Union

U.S. men's soccer team blanks El Salvador in Gold Cup at Lincoln Financial Field

U.S. men's soccer team blanks El Salvador in Gold Cup at Lincoln Financial Field

The U.S. men’s national team knows how to protect its Philly turf.

A year after shutting out Paraguay in the Copa America Centenario at Lincoln Financial Field, the American soccer stars returned to the Eagles’ home stadium and shut off El Salvador, 2-0, in the Gold Cup quarterfinals Wednesday night.

Defenders Omar Gonzalez and Eric Lichaj scored for the U.S., who advance to face Costa Rica in the semifinals of the tournament for CONCACAF supremacy.

But despite the shutout — and the fact that they’re moving on — the win didn’t exactly have U.S. head coach Bruce Arena in a jovial mood.

“I thought we had a difficult time tonight,” Arena said. “Our timing wasn’t good. We didn’t deal with the physicality. The game had no rhythm with all of the fouls and players falling on the ground. And we weren’t good on top of it.”

Arena was particularly upset about some of the more physical aspects of the game, saying that he didn’t think “games should look like that” with all the fouls and time wasting.

One particular play stood above the rest — and it took the term “physical” to a whole new level as El Salvador’s Henry Romero literally bit U.S. striker Jozy Altidore in the shoulder while defending him in the box on a corner kick.

It appeared that Altidore also got his nipple grabbed by Romero — something he was furious about at the time but able to laugh about afterwards.

“My girl’s mad at me,” Altidore said. “She’s mad at me, she’s mad at Romero, because she’s like, ‘Only I can bite you, only I can grab your nipples.’” 

Incredibly, U.S. defender Omar Gonzalez was also bitten later in the second half by Darwin Ceren. Neither Romero or Ceren were carded but could possibly draw retroactive punishments from CONCACAF.

“When the guy bit me, I was a bit shocked,” Gonzalez said. “But you have to move on as quick as possible and look forward to the next play.”

“There should have been players sent off in my opinion,” Arena added. “These games aren’t easy. Clearly I would think the referee doesn’t want to send anyone off. But it was a night where on a couple of occasions perhaps it would have gotten the game headed in the right direction.”

Of course, Gonzalez did enjoy the best kind of revenge, getting his head on the end of a 41st-minute free kick from Michael Bradley to put the Americans on the board.

The U.S. then made it 2-0 right before halftime when Lichaj scored his first international goal following a marvelous spin and through ball from Clint Dempsey.

“I don’t know if it was a few years coming,” said Lichaj, who made his first appearance with the U.S. national team in Chester back in 2010. “But I was just excited to score.”

Longtime USMNT stars Bradley, Dempsey, Altidore and goalkeeper Tim Howard were four of the six players called up by Arena for the knockout stage of the tournament after a young, untested roster helped the team win Group B — albeit unconvincingly — with wins over Martinique and Nicaragua and a draw with Panama.

And although they did deliver — on top of the Bradley and Dempsey assists, Howard came through with one big early save en route to the shutout — no one seemed particularly happy about the performance.

“There was not much rhythm in the game today — a lot of stoppages because of all the fouls,” Dempsey said. “You just gotta try to be smart, see your way through the game. It wasn’t pretty but we got the right result.”

The Americans know they’ll need to be better in the next round against Costa Rica, who defeated Panama, 1-0, in the first game of Wednesday’s doubleheader with fans from all four countries — 31,635 in all — packing the Linc.

The U.S. national team is looking to win its sixth Gold Cup and avenge an uninspired fourth-place finish in the last Gold Cup, two years ago.

“The great thing is we have a really deep roster and we’re able to keep the team somewhat fresh for every single game,” Gonzalez said. “Tonight we got six new guys in and you can tell it was a bit sloppy in the beginning. We missed passes here and there. It could definitely be better but we got a game in together and we’re expecting it to be a lot sharper for the next game.”

Of note to the Union fans in the crowd, Chris Pontius entered the game in the 87th minute, marking the third straight Gold Cup game he’s played in after being called in as a late injury replacement.

In the three minutes that he was on the field, the Union winger did not appear to get bit.

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.