Fabian Herbers

Union, Earnie Stewart reveal who's staying and who's going in offseason

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Union, Earnie Stewart reveal who's staying and who's going in offseason

Union sporting director Earnie Stewart and head coach Jim Curtin wrapped up the Union’s 2017 season on Wednesday at Talen Energy Stadium, discussing the club’s recently completed campaign and its roster plans for the future. Although the Union released a list of players out of contract, it didn’t tell the full story.

Here’s a breakdown of who is going, staying and stuck in limbo.

Head Coach Jim Curtin 
If Curtin somehow survived 16 straight winless games between the end of 2016 and the start of 2017, there was little chance he’d lose his job at season’s end, despite missing the playoffs and earning just one road win. Stewart confirmed that Curtin was staying on Wednesday. 

“I’m very pleased and proud to announce that Jim Curtin will be the head coach in 2018 and we’ll make sure that we keep going in the same direction that we have been going in,” Stewart said confidently. “I think he’s a big part of this foundation that we’ve laid down.”

Assistant Coach Mike Sorber and Goalkeeping Coach Oka Nikolov 
Despite a report that both Sorber and Nikolov would seek employment elsewhere during the offseason, Stewart would only confirm that Nikolov was out. In awkward fashion, the Union decision-maker said he was unaware that Sorber, Union assistant coach since 2014, was walking away from the club.

“Mike hasn’t come to us to say that he’s going,” Stewart said. “Up to today, the rest of the coaching staff will stay. But soccer is soccer.” 

Midfielder Roland Alberg 
The shot-first midfielder has been incredibly productive over his two seasons with the Union, scoring 16 goals and four assists over 2024 minutes. That’s a goal every 126.5 minutes. 

“I think Roland has had a very good role within the Philadelphia Union,” Stewart said. “When you look at Roland Alberg and his biggest quality, anything that gets close to the 18-yard-box, everything gets on target. Even though he’s a midfielder, I want to say he’s one of the best scorers that we have out there.” 

But his inability to keep possession and get others involved never made him a favorite of teammates or the coaching staff. That, along with the salary that accompanied his contract option, helped Stewart make the decision to let him walk. Alberg has signed with CSKA Sofia of Bulgaria.

“We came to the conclusion that the number that he was at, it wasn’t the right fit,” Stewart said. “He has the opportunity now to go to CSKA Sofia. He’s going to be making that step. I think his role has been good in the last two years.”

Winger Chris Pontius
In 2016, Pontius had a career year, putting up 12 goals and six assists in 33 games. But 2017 was a different story. Despite a U.S. Men’s National Team stint, very little worked for the veteran as he struggled with two goals and six assists. 

Now, the 30-year-old California native has the rare opportunity to be an unrestricted MLS free agent and pick his next destination. Pontius joins Maurice Edu and Charlie Davies as veterans not returning to the Union. 

“We made a decision on that,” Stewart said. “Chris Pontius will not be coming back. Chris Pontius will be a free agent.”

Midfielder Ilsinho 
Ilsinho’s option wasn’t picked up but the Union want him back. He’s a dazzler and more dynamic than Alberg, which makes him a valuable asset, but consistency has been an issue. The 32-year-old playmaker has only captured eight goals and seven assists in 52 games. His production is way below his skill level.

“You’ve seen the roster moves that we’ve made,” Stewart said. “There are certain players on that roster that we have not picked up an option that we are still interested in, and I dare say that Ilsinho is one of those players.”

Winger Fabian Herbers
Though Herbers’ contract option wasn’t picked up, the club wants him back. The former sixth-overall selection in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft was on a Generation Adidas deal that ran out heading into 2018, leaving the Union on the hook for a pricey bill. 

Instead, the club broke him from that contract with the goal of resigning him to a friendlier deal. He finished with one goal and two assists in 12 games.

“We still believe in Fabian Herbers,” Stewart said. “It’s always a difficult discussion to have with players where you decline the options. He had a GA status the last two years and once we had taken the option, the GA status was gone so he had to come on to our roster. So it had more to do with the roster itself and the number, but we are still high on Fabian Herbers. We’re looking forward to him being part of the 2018 team.”

Defender Oguchi Onyewu
An unsung hero of the 2017 season that would have been much worse without him, Onyewu will pack his bags and leave Philadelphia for good this offseason. The Union will miss his experience as they lean toward youth — Richie Marquez, Auston Trusty or a free agent option for 2018.

“It’s a hard conversation at the end of the year, but he did everything that Earnie and I could’ve asked of him,” Curtin said. “For the club, with the depth that we have at that position, we decided to move on from him. It’s hard, but at the same time, we wish him success going forward, and we thank him for his contributions to our team.”

Left back Fabinho
Despite beating out Giliano Wijnaldum to round out the 2017 season, Fabinho’s contract has run out for 2018. But similar to Ilinsho and Herbers, the Union seem to want him back. 

“Left backs and left-center backs are like dinosaurs,” Stewart said. “You don’t see too many of them. To have a good left back and I still consider Fabi, as a left back in the league — we have this rating system of ours where he still rates very high. I think that answers the question.”

But even if Fabinho doesn’t return as a player, the club is interested in him sticking with the organization.

“I think Fabi is part of this family,” Stewart said. “To make those promises now is a little bit too early, I think it’s too early in his career to do that. But at the same time I do think that when it comes to a person that belongs to that club, he’s one of those players.”

Left back Giliano Wijnaldum
The Union’s other left back showed flashes of his potential in 13 games with the club but couldn’t gain a foothold. Between his brutal inconsistency, salary and homesickness, Stewart announced that Wijnaldum will not return. 

“For the number that we had in his contract, for the option year, it was not enough,” Stewart said. “He also had some, I almost want to say family issues, missing his kids. It was a good time to part ways.”

With two left backs now off the roster, Ray Gaddis, who can play both sides, remains the only player able to absorb that role. However, the Union do have Matt Real, a Drexel Hill native and Bethlehem Steel player waiting in the wings.

2017 Season Preview: The Union are now a stable franchise ... but will they be any good?

2017 Season Preview: The Union are now a stable franchise ... but will they be any good?

For much of the Philadelphia Union’s existence, the preseason has been as dramatic as any game-winning golazo.

There was figuring out who everyone was before the 2010 expansion season (while they trained out of a public gym). There was Michael Orozco Fiscal arriving at camp in 2011 before soon leaving over a contract dispute. There was losing club icon Sebastien Le Toux (to a bizarre trade) and then-captain Faryd Mondragon (he requested an untimely release) at the start of camp the following year. There was Freddy Adu getting his contract terminated in 2013 and Carlos Valdes getting loaned away just after awkwardly reporting to camp the year after that. There was head coach Jim Curtin going through his first preseason in 2015 and sporting director Earnie Stewart putting his own stamp on things after arriving last year.

But things have been much calmer at the start of 2017. No contract disputes. No unexpected comings or goings. No coaching or front-office shakeups. One very good player left very graciously (Tranquillo Barnetta) and a few other players came in, none big enough to send shockwaves through the league. There doesn’t seem to be any locker-room drama. Curtin and Stewart are growing into their jobs and ready to build something.

I guess the best way to describe the 2017 preseason is that it’s been, well, boring. But for a franchise that’s gone through such tumult in the past, that’s a good thing. The big question now is whether this kind of stability can lead to success on the field when the season opens Sunday night in Vancouver. 

Perhaps it will. But it may largely depend on these five things:

1. So can this British dude play?
Stewart is known for making unique moves, to try to pluck players from obscurity into stardom, to find good values where others don’t know where to look. Meet Jay Simpson, perhaps one of the Union sporting director’s most ambitious projects yet. 

Before signing with the Union in the offseason, Simpson was playing for a fourth-division team in England and now looks poised to be Philly’s opening-day starter at striker. There is another prominent example of an Englishman from lower-tier leagues coming over to MLS and dominating — and Simpson would like to emulate him — but it’s hard to know at this point if the new Union forward can carry the goal-scoring load. In Earnie we trust?

2. Is Gooch still Gooch?
First, he was just training with the team just to stay fit. Then, he had a chance to sign. Then, he was a veteran backup. Now, he’s getting ready to start at center back, on turf, following a six-hour flight, in his first pro game in two years. What could go wrong? 

A lot of people are rightfully skeptical that 34-year-old center back Oguchi Onyewu can be an effective player in MLS and stay healthy after some recent injury issues effectively kept him out of pro soccer for two years. But for those of us who grew into soccer fans watching him, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley come up through the US national team together, it will still be fun to see a former star player suit up in MLS for the first time. Maybe he’s still got it?

3. Will Maurice Edu ever be healthy again?
Looks like Union writers may have another few weeks (or months?) of asking Curtin the same question about Edu’s recovery from injury and Curtin giving the same kind of hopeful but sometimes frustrated answer. 

I’ll go on the record as saying Edu will return to game action in the first couple of months of the season but, after missing the entire 2016 season, one more setback could spell the end of the 30-year-old midfielder’s time with the Union. And it would be a shame if we never get to see a midfield triangle of Edu, Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya — all guys who have played in a World Cup.

4. Sophomore slumps — is that gonna be a thing?
The play of Keegan Rosenberry and Fabian Herbers was one of the best storylines of the 2016 season with both emerging as top rookies in MLS. They’ll be counted on for even more in 2017 but can they keep it up or improve? The same question can even be asked of Andre Blake and Richie Marquez, two other young players coming off their first full seasons as starters? And then there’s Joshua Yaro, the third member of last year’s vaunted rookie class along with Herbers and Rosenberry, who’s recovering from shoulder surgery. 

It’s a talented young core, to be sure. But Union fans have seen enough promising young players fail to grow into stars or even stick with the team (McInerney, Amobi, Sheanon, Farfan, etc., etc.) to measure their excitement with a dose of caution.

5. Can they take the next step?
This is a vague question but soccer can be hard to quantify too, with teams often dominating games but still finding ways to lose. Too often in the past, the Union have been burned by rough calls, unlucky bounces, late lapses, or injury problems that have forced them to field weaker-than-expected lineups.

This year’s team has the kind of depth where it should be able to overcome having key guys out to take more points in tough spots. But do they have the mental fortitude to win games when they don’t play well? Or escape with road draws when things don’t go their way? 

In other words: Can the 2017 Philadelphia Union join the league’s elite echelon of teams — or are they destined to remain in the middle of the pack?

Rookies Keegan Rosenberry, Fabian Herbers help Union top Crew

Rookies Keegan Rosenberry, Fabian Herbers help Union top Crew

BOX SCORE

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Rookies Keegan Rosenberry and Fabian Herbers scored to help the Union beat the Columbus Crew 2-1 on Wednesday night.

Rosenberry gave the Union (10-9-7) a 2-1 lead in the 74th minute. Tranquillo Barnetta one-timed a feed to Rosenberry who trapped it with his right foot and blasted a left-footer through a pair of defenders and past goalkeeper Steve Clark.

Herbers, making his fifth start of the season, opened the scoring in the 60th. Chris Pontius tapped it to Herbers who, from the top of the box, had a shot blocked by Hector Jimenez before side-netting the rebound. Both of his two career goals have come against Columbus (4-9-11).

Adam Jahn tied it in the 73rd minute. Tony Tchani's header, off the corner by Federico Higuain, was deflected off the crossbar by goalkeeper Andre Blake and -- after a failed clearance by the Union -- Jahn tapped it in from close range.

It was the Union's third consecutive home win.

Columbus has one win in its last 11 matches.