Roland Alberg

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

usa-earnie-stewart-union.jpg
USA Today Images

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.

Union Notes: Andre Blake, Roland Alberg upgrade Union's slim playoff hopes

usa-andre-blake-fabinho-union-sounders.jpg
USA Today Images

Union Notes: Andre Blake, Roland Alberg upgrade Union's slim playoff hopes

CHESTER, Pa. — Not only did the Union stave off playoff elimination with Sunday's 2-0 win over the Seattle Sounders, but according to FiveThirtyEight, the club also managed to turn a less-than-one-percent chance to make the postseason into exactly one percent.

So, you're saying there's a chance ...

"I think in soccer it's never over," Union left back Fabinho said. "I know it's hard to make the playoffs but we play for a great club. You saw today, 17,000 people came to watch the game. You have to play for those guys. Playoffs or not, our chances are very small but you have to play hard, always."

Four points behind the New York Red Bulls for the final playoff spot, the Union are in it mathematically. The Red Bulls, with three games left, haven't won in their last eight matches. But despite the minuscule chance of overcoming the deficit, the Union aren't changing their focus.

"We're not mathematically eliminated, we have to win two soccer games in a row which isn't impossible," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "A certain rival has to lose three games in a row, which also isn't impossible either. We're most focused on our performance, getting better as a group, evaluating things for not only this year but beyond."

Heroic Blake
Another game, another unbelievable effort from Union goalkeeper Andre Blake. 

"Andre is special," Curtin said. "He makes the spectacular save look routine. He made some incredible saves to keep it at 1-0. He's last year's [MLS Goalkeeper of the Year] for a reason."

Despite facing zero shots or attempts in the first half, the Jamaican was forced into multiple eye-popping stops in the second stanza.

Stuffing Sounders leading scorer Clint Dempsey on three different occasions, the goalkeeper wasn't phased by the sudden increase in work. He finished with five saves and his ninth shutout of the season.

"At any time the game can start changing," said Blake, who was called up for the Jamaican National Team for a friendly against Saudi Arabia during the upcoming international break. "When it's quiet, I just try to stay in the game mentally to stay connected. Be ready for anything."

Jet-setting Medunjanin
It's been a good week for Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin. With a secondary helper on Sunday, he became the fifth Union player in a season to record 10 assists. Sebastien Le Toux and Cristian Maidana both did it twice.

Medunjanin was also called up to the Bosnia and Herzegovina national team for upcoming World Cup qualification.

"It's an honor to play for my country," said Medunjanin, who was also called up in June. "We have an important game, we play against Belgium so we need to win two games. We play Belgium and Estonia, so if we win two games, we're going to be in the playoffs for the World Cup for next year, so I'm very excited to be there, to see my family."

Immediately following Sunday's match, Medunjanin headed to Newark Airport, where he faced an eight-hour flight to Munich, Germany. He'll then travel to Bosnia. But the long trip is a small price to pay for the veteran Medunjanin.

"It's a dream to play on the biggest stage like a World Cup," he said. "We have a good team but we only went one time to a big tournament. We need to fight and hopefully, we can be there next year."

Making it count
Marcus Epps didn't expect to get the start on Sunday. But when his number was called, following Chris Pontius's departure from warm-ups with an abdominal injury, the rookie didn't disappoint.

"It was definitely a surprise," Epps said. "I didn't know Chris was not going to be ready, but coach trains us to be ready at any moment, and as soon as I got the news, I just tried to focus in and make sure I'm ready to help the team as soon as the game started."
 
In the 28th minute, Epps gathered a pass from Ilsinho, and from the right side of the box, fired off a shot that beat Stefan Frei for the 1-0 Union lead. They never relinquished that advantage. It was Epps' second goal in six starts this season.
 
"I saw the defense was collecting and they were doing pretty well blocking my crosses and shots during the game," he said. "So I saw space near-post, and I thought it would be better to be composed and sneak it in near-post."
 
Quote of the match
"I feel good, man. I feel very good," said Fabinho, when asked about his three-shot performance.

"With Seattle traveling from across the country, you have an opportunity to play, go forward. I tried it today, I tried to score, I tried to cross. I felt very good. I had to help my team."

Stat of the match
122.7 — the game minutes it takes for Roland Alberg to score a goal. He buried his seventh of the season on Sunday. He scored once every 128 minutes last season.

Inside Doop: Blowing a lead ahead of toughest game of the season

usa-alejandro-bedoya-union-earthquakes.jpg
USA Today Images

Inside Doop: Blowing a lead ahead of toughest game of the season

The Union traveled all the way across the country, scored a couple of goals, and came within seconds of pulling off a huge win over a team that rarely loses at home.

In the end, of course, that will only make Saturday’s 2-2 draw with the San Jose Earthquakes even more frustrating as Union coaches and players are well aware that stringing together wins is the only way to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive.

In this week’s Inside Doop, we’ll take a look at how a win turned into a draw and the brutally tough week that lies ahead.

Three thoughts about Saturday’s game
1. Anyone who’s watched the Union for the last eight seasons knows one-goal leads are never safe in the final minutes, especially on the road. And in San Jose, some of those old ghosts came back to haunt the Union again as a late penalty called on Josh Yaro allowed Chris Wondolowski’s 95th-minute PK to tie the game and spoil an otherwise positive performance. Afterwards, Haris Medunjanin threw his arms up in the air and stormed off the field, the team’s first-year midfielder perhaps learning some of the many frustrations that comes along with being a Union player.

2. Yaro has now made critical mistakes in each of his last three starts, all filling in for Oguchi Onyewu. That’s surely a tough thing for Union fans to swallow considering Yaro was the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft and is not really progressing as well as he should be, injuries aside. Contrast that, meanwhile, with Jack Elliott, the 77th pick in the 2017 draft. Elliott continued to build his case for Rookie of the Year with maybe his pest performance yet, scoring his first MLS goal and looking far more comfortable defensively than Yaro, his center back partner.

3. Questions certainly remain about Roland Alberg’s consistency and chemistry with teammates, but we can’t forget that he’s one of the better ball strikers this team has ever had. He showed that again Saturday with a very nice goal that put the Union ahead 2-1 early in the second half. With Ilsinho hurt, some may have thought promising rookie Adam Najem would assume the No. 10 role. But until the team is eliminated from the playoff contention, Alberg will likely still get the chance to show just how dangerous he can be and perhaps keep racking up the goals.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. Any time a team has to play games Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday, it’s a rough stretch. This one is even harder for the Union considering they had to fly back to Philly from San Jose before they quickly turn around to head to Toronto and face the league’s best team Wednesday, and then come back home to host upstart expansion side Atlanta United FC on Saturday. As always, there will be questions as how head coach Jim Curtin deals with minute management to keep everyone fresh. It might be especially interesting to see if he’d consider resting anyone in Toronto considering even a full-strength Union team has little chance of knocking off Toronto FC, who are currently 9-0-3 at home and maybe even one of the best MLS teams ever assembled. That said, if the Union can pull off the upset, it would be a huge boost toward their playoff push and a moment they’ll remember for a long time.

2. Remember Maurice Edu? The Union midfielder hasn’t played an MLS minute in nearly two years but suited up for USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel on Sunday, playing just over 30 minutes vs. Louisville City. Does that mean he’s ready to play for the Union? Not necessarily. Last year, he made three rehab appearances with Bethlehem, before then getting hurt as he was set to play for the Union. So the coaches may still want to give it a bit more time with the Steel, meaning a trip to Toronto is unlikely.

3. Another player who’s probably closer to returning is Andre Blake, who’s now missed eight straight games because of the Gold Cup and hurting his hand in the tournament final. John McCarthy continues to play well in his absence, but getting Blake back in time to face a star-studded Toronto attack could make a huge difference north of the border.

Stat of the week
With his goal Saturday, Alberg is tied for second on the team in goals this season with five. He also finished second on the team last season in that category, and his 14 total goals in nearly two seasons ranks fifth all time.

Quote of the week
“Both teams needed three points to be honest, so a tie kind of doesn’t do much for either of us at this stage.”

— Union head coach Jim Curtin, after Saturday’s 2-2 draw

Player of the week
On top of his goal, Elliott also helped set up the team’s second goal and made a couple of huge clearances in the box. The rookie was, by far, the team’s best player on the night.