Union

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.

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

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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

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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.