Union

Humble and unassuming, Union's Brian Carroll retiring as 'pioneer for the game in this country'

usa-brian-carroll.jpg
USA Today Images

Humble and unassuming, Union's Brian Carroll retiring as 'pioneer for the game in this country'

CHESTER, Pa. — It’s almost too fitting that Brian Carroll has decided to become a financial planner in Indianapolis.

For the retiring Union midfielder (see story), it’s a perfectly unassuming job for a perfectly unassuming guy. Someone who, without shin guards and cleats, always looked more like a business manager than a pro athlete anyway. An underappreciated, underrated, never-flashy player who was damn good at soccer and leaves the sport as a “pioneer for the game in this country,” according to Union head coach Jim Curtin.

“Having the opportunity to coach him here in Philadelphia, being around him, to work with him, it’s been a real honor for me,” Curtin said Thursday. “Once you reflect back on his career, the trophies that he’s won, the caps he’s received for the U.S. national team — he’s a true professional, a guy who always played the game with a smile on his face but also was kind of a quiet killer on the field.”

Carroll’s pedigree certainly is impressive. Two-time MLS Cup champion. Four straight Supporters’ Shields. Nine straight playoff appearances. Fourth-most MLS appearances in league history. Sixth-most minutes.

But when you stack him up against some other guys on the all-time leaderboard of games played (Kyle Beckerman, Brad Davis, Steve Ralston, even his brother-in-law Chad Marshall), it’s fair to say he doesn’t get the same kind of national recognition. What gives?

“Because he goes about his business in such a quiet way, he isn’t a guy who is loud on the field or loud in the locker room, he’s just a lead-by-example kind of guy, and often those guys don’t get a whole lot of credit,” Curtin said. “[But] he’s a guy who anybody speaks about him in the game has nothing but positive things to say. Everybody has a Brian Carroll story, and they’re all positive. There are not a lot of guys that end their career with that — with not one person that you would ever meet that would say a negative thing about them. He’s been a guy who’s gone about his business the right way — an example of so many young players to learn from in our country.”

Even if he might not always get league-wide attention, anyone who ever played with Carroll certainly knows what he’s all about. Five years ago, then-Union teammate Danny Califf said he was “one of the most underrated guys in the league, and he has been for a long time,” before adding: “He’s happy to sit back and be in the playoffs and win championships — and let everyone else talk about the other guys that don’t.” Two years later, when Carroll was the team’s captain, Amobi Okugo revealed that everyone called him “The Iron Man.” 

But for Carroll, always a picture of humility, none of that stuff ever really mattered. And if he did fly under the radar, that's just fine with him, too.

“I think I have some athletic ability, thank goodness, but I’m not the fastest, the tallest or the strongest,” said Carroll, who remarkably was never shown a red card in any of the 370 games he played. “What I brought was consistency, work ethic and fulfilling my role to the best of my ability and me doing that enabled other guys to fulfill their roles and succeed at their roles. I’m happy and thankful that I was able to lead my team to some trophies, whether it be Supporters’ Shield or MLS Cup.”

It’s a testament to his work ethic that the 36-year-old defensive midfielder continued to play at a high level as recently as last season. And although his playing time completely dried up this year, he holds no ill will toward the Union about that. If anything, he’s enjoyed the chance to step into a new role that’s involved coaching up his younger teammates at practice.

“I knew coming in these past couple of years my role was gonna change and be more supportive, still helping to lead,” he said. “One thing leads to another last year and I was a little bit more involved than what was planned. Then this year, it just kind of went according to plan — supporting the guys and helping them out in any way I can.”

Because of how he filled that role, many people speculated that he would transition directly into coaching or into a front office job. But while Carroll said he explored that path, he said the best thing for him to do with his family right now is to move to Indianapolis, where his wife is from.  

Of course, that could always change.

“There’s always a job here with the Philadelphia Union if he wants one,” Curtin said. “I know he’s moving into the financial world. I’m hoping he’s not sitting in a cubicle but if he is sitting in a cubicle, the door’s always open to come back here on the field to be a coach because he has so much more to give.”

He still has a little more to give as a player, too. Although he hasn’t played all season, Curtin said Carroll will likely play in Sunday’s 2017 finale vs. Orlando City SC — for his 371st and final MLS appearance.

“I think it’s important for him to get on the field, so we will find a way to make that happen,” Curtin said. “I kind of half-joked about starting him and seeing how long he could possibly last being out a lot this year. But he’s been sharp in training the past couple of weeks, so it’s great. 

“He’s an experienced guy, so no matter where you put him on the field, he deserves for our fans to give him a proper send-off. And I know they will.”

Alejandro Bedoya, CJ Sapong, Warren Creavalle called upon for international duty

uspresswire-union-bedoya-sapong.jpg
USA Today Images

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

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

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.