Union

Jim Curtin calls U.S. men's World Cup qualifying failure 'devastating'

ap-usmnt-christian-pulisic.jpg
AP Images

Jim Curtin calls U.S. men's World Cup qualifying failure 'devastating'

CHESTER, Pa. — The Union play a game Sunday but head coach Jim Curtin knew he wouldn’t get many questions about that following Thursday’s practice.

And that’s not because the Union have already been eliminated from playoff contention when they hit the road to face the Chicago Fire (5 p.m./NBC Sports Philadelphia). It’s because all anyone can talk about this week is the historic U.S. national team loss to Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday that caused the Americans to miss the World Cup for the first time since 1986 and send shockwaves throughout the entire country’s soccer community.

That certainly includes Curtin, who played in MLS for many years before getting his start in coaching, first at the youth level.

“It’s devastating,” the Union coach said. “It’s a devastating result for anyone that’s involved in soccer. If you just take the 90 minutes and the simultaneous 90 minutes going on in different countries and the chain of events that happened, for it to all fall apart before our eyes was incredible. It will be probably a 30 for 30 or some kind of documentary.”

While the surreal set of circumstances that included last-ditch, come-from-behind wins by Panama and Honduras to knock the USMNT out was painful in the moment, many soccer people have since used it as a way to take stock of the state of soccer in the United States.

How does a country as big as this one fail to beat tiny Trinidad and Tobago in a do-or-die game? How did the U.S. go 3-4-3 in the Hexagonal stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying when it had won the Hex the previous three times?

Curtin has heard all the takes, flying in from every direction, and has tried to figure it out himself.

“Is it grassroots? Not getting enough city kids involved in soccer? The academies letting us down? The coaches in our country letting us down? The player pool not being good enough? The fact that we haven’t qualified for the Olympics in two cycles? It’s a little bit of all of those things,” he said. “There’s no one answer. There’s no one person that’s right. It does prove we have to step back, evaluate things and get better for it.

“Listen, our country right now, we are the best at basketball, we are the best at American football, we are the best at baseball, we’re not the best at soccer. Sometimes maybe we feel like we’re taking big steps forward but the reality is it’s still newer in this country and we have to improve. We have to get better.”

MLS has certainly taken its share of criticism for the World Cup failure with some pointing the finger at USMNT stars like Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard and even Union captain Alejandro Bedoya leaving the more cutthroat world of European soccer to play club soccer in their home country. Interestingly enough, MLS has also probably made the rest of CONCACAF better — a point that was driven home when the Seattle Sounders’ Roman Torres scored the game-winning goal for Panama shortly after the Houston Dynamo’s Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto both scored for Honduras.

But while Curtin acknowledged the fact that the league’s “amazing facilities” and other factors have boosted the Panamanian and Honduran programs, he also said the USMNT still “has the quality in our player pool” to beat those countries out for a World Cup spot. He is concerned, though, that the league often favors foreign-born players at the expense of American ones.

“Listen, I’m a believer that the domestic league has to be a resource in developing players,” Curtin said. “It really has to be. You look at different countries and the way they do it — some are successful in doing it, some are not so successful. And right now, there are big decisions that have to happen, with the league and U.S. soccer.

“I think it’s critical because you do see the direction our league is going and it probably wouldn’t be one that would favor the American player right now to be honest, with the different ways money’s coming into it. So it’s an important time. We still have very good young American players in our league that are getting better each and every day and developing. But you do want to see more of it.”

While admitting it might be better served as an “eight-hour discussion,” Curtin also touched on the pay-to-play model of youth soccer in this country. He recognized that it’s “big business” for people who make a living doing it but that it “does get in the way of what’s best for kids.” And he said he’s been in rooms where people involved in youth soccer simply don’t listen to each other because “everyone has to show they’re the smartest guy in the room.”

“We’re probably one of the few countries in the world where soccer is a privileged sport, and if people want to argue that, they’re crazy,” Curtin said. “It’s a privileged sport in this country across the board. Do I have the answer how to change that? I don’t have it right now. I wish I did. But there are enough resources, we have enough facilities in the United States of America to do a better job of getting the best kids involved, regardless of whether they’re rich kids, regardless of whether they’re middle class, regardless of whether they have nothing. 

“I think we’re out of excuses, to be honest. I can’t come up with one reason why we can’t be better.”

While Curtin does not have a direct connection to the USMNT, he knows that “if our national team fails, soccer is going to fail in this country.” And missing out on a once-every-four-years event like the World Cup hurts the growth of soccer and is a big blow for all of the kids — his three included — that will have to wait five years to watch the U.S. on the world’s biggest sporting stage.

But for the Union coach, there are still too many exciting things happening around the sport and MLS for him to be entirely discouraged.

“Honestly, I still see the game moving forward,” he said. “The coverage for the game, MLS is getting better despite people that will blame the league for the collapse. The game is growing in our country, that’s inevitable. It’s on TV more. Does this hurt? Absolutely. It hurts the growth any time there’s a setback like this, but there’s still good things happening.

“We got punched in the teeth and now we have to get up and recover.”

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.