Adam Najem

Rookie Adam Najem hopes to prove he's the playmaker the Union need

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Rookie Adam Najem hopes to prove he's the playmaker the Union need

CHESTER, Pa. -- Jim Curtin has made it clear he won’t use falling out of playoff contention as a reason to throw the team’s youngest, most untested players into the fire.

But the Union head coach also made clear Adam Najem doesn’t necessarily fall into that category, saying this week the rookie midfielder is “right in the discussion” to see more time regardless of where the team might be in the standings.

For Najem, though, just getting onto the field during Philly’s last 10 games of the 2017 season — starting with Saturday’s road tilt vs. the San Jose Earthquakes — is only a short-term goal. Long term, the 22-year-old New Jersey native hopes to emerge as the kind of attacking midfielder the Union can build their team around — in a role that’s usually been occupied by international imports.

“I want to kind of get rid of the stigma that Americans can’t be playmakers,” Najem said after Thursday’s practice. "And if they give me the opportunity to continue improving at the No. 10, I’ll try to show what I can do.”

The Union have struggled to find a consistently good option at that No. 10 spot — an important position that sits behind the striker (CJ Sapong) and in front of the two other central midfielders (Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya). Roland Alberg, a native of the Netherlands, and the Brazilian Ilsinho have both shown occasional flashes of brilliance but not nearly enough consistency, leading to speculation that both could be on their way out when the season ends.

At that point, the Union will likely chase a high-priced player, possibly from South America or Europe, to fill that void, as MLS teams are prone to do. But Najem believes he can be the guy, and that more starts as the season winds down can perhaps prove it.

“For me, I want to cement myself as the No. 10 wherever I am,” he said. “Right now, I feel if I continue improving, that can be here. I want to reward Philly for giving me the opportunity to be here. And I want to be that player they look upon to win games. If I get the opportunity, I have to continue working and show I can be the No. 10 they’re looking for.”

Although most of his game action has been with affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC, where he’s made 14 starts, Najem has seen more MLS minutes of late, playing three straight games last month, including his first career start in Columbus on July 22.

And while he felt like he showed for the ball and maintained possession well in that game, he knows he didn’t do nearly enough to help jumpstart a stagnant offense in a 1-0 loss.

“That’s something I want to improve on,” he said. “It kind of left a sour taste in my mouth.”

Najem knows there are other things he can improve upon, and he’s been trying his best to pick up little lessons from other midfielders on the team. 

Medunjanin’s quality on the ball? Bedoya’s vision and awareness? Alberg’s striking ability? Ilsinho’s dribbling moves? Najem has been paying close attention to all of it.

“The type of player I am, I like to take the best out of everyone around me,” he said. “Everyone brings their own style to the game and you try to pick up anything you can and implement your own style of play into that as well.”

Najem has seemed to do that well in training, where he often looks sharp and in control of short-field scrimmages. But as his rookie season winds down, it could be time for him to take the next step — if he’s given the chance.

“In my position, it’s obviously an important one on the field,” he said. “Being a young guy, you have to learn how to deal with that and deal with the pressures.

“If the coaches see I’m working hard enough or improving enough, I’ll be on the field. And if not, I’ll just continue working.”

Union Notes: With Yaro sidelined, 'Gooch' poised to be a starter

Union Notes: With Yaro sidelined, 'Gooch' poised to be a starter

It’s been roughly two years since Oguchi Onyewu last played a professional soccer game. But with Joshua Yaro out for at least the next three months after dislocating his shoulder, Onyewu will likely be the team’s opening day starter when the Union’s 2017 season begins in Vancouver on March 5. 

“Gooch has been really good in the preseason,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said after the team wrapped up a training session from inside the Penn Park Bubble on Monday. “Him and Richie (Marquez) have established themselves as the guys that, at least at this stage, we’ll go with going into this final phase between MLS games.”

Ken Tribbett, who started 19 games a rookie last season, is also “pushing for minutes,” Curtin acknowledged. And 18-year-old Auston Trusty is an intriguing option to perhaps make his MLS debut at some point this season.

But no matter what the Union plan to do, the injury to Yaro will certainly be a big blow. The second-year player, who battled injuries and concussion problems last season, was prepared to make a big leap in 2017 and show the kind of promise that made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 draft.

“Josh is a starter,” Curtin said. “When he’s healthy, he’s established himself as such. It’s a big loss, a speed loss on the backline. It will call upon guys to step up in his absence. Hopefully, we get him back sooner rather than later.”

Calling the injury both “tricky” and “painful,” Curtin knows the recovery process can’t be rushed though. Yaro actually dislocated the same shoulder last May in a game vs. Orlando but the team decided at the time that surgery wasn’t necessary. This time, after Yaro dislocated his shoulder in a non-contact drill about a week-and-a-half ago, they decided to go the surgery route, which they hope will prevent any more issues.

“It’s tough because he plays so aggressive and physical,” Curtin said. “So to be out there a little wounded and already a little undersized is difficult. We thought it was best to get the surgery taken care of. He’s a really important piece we’ll miss but everyone else has to step up.”

For what it’s worth, Onyewu seems more than ready to fill the void. A former US national team star, the 34-year-old center back confidently stated when he was signed: “My ambition and my goal is to start every minute.”

“Looking at things in reality, I’m 34 years old, so I’m not gonna play for another 15 years,” Onyewu added at the time. “But if the question is, ‘Do I have more left in my tank?’ I definitely do. You’re gonna see that this season.”

From New York to Philly
It’s been an interesting last couple of months for Adam Najem, a star player at the University of Akron who bypassed this year’s MLS draft because his homegrown rights were owned by the New York Red Bulls … who then traded those rights to the Philadelphia Union … who then signed him last Wednesday.

But now that a little bit of the uncertainty has passed, he’s ready to make Philly his new home. 

“I grew up a Red Bull fan,” Najem told reporters Monday. “I played there since I was 12 years old. But my heart and everything else is with the Philly Union. I’m gonna give everything I can to the organization. That’s all I’m thinking about right now.” 

Perhaps the most interesting part of Najem’s move from New York to Philly is that his brother, David, is part of the Red Bulls' system.

Might the two siblings face off in a rivalry game down the road?

“We grew up playing against each other all the time — one-vs.-one battles in the backyard,” the Union midfielder said. “It will be fun to see him on the other side of the field.”

The Bosnian has arrived
It’s been nearly two weeks since Haris Medunjanin was signed but the Bosnian midfielder just arrived in Philly this week after working to attain his visa.

Medunjanin, who’s expected to be a major piece in the Union midfield, didn’t practice with the team at Penn on Monday but will fly out with them to Florida on Tuesday for the third and final phase of the preseason and should be available to play in the next three preseason games at the Suncoast Invitational.

In the meantime, he took a physical on Monday and enjoyed a tour of the Power Training Complex, which he told Curtin was better than many training centers he’s seen in Europe.

“He’s excited,” Curtin said. “He really wants to fit in well with the group, which we know he will.” 

Union look to add resident tattoo artist 
The Union’s roster may be just about complete as they prepare for their start of the 2017 season but they are still looking to fill at least one position … a chief tattoo officer.

Wait, what?

Yes, Union vice president of Marketing Doug Vosik announced on CSN’s Philly Sports Talk on Monday that the team would be the first professional sports organization to make such a hire with the person acting as a resident tattoo artist for players and staff.

All interested tattoo artists may apply for the position by emailing portfolio images to tattoos@philadelphiaunion.com.

“This is an exciting initiative for all of us here at Philadelphia Union as we look to provide a revolutionary service for our players and front office, particularly those new to the area,” said Vosik, who will be the first to get a Union tattoo. “Our hiring process begins immediately; we are looking for a partner with a wide variety of talents and skills, and someone who can offer a broad range including American traditional, as well as Japanese, realism, new school and more.”

Union get 'creative' to acquire Adam Najem, a coveted college talent

Union get 'creative' to acquire Adam Najem, a coveted college talent

A year ago, the Union pulled off a heist at the MLS SuperDraft, snagging a trio of players in Keegan Rosenberry, Joshua Yaro and Fabian Herbers that they can very well build their team around for the next decade.

This year’s draft was a lot quieter for the Union, who had previously traded away their first-round pick in a deal that helped them acquire standout midfielder Alejandro Bedoya.

But thanks to Wednesday’s acquisition of Adam Najem, the club feels like it still enters the 2017 MLS season with one of the best players in college soccer over the past four years.

“It gives us a top-tier draft class with the addition of Adam to that group,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said in a call with reporters. “Last year we were rewarded for [sporting director Earnie Stewart] being very aggressive and creative in the draft room. This year Earnie and [technical director Chris Albright] were also creative to get Adam Najem.”

Curtin said Najem may have landed in the top five of this year’s draft had he been eligible. But since he was part of the New York Red Bulls’ academy, he bypassed the draft because of Homegrown rules. At that point, the Union put the wheels in motion to reel him in — which they accomplished after acquiring his right of first refusal from the Red Bulls in exchange for a second-round pick in next year’s draft. 

“We were excited to get the deal done,” Curtin said. “He’s a very talented player who’s excited to wear the Philadelphia Union uniform. He’s been showing his worth in the preseason and is a great addition to the group.”

Najem certainly showed his talent at the collegiate level, scoring 33 goals and logging 29 assists over his four-year career at the University of Akron. He was a second-team NSCAA All-American in 2015 and a third-team All-American in 2016 and was the MAC Player of the Year as a senior.

Before that, the midfielder was ranked as the No. 1 recruit in New Jersey, where he led the Red Bulls’ U-16 team to the U.S. Soccer Development Academy national championship in 2012.  

“He scores a lot of goals in practice and he scored a lot of goals in college as well,” Curtin said. “He has that skillset you can’t always teach or coach. Some guys just have a knack around the goal. I think Adam falls into that category.”

After first meeting with him, Curtin found Najem to be an “intelligent, humble and quiet kid” but someone “who makes a lot of noise” when he gets on the field. In addition to his goal-scoring ability, the diminutive midfielder also is a “a really clever player” who sees “one or two passes ahead,” Curtin said.

“He’s a great kid and I hope he has a great career with the Philadelphia Union,” the coach added. “It’s incredible to bring him on board.” 

Although all three of the Union’s top rookies saw significant playing time last season — with Rosenberry and Herbers emerging as two of the best rookies in the league — it may be a little tougher for Najem to get on the field in 2017.

The Union have a crowded midfield and are just now wrapping up a busy offseason that recently included signing second-round draft pick Marcus Epps, speedy winger Fafa Picault and playmaking central midfielder Haris Medunjanin.

The club is still looking to add a third-string goalkeeper behind Andre Blake and John McCarthy and may soon decide to move some of its other late-round draft picks to USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC. But other than that, its roster seems just about complete with the start of the regular season less than a month away.

And it’s almost certainly the deepest roster in franchise history with Curtin admitting there will be some “unhappy guys” who won’t even be able to make the 18-man gameday lineup this year.

“Earnie and Chris have done a really great job this offseason retooling our group,” the Union coach said. “I don’t think we lost a ton outside Tranquillo [Barnetta] in the offseason and we replace it on paper with a stronger roster. Nothing is won on paper, I’m not going to get ahead of myself. But it is a deeper group — a team that I think can compete into the playoffs and push past that first round.”