Union’s youth flashes potential in friendly with Premier League’s Swansea

Union’s youth flashes potential in friendly with Premier League’s Swansea

CHESTER, Pa. — A lot pointed to the Union’s 2-2 friendly draw with Swansea City Saturday not meaning much. 

The team’s injured captain, Maurice Edu, provided color commentary up in a booth. The Sons of Ben had the emptiest section of Talen Energy Stadium. The Union started guys with no MLS experience. Both sides sent out an entirely fresh set of players after the first half. With MLS play halted for the weekend, one of the Premier League’s bottom-dwellers was in town for a glorified scrimmage in the middle of July.

Even with an on-field product that means nothing in the long run — a stop on a Swansea preseason tour that’s just as much promotional as it is productive — the Union found solace in Saturday’s result (see full story). Young players got a chance to test themselves against the more experienced talents of arguably the world’s best league. Promising moments impressed coach Jim Curtin.

“We are a team in the true sense of the word. Everyone contributes,” Curtin said. “Today was about rewarding [the young players]”

The plan going in was to “protect” the youth by pairing them with the vets, Curtin said. Mistakes happened and the Union didn’t win, after all. Second chances and set pieces inflicted the damage. But Curtin was overall pleased with what he saw.

The youthful flashes came on both ends of the pitch. Home-grown 18-year-old Auston Trusty started at left centerback. Eight different players have appeared on the Union’s crowded back line this MLS season and Trusty isn’t one of them. He’s spent all of his time in Bethlehem with the Steel. He said he’s “trusting the process.”

In the 15th minute, Trusty smothered an all-of-a-sudden Swansea attack spawned by a Union turnover. Alone at the top of the box with the smaller, swift Swansea midfielder Luciano Narsingh, Trusty cleanly got the tackle and clear. Narsingh fell to the turf and Trusty shot a mean stare at him. Quite the introduction from the Media, Pennsylvania, native.

“That's kind of just my game,” Trusty said. “I like bringing a lot of fire, just a lot of passion toward the game. That's how I get focused and mentally in it.”

Offensively, rookie midfielder Marcus Epps drew a penalty in the sixth minute to give C.J. Sapong his fourth penalty-kick goal in as many attempts. After growing up watching the Premier League, Epps used his speed to spark the charge against one of its clubs. Curtin mentioned that experienced players have marveled to him about Epps’ abilities at a young age.

“I don’t think they thought we’d come out that strong and that fast,” Epps said. “It was good that I could come on, change direction and catch them off guard a little.”

Nineteen-year-old midfielder Aaron Jones saw his first action in the blue and gold, and 17-year-old midfielder Anthony Fontana riled up the bench after coming on in the 76th with a deep cut back just outside the box that he wasted with a shot over the goal. It didn’t show up as anything but a missed shot on the stat sheet. So what? Fontana isn’t even a legal adult and he made a Premier League defender look silly. Because Fontana is technically not on the roster, he was not available for questions.

“When I came over, you could see he’s got it,” Union forward Jay Simpson, who has struggled to find minutes behind Sapong but scored the equalizer in the 58th on a dribbler across the goal that snuck in the far corner, said of Fontana. “He’s young and he’s hungry to improve so hopefully he has a bright future ahead.”

Trusty said he has that same hunger within himself. Now, with a small taste of the next level, he’s only craving the MLS more. He’ll likely need to wait a little longer than the rest of this season to consistently satisfy that desire.

The Swans’ appetite for this season is just building. While the Union is about halfway through its campaign, Swansea is a month out from its first game. The Welsh club’s current stay in the Premier League is entering its seventh season, and the team has finished as high as eighth in the table, but last year was a mess that saw three managers and four wins in the last five matches as the only buffer between relegation.

The club’s best player, Icelandic international Gylfi Sigurosson, didn’t travel to the U.S. because he’s been linked to transfer rumors. He could command a reported $50 million transfer fee. But like many angles of Saturday’s spectacle-over-substance friendly — the opponent’s caliber, the result or the fact that it was Game of Thrones night — that didn't matter. 

The Union’s kids made it all worthwhile.

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.