for someone of David’s quality and production, we’d spend a heck of a lot more money than we did today.”

Accam will likely start on one of the wings opposite fellow burner Fafa Picault with leading scorer C.J. Sapong up top. That still leaves a hole in attacking midfield that the Union need to round out their offense — a position which Curtin and sporting director Earnie Stewart said the club is still searching for.

“With Fafa, with Accam, with C.J. Sapong, those guys will create a lot of space for whoever plays in that No. 10 spot during the course of the season,” Curtin said. “That’s something that makes other teams worry. When we get off the bus, you have to account for David Accam. So that’s a real positive.”

Accam has a unique backstory, playing at the Right to Dream Academy from 2004 to 2008 in his native Ghana, before moving to England on a student visa and playing for Ledbury Town and Evesham United. After taking part in “The Chance” competition, a Nike event to find undiscovered soccer talent, he moved to Swedish club Ostersund in 2012 and then to top-flight side Helsingborg later that year.

After starring for both clubs, he was signed by the Fire as a Designated Player and has been a consistent goal-scoring threat in Chicago. Since he came to MLS in 2015, Accam is one of just six MLS players to total at least 33 goals and 15 assists in league play, along with stars Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa, Diego Valeri, Ignacio Piatti and Kei Kamara.

“As we said a while back, we’re trying to find some difference-makers for our team to help us over those humps in certain games,” Stewart said. “We believe a couple of difference-makers can help that. And once David Accam came around, it was really clear to us that was a target that we wanted to make sure happened. And we as the Philadelphia Union made sure we stretched ourselves to make sure this player came aboard. We’re just very pleased that we were able to accomplish this.”

The Union also made a couple of other smaller moves leading up to the draft, signing defenders Matt Real and Mark McKenzie to Homegrown contracts.

Signing both players when they did was a good indication that the Union valued them both as much, if not more, as any guys they may have been able to draft had they not previously dealt away their picks.

And it’s even better that both Real and McKenzie came through the Union Academy and are more familiar with the club than a kid coming out of college would have been.

“Everybody has a different path,” said McKenzie, an 18-year old center back from Bear, Delaware. “All of these guys that got drafted today are great guys. … But myself, coming through the academy and when I was at the pre-academy when I was 11 and 12 and worked my way up to the U-14s to the U-18s to the [Bethlehem] Steel, it’s been an absolute honor and a blessing. I’ve been pushed and challenged at each level, and I’m looking forward to the future and what that holds.”

“It’s a big moment for me,” added Real, an 18-year-old who played for USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC last year. “These last couple of weeks for me have been surreal. I’m still kind of soaking all this in.

“Mark is my brother. Me and him have been playing together since the academy started. We graduated together, we’re on the [U-20] national team together. So this couldn’t be any better for me to share a moment like this with him.”