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.”

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.