Maurice Edu

Inside Doop: Union stuck in neutral after another draw with expansion team

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Inside Doop: Union stuck in neutral after another draw with expansion team

For the second straight game, the Union played an expansion team. And for the second straight game, the Union walked away from the game with a point.

In this week's Inside Doop, we'll take a closer look at Saturday's 1-1 road draw with Minnesota United and what lies ahead with six games left in this disappointing season.

Three thoughts about Saturday's game
1. Compared to their expansion brethren, Minnesota is not a particularly dangerous team, built more for the future than Atlanta's expensive roster. But the Union were fortunate to escape TCF Bank Stadium with a point after a penalty on Oguchi Onyewu was overturned by video review because of a foul on Michael Boxall right before the hand ball. How big was that for the Union? Not only did they avoid facing a penalty kick in a tie game, but Onyewu also got to stay on the field after his second yellow card was rescinded. Considering the Union also had a big video review go their way vs. Dallas a few weeks ago, it's fair to say they're loving the new system — for now. It should also maybe make fans nervous that the club is enjoying some good fortune while still falling in the standings.

2. For the first 15 minutes of Saturday's game, the Union looked ready to coast to a victory. The first goal — in the 5th minute — showed off Fafa Picault's speed and CJ Sapong's precision as Picault set up Sapong's 13th goal of the season — one shy of the club's single-season record. But, aside from Andre Blake's making a huge save, the team had little to hang their hats on after that as the Loons tied the game on a Union defensive collapse and mostly took control of the game from there. That kind of inconsistency is maddening but not surprising at this point of the season for a club that's winless in its last five and has won only one road game all year.

3. With Alejandro Bedoya suspended for the game, the Union turned to Warren Creavalle to start in his place. And while Creavalle played fine, the fact that Derrick Jones didn't get a chance to take the field was somewhat alarming. Their top homegrown prospect, Jones has mostly fallen off the map since a strong start to the season and a promising performance at the U-20 World Cup. At this point, the 20-year-old midfielder may just need an offseason to rest and a preseason to regain his mojo. Still, with the Union essentially out of the playoff race, it seems silly not to throw Jones and other young guys out there for the final few games.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. The schedule only gets tougher from here for the Union, who travel to a place they rarely win, Red Bull Arena, to play a nationally televised game vs. the rival Red Bulls on Sunday, before tough games against Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle and Chicago again. How many points will the Union gain from this stretch heading into their season finale vs. Orlando? It's certainly possible they won't get many and will end up finishing with one of the league's worst records. And adding insult to injury there, their first-round draft pick belongs to New England from the trade that brought in Charlie Davies, who played (less than) one minute on Saturday, upping his total to 25 minutes on the year.

2. It's another week so it must be time for another Maurice Edu question. The Designated Player recently returned to full health but is trying to get his fitness back up through rehab appearances with affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC. At the very least, you'd think he could be ready for a 20-30 minute assignment this coming week or the week after. But then the question is what that does for the Union, who are deep at his position and don't really need a boost for the playoff push since there likely won't be one. They could throw him out there to see if they'd be interested in bringing him back next year (on a much cheaper contract), or they could just want to do him a favor by letting him show other potential bidders something leading into the offseason.

3. Speaking of veteran defensive midfielders, what about Brian Carroll? One of the league's longest-tenured players hasn't logged an MLS minute all season and appears close to retirement, whether by choice or not. An all-time good guy, Carroll could be in line for a job in the Union organization if he so chooses. But it might be nice for the 36-year-old to get back on the field at least once more for some type of farewell.

Stat of the week
With his 13th goal, Sapong passed three players who had previously scored 12 in a Union season: Jack McInerney in 2013, Sebastien Le Toux in 2014 and Chris Pontius in 2016. The all-time record was set in the Union's expansion season of 2010 when Le Toux scored 14 in 2,520 minutes. Sapong currently has 13 in 2,263 minutes with six games left to tie or break the mark.

Quote of the week
"I guess it felt OK to still get on the field despite everything else that's going on back home. Now I get to go back and see my parents and play the waiting game." — Fafa Picault, putting things in perspective after Saturday's 1-1 draw.

Earlier in the week, his parents evacuated their home in Miami due to Hurricane Irma, making a 27-hour drive to stay with Picault in Philly.

Player of the week
Sapong's the choice here as his career year continues — though he's probably kicking himself for not scoring a second after coming inches away.

Union's Maurice Edu embracing adversity in 1st-team comeback

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Union's Maurice Edu embracing adversity in 1st-team comeback

Away from MLS game action for nearly two years, Maurice Edu has learned a little something about himself.

“I’ve always felt like I’ve been a pretty strong-minded person and I’ve dealt with other adversity throughout the course of my career,” he told the media on Tuesday. “It’s another challenge. But when put in situations that are unexpected, it brings out parts of you that you maybe didn’t even know you had.”

The veteran midfielder, moving from one year-long leg injury to another, hasn’t played an MLS match since Sept. 20, 2015. But the road back hit a milestone on Sunday, when Edu made a start for the Union’s minor-league club, the Bethlehem Steel. 

He logged 32 minutes and completed all 17 attempted passes in a defensive midfield position.

“It doesn’t make sense to dwell on things that have happened in the past because it takes the energy I need to put into other things,” he said. “So I’m just focused on what’s happening here and now for me, focusing on conquering every challenge that’s put in front of me every day.”

Though he never wavered, no one could blame Edu for losing his spark. The 31-year-old’s mental mettle was thoroughly tested over the last two seasons as he was hampered with leg injuries. In late 2015, Edu suffered a stress fracture that abruptly ended his season. One year later, just as he was ready to make his long-awaited return, he broke his left fibula. He’s been out ever since.

“I felt I’ve always been mentally strong but this has definitely challenged me in ways that are slightly different,” he said. “I’ve kind of had to play a waiting game and just be patient and be smart and also be smart with the thoughts I have in my head and how I channel my energy.”

On Sunday, Edu’s comeback began. And for him, it was just the beginning of something big.

“I’m happy because this year’s been hell,” Edu said. “Definitely happy with that. But the real excitement will be when I walk out on the pitch with the first team. Baby steps. A longer process than maybe I anticipated. Pleased with that but at the end of the day, my focus and my goal is to play with the first team. It’s not to be content to just be back fit, be back training or be back playing with the Steel.”

But that plan won’t be a given. The Union are currently stacked at the No. 6, No. 8 and center back spots, forcing Edu, currently in less-than-preseason form, to work through a number of players on the depth chart to make his dream first-team debut.

“He has some real competition,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “Haris (Medunjanin), (Alejandro) Bedoya, (Warren) Creavalle, Derrick Jones, Brian Carroll, you can go through the list of guys he’s behind on the depth chart because they’re on Week 24 of the season and he’s on Week 1. He has still some work to do to get over that next barrier.”

Getting over that barrier means getting fit and up to game speed. 

“He has to work his way back to 90 minutes of fitness, which is hard for a guy who’s missed almost going on two seasons now worth of games,” Curtin said. “It’s great for him to get that first 30 minutes under his belt, connect his passes, gain the confidence he can do it again. Now he has to work his way to start for 90 minutes for the Steel. From there, we can then talk about being in the 18 for us.”

After two years away from meaningful soccer, Edu is ready for the challenge.

“These are all steps along the way,” he said. “To get to the bigger picture.”

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?