Union

Union have sunk to bottom of MLS standings, but who is to blame?

Union have sunk to bottom of MLS standings, but who is to blame?

It's only natural that Union head coach Jim Curtin has had to deal with speculation about his job security. The Union are off to an awful start, sinking to the bottom of MLS with an 0-4-2 record heading into Saturday's game against the Montreal Impact.

Combine that with the team's awful end to the 2016 season, its mostly awful 2015 campaign -- Curtin's first full one in charge -- and the fact that soccer coaches around the world tend to come and go with relative frequency (see: Bradley, Bob), and it all adds up to the chance that Curtin could be in trouble if not for a quick turnaround.

But the bigger question is: Should he be fired? And if he shouldn't, which I'll say up front is my personal opinion, who is most to blame for the Union's woes? 

Unlike in past years, it's harder to find an easy target. From former coach Peter Nowak hazing, chastising and trading popular players away, to former CEO Nick Sakiewicz playing fast and loose with the truth, to high-priced former goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi looking like he wanted to be anywhere but Philly, there have been people cut loose from the organization for very good reasons. Even the affable John Hackworth was responsible for creating his own roster, so his firing when the team struggled in 2014 certainly had merit.

But these days, the Union head coach no longer brings in all of his own players, like Nowak and Hackworth mostly did. And you could say that the deals Curtin did make, along with technical director Chris Albright -- acquiring Tranquillo Barnetta and Chris Pontius, among others -- were some of the franchise's better ones.

Which brings us to Earnie Stewart. Hired as the club's sporting director before the 2015 season, the former U.S. national team star was tasked with changing the direction of the franchise. There was little not to like about the move at the time, considering Stewart's front-office success in his native Netherlands, where he utilized a "Moneyball" style to get the most out of his team. And more than a year later, there's still plenty to like about Stewart's intelligence, patience and vision.

But it's also fair to question the makeup of this year's roster and offer an early evaluation of his offseason moves. To start, it's clear that World Cup veteran Haris Medunjanin, the marquee acquisition of 2017, will be a talented player in MLS. He already is, and could be a top assist leader with some better finishing. But he's a deep-lying midfielder, a standout passer, someone who plays a similar role as the team's two other most accomplished players (captain Alejandro Bedoya and the injured Maurice Edu), its best homegrown player (Derrick Jones) and two other MLS veterans (Brian Carroll and Warren Creavalle).

Meanwhile, while there's a glut in the defensive midfield now that Bedoya has dropped back to his more comfortable position, the attack has been barren for much of the season. C.J. Sapong continues to prove that he can score goals in bunches at times but two of Stewart's biggest foreign imports -- attacking midfielder Roland Alberg and striker Jay Simpson -- have struggled to stay on the field and make an impact while there.

Alberg showed he was capable of big things with one red-hot goal-scoring stretch last season, but the jury is still out on Simpson, a former fourth-division English striker who doesn't appear to offer much of an upgrade over Sapong or Charlie Davies. 

But, of course, big-time strikers cost a lot of money. Which brings us to Jay Sugarman. 

The Union's majority owner has admitted the team won't shell out the same kind of dollars on world-renowned players as other clubs. Instead, he's directed much of his resources toward the franchise's youth development program, a new practice facility and, perhaps down the road, an improved waterfront around the stadium. And anyone that's spoken with him will tell you he's a smart, sharp guy who did the right thing by cutting ties with Sakiewicz and bringing someone of Stewart's pedigree on board.

But at this point, you have to throw some blame at him -- and many fans are -- for not opening the wallet for a premier attacking player. Just look at what's happened to the Chicago Fire since they signed World Cup champ Bastian Schweinsteiger. Or look at how Nicolas Lodeiro led Seattle on a stirring MLS Cup run last year. Look at all the other teams around the league who have a true star on their team (including expansion side Atlanta United, who you can say is already far ahead of the Union) and how much it means that they can rely on that player for a goal, on any day, at any time. 

The Union don't have that. And aside from maybe Carlos Ruiz for a brief spell in 2011 and Barnetta, you can make the argument that they've never really brought in a star attacker from outside the league, typically relying on MLS stalwarts like Sebastien Le Toux, Conor Casey, Pontius and Sapong to provide the bulk of the offense.

Maybe Alberg will get hot like he did last year. Maybe Simpson will start scoring, too. Maybe Bedoya will emerge as the big-time playmaker the Union hoped. Maybe Keegan Rosenberry and Pontius will shake off slow starts and look more like the players that got them into the U.S. national team camp in January. Maybe Edu will finally get healthy and change the look of the midfield or offer a steadying presence on the backline. Maybe they really do just need to get that first win of the season to relieve the pressure that's hanging over them, like a black cloud, every time they step on the field.

But it's pretty clear that the most obvious fix for a team at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings is to find a true difference-maker in the attacking third. You could even contend that they're simply one player away from quickly charging up the table in a league known for parity and in-season turnarounds.

So if you're the Union, do you try to fill that glaring need, whether it's a high-priced foreign import or even just an underused goal scorer or attacking midfielder from inside MLS? Or do you fire a young, likable coach from Philly who has the respect of players in the locker room, understands this city and the franchise, values youth development, and would leave a big hole in the organization?

You make the call. 

Union believe they found their missing piece

usa-david-accam.jpg
USA Today Images

Union believe they found their missing piece

David Accam is a dream come true for the Union.

“At the end of the season, we talked about adding players and David was at the top of our list,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said. “I didn’t think that would be a real option. When it comes along, it’s incredible.”

Shocking as it was for Stewart, the Union pulled 27-year-old Accam from the Chicago Fire for allocation money at the 2018 MLS SuperDraft on Jan. 19. With his ability to create one-on-one opportunities and punish teams on the counter-attack, Accam, who had 14 goals and eight assists last season, is a perfect fit in Union’s 4-2-3-1 system, and the exact type of “difference-maker” the team was looking for.

“David is known in the league for his speed, but when we scouted him we noted just how good he is on the ball,” Union manager Jim Curtin said Tuesday at the official introduction of Accam at Talen Energy Stadium. “The space he creates for others because he is so dangerous. When he gets one-on-one, his quality will take over games and it’ll create a lot of space for the rest of our players.”

From Accam’s perspective, he’s joining an established attacking group. Specifically mentioning Union leading scorer C.J. Sapong and winger Fafa Picault, Accam expects to have space to work.

“We have enough quality on this team already,” he said. “I just have to do my part.”

On top of his offensive acumen, Accam knows MLS. What attracted the Union to the speedster is not only his skill but his familiarity with the league. Unlike European players that take time to adjust to the climate, travel and style of play, Accam should make an instant impact on the Union.

“He’s been now, for multiple years, a top attacking player in our league,” Curtin said. “He’s got the statistics to back it up. The fact that he has a familiarity with the league, he knows the defenders will be grabbing and kicking him for 90 minutes, and that matters a great deal. It makes the transition more seamless. 

“He’s a great fit for us.”

But snagging that perfect fit wasn’t free. Acquired in one of the largest trades in Union history, the attacker was moved by the Fire in exchange for $1.2 million in combined allocation money. According to Stewart, the speedster, who was ripe for a new deal, signed an extension with the Fire before the team moved him to Philadelphia.

“Our understanding is that David has an obligation now with the Union through 2020,” Stewart said.

Despite scratching out a significant name off their wishlist, the Union aren’t quite done adding players, with the expectation that they bring in a playmaking midfielder. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be going on a shopping spree.

“I think we are in a better place than we were last year with the acquisition of David,” Stewart said. “There will be a little more happening but not much more because I believe the foundation is solid. With the acquisition of David and one more player in the near future, we’ll be in good shape to compete for the playoffs.”

Union acquire electrifying winger in major trade

usa-david-accam.jpg
USA Today Images

Union acquire electrifying winger in major trade

The Philadelphia Union didn’t make a pick in the first two rounds of the MLS SuperDraft on Friday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

But the hometown team still made one of the biggest splashes of the day.

Between the first and second rounds, Paul Tenorio of ESPN FC reported that the Union had a trade in place for electrifying winger David Accam, sending a palpable buzz through the ballroom. Not long after, the move was officially announced and the Philly fans in attendance finally had something to cheer about after a quiet-to-this-point offseason.

“I know there was some impatience with the timing of things,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “But this is a special player we added — one that changes the whole dynamic of our team.”

The move wasn’t cheap as the Union dealt $1.2 million in allocation money to the Chicago Fire in exchange for the Ghanaian speedster, who’s bagged 33 goals and 15 assists over the last three MLS seasons.

But if he can stay healthy and keep producing at the rate he has been, the Union think it can be a bargain.

“A David Accam on the open market is significantly higher than what we paid today,” Curtin said. “I can tell you with confidence if we shopped around for someone of David’s quality and production, we’d spend a heck a lot more money than we did today.”

Accam will likely start on one of the wings opposite fellow burner Fafa Picault with leading scorer C.J. Sapong up top. That still leaves a hole in attacking midfield that the Union need to round out their offense — a position which Curtin and sporting director Earnie Stewart said the club is still searching for.

“With Fafa, with Accam, with C.J. Sapong, those guys will create a lot of space for whoever plays in that No. 10 spot during the course of the season,” Curtin said. “That’s something that makes other teams worry. When we get off the bus, you have to account for David Accam. So that’s a real positive.”

Accam has a unique backstory, playing at the Right to Dream Academy from 2004 to 2008 in his native Ghana, before moving to England on a student visa and playing for Ledbury Town and Evesham United. After taking part in “The Chance” competition, a Nike event to find undiscovered soccer talent, he moved to Swedish club Ostersund in 2012 and then to top-flight side Helsingborg later that year.

After starring for both clubs, he was signed by the Fire as a Designated Player and has been a consistent goal-scoring threat in Chicago. Since he came to MLS in 2015, Accam is one of just six MLS players to total at least 33 goals and 15 assists in league play, along with stars Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa, Diego Valeri, Ignacio Piatti and Kei Kamara.

“As we said a while back, we’re trying to find some difference-makers for our team to help us over those humps in certain games,” Stewart said. “We believe a couple of difference-makers can help that. And once David Accam came around, it was really clear to us that was a target that we wanted to make sure happened. And we as the Philadelphia Union made sure we stretched ourselves to make sure this player came aboard. We’re just very pleased that we were able to accomplish this.”

The Union also made a couple of other smaller moves leading up to the draft, signing defenders Matt Real and Mark McKenzie to Homegrown contracts.

Signing both players when they did was a good indication that the Union valued them both as much, if not more, as any guys they may have been able to draft had they not previously dealt away their picks.

And it’s even better than both Real and McKenzie came through the Union Academy and are more familiar with the club than a kid coming out of college would have been.

“Everybody has a different path,” said McKenzie, an 18-year center back from Bear, Delaware. “All of these guys that got drafted today are great guys. … But myself, coming through the academy and when I was at the pre-academy when I was 11 and 12 and worked my way up to the U-14s to the U-18s to the [Bethlehem] Steel, it’s been an absolute honor and a blessing. I’ve been pushed and challenged at each level, and I’m looking forward to the future and what that holds.”

“It’s a big moment for me,” added Real, an 18-year-old who played for USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC last year. “These last couple of weeks for me have been surreal. I’m still kind of soaking all this in.

“Mark is my brother. Me and him have been playing together since the academy started. We graduated together, we’re on the [U-20] national team together. So this couldn’t be any better for me to share a moment like this with him.”