Union

Union's Jim Curtin sees 'light at the end of the tunnel' as lost season nears end

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Union's Jim Curtin sees 'light at the end of the tunnel' as lost season nears end

CHESTER, Pa. — Jim Curtin is a Philly guy through and through. 

He grew up in the area. He went to college at Villanova. He returned to Philly at the end of his playing career for an outside shot to suit up for the Union, only to take a job with the club’s youth academy. And now, as the Union head coach, he lives in the heart of the city with his wife and three children.

So as another disappointing Union season winds down, with seven games left and the team nearly out of playoff contention, how is the head coach handling some of the boos that have been directed his way recently at Talen Energy Stadium? Or what about when, during a rough patch earlier in the season, questions about his job security hovered around the Philly resident who has said he never wants to leave his hometown.

“Listen, everybody wants to be applauded and appreciated in their job,” Curtin told CSNPhilly.com after a recent practice. “I recognize where we’re at though. When I first took over the job and we had two [U.S.] Open Cup final runs, it was probably 90 percent of the people on board. Everybody was high. There’s been maybe a middle period and now it’s probably at a lower period. And that’s the nature of pro sports. We can talk about a lot of things but the only way we’re gonna win back a Philly fan base is to win.”

Curtin — who, as the franchise’s longest-tenured coach, has been running the show since the middle of the 2014 season — certainly has his share of detractors. And a few of the moves he’s made this season have been questionable, the four-month benching of reigning Rookie of the Year runner-up Keegan Rosenberry probably standing out to some. But given the state of mediocrity that’s presided over the Union since their inception, much of the fan base’s anger seems to be directed toward Jay Sugarman, who’s been the club’s principal owner since the beginning and has never spent the same kind of money as the league’s top teams.

In recent weeks, though, Curtin has been dropping hints that the club is getting ready to open up the wallet a lot more this offseason. And, assuming sporting director Earnie Stewart keeps him around as he’s pledged to do, Curtin is excited to put down the welcome mat for those players and help the club usher in a new direction.

“As hard as this year’s been, we do still see a light at the end of the tunnel,” the Union coach said. “Guys have another year under their belt and we will add some pieces that will come in and be those difference-makers for us next year. I think in a lot of ways, we raised the bar last year by making the playoffs. And I think expectations grew but we weren’t ready to take that next step.” 

Curtin used the word “difference-makers” a few times to describe the kinds of players the Union will acquire in the offseason. That implies players who will command a big salary. Maybe potential All-Stars. Championship-level guys. That’s a good thing. 

But it’s fair to wonder if skepticism and apathy have already set in for fans who might be wondering why those kinds of players didn’t arrive this past offseason to help the Union build off a 2016 season in which they squeaked into the playoffs. 

“We understand our fans are frustrated,” Curtin said. “They want us to be getting wins on the field. Sometimes it’s hard to see good performances in young players that are getting better, getting closer. We recognize when they’re not happy they’re gonna let us know at the end of the day.”

Still, if there is a greater fan erosion happening, Curtin isn’t seeing it. Sure, there are the smattering of the boos and a few more empty seats in the stadium. But as he walks around Philly, he sees a lot more people recognizing him, a lot more people in Union gear, a lot more kids in parks running up to him to play soccer with him and his three kids, ages 9, 7 and 5. 

“It shows the Union brand is really growing,” he said. “You see in playgrounds now kids wearing not only Union jerseys but soccer jerseys of even other MLS teams. The game continues to grow. And I do get recognized a lot walking around the city. I think I get attention more and people feel more comfortable after wins. They come up and say hello and high-five me and ask for pictures.”

Any heckles?

“No heckles,” he said. “Nothing’s been bad. But it is Philly. So I’m smart when I walk around. I do know after a bad loss people that recognize me are probably not too happy with me. But that’s part of the business and what I signed up for.”

Curtin’s point about the league’s and the sport’s popularity growing is a fair one, even if it does sometimes seem like a slow grind in Philly. And if the Union truly do make a few big signings on top of the growing youth foundation they’ve already established, the franchise can potentially make a big leap.

But the Union coach knows that until then, just talking about it isn’t going to do a lick of difference, recalling his nine-year MLS career with the Chicago Fire and then now-defunct Chivas USA as proof.

“Early in my career, I was loved by the fans, by everybody, and then toward the end when things got harder and I got a little older, I wasn’t so loved,” Curtin said. “It’s the reality of pro sports. The only way you can win back that equity in the fan base is to keep your mouth shut and win games. That’s Philadelphia.”

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.