Union

Union-Fire Thoughts: Veterans fighting for jobs as unsuccessful season winds down

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NBC Sports Philadelphia

Union-Fire Thoughts: Veterans fighting for jobs as unsuccessful season winds down

Union (10-13-9) at Chicago Fire (15-10-7)
5 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia+

The season that will seemingly never end for the Union continues Sunday in Chicago at Toyota Park when they take on the Fire in the penultimate game of the 2017 season.

Officially ejected from postseason contention over the international break, the Union will need to find some type of motivation to avoid being embarrassed by the playoff-bound Fire, who are still jockeying for playoff position.

Here are some thoughts on the game:

• Officially removed from postseason contention, the Union will face the Fire on Sunday in a meaningless match. But with an offseason expected to usher in significant roster change, Union manager Jim Curtin has put it bluntly: these guys are playing for jobs.

“We recognize we’re out of the playoffs now,” he said. “Which is tough for the group, but we’re still using these 90 minutes to evaluate players and get better.”

Keep an eye on Roland Alberg, Chris Pontius and Oguchi Onyewu. The three players could all be goners by the start of 2018 and could bolster their stock with a productive finish.

• Although the Union will ultimately finish 2017 with their heads down, they are ending the regular season relatively strong. The Union are 2-1-3 in their last six games, including wins over the Fire and Seattle Sounders and three draws on the road.

“It’s not an easy game for us, Philly is a good team,” said Fire midfielder Dax McCarty. “I think they were a little unfortunate to go through a tough season this year.”

• But outside of those three hard-fought road draws, the Union have been putrid away from Talen Energy Stadium this season, going 1-9-6 entering Sunday’s match. It’s been one of the primary reasons the club has suffered another awful season.

• Win, lose or draw on Sunday, with only nine points on the road in 2017, the Union will finish with the lowest road point total in franchise history since MLS added four games to the schedule in 2011.  The 2010 expansion team only managed seven points, going 2-12-1.

“Going on the road has been our struggle this year,” Curtin said. “It’s been our challenge.”

• The Union’s road struggles could prove costly against a team that plays exceptionally well at home. The Fire are 11-2-3 at Toyota Park this season, outscoring the opposition by a 38-12 margin. It’s the Fire’s final match at home this season, giving them added incentive to perform.

• If anger breeds determination, the Union will have something going for them Sunday. Both Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin were called up for World Cup qualifiers over the last two weeks and both players suffered through losses that ended their country’s hopes at a World Cup trip.

Despite scoring a rare goal, Medunjanin and Bosnia and Herzegovina lost to Belgium but defeated Estonia. Bedoya’s U.S. Men’s National Team took down Panama but had its spirits crushed by Trinidad and Tobago.

• Revenge will be on the minds of the Fire. On Sept. 23 at Talen Energy Stadium, the Union dominated the Fire, as Pontius scored twice and C.J. Sapong added the insurance. Luis Solignac scored the lone goal for the visitors in what was a lopsided match.

“They had a gameplan against us, to sit back and counter-attack us,” McCarty said. “I would imagine we’re going to see the same thing, so it’ll be on us to move the ball quicker. We need good movement and rotations behind their midfield.”

• Relatively healthy, the Union will be without Fabian Herbers, Maurice Edu and Ken Tribbett, who are all out for Sunday. Warren Creavalle and Josh Yaro are questionable.

• On the other side, the Fire are banged up. Although Bastian Schweinsteiger is questionable with a thigh injury, John Goossens, Jorge Bava, Daniel Johnson, Christian Dean, Juninho and Michael de Leeuw are all out.

• If the Union want a chance against the Fire, they will have to neutralize forward Nemanja Nikolic, who has a ridiculous 21 goals in 32 games this season. That’s including five goals and an assist in his last five matches. He’s on fire right now.

“He’s a good player and one of the top scorers in the league,” Elliott said. “We’ll have to get tight with him near the box and prevent his opportunities.”

• What makes Sunday’s match so important for the Fire is that it could change where they land in the postseason picture. Right now, the club is fourth in the East but could finish as low as fifth or as high as second.

“We did our jobs, so now we have to build good momentum for the playoffs,” said Fire coach and former Union player Veljko Paunovic. “We have a great opportunity. Playing at home, after a break, it’ll be a fantastic opportunity for us to get three points.”

• Despite an awful season from their parent club, the Bethlehem Steel, the Union's USL affiliate, have qualified for the playoffs in just their sophomore campaign. Currently holding the eighth and final position with a 12-12-7 record, the Steel will face Saint Louis FC in the regular season finale on Sunday to determine playoff seeding.

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

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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

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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.