Union

Union notes, quotes and tidbits: Brian Carroll's 'very special' farewell tour ends perfectly

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Union notes, quotes and tidbits: Brian Carroll's 'very special' farewell tour ends perfectly

CHESTER, Pa. — Union midfielder Brian Carroll accepted his framed jersey and watched a tribute video from the field at Talen Energy Stadium, prior to Sunday’s 6-1 win against Orlando City SC. 

Playing in his final MLS game, the veteran took it all in.

“Tonight was special,” said Carroll, who wrapped up his 15th season after announcing his retirement earlier in the week. “Especially the win, but really just the whole week and the handshakes and the hugs and the pictures and the little interviews. It all made for a very special week. And to top it off this way was really icing on the cake.”

Carroll entered the match for Fafa Picault at halftime and played a flawless 45 minutes.

“I felt OK,” he said. “I just needed five minutes to catch my breath. Then I was all right. The game was pretty settled at that point so I could just sit in and try to help the guys around me, so it was fun.”

Then, with the same class and grace that he carried throughout his career, Carroll rode off into the sunset after one final professional match in front of the fans.

“It was really special and I’ll never forget it, said Carroll, who is moving to Indianapolis and beginning a career as a financial planner. “I love this club and I will always do anything I can to support it and be there for the club. I thank you for all the kind words and support and I’ll miss you guys.”

On the hot seat
Finishing the season outside of the playoffs with an 11-14-9 record, Union manager Jim Curtin’s future has become a topic of conversation. And although it’s unlikely he goes anywhere this offseason, the coach was asked if he thinks about his future.

“You might as well just ask me if I’m a human being,” Curtin said. “Of course you think about things like that. When you guys ask, “Do you hear the boos?” Do you think I have ears? These are silly questions.”

From the sound of it, Curtin believes his job is safe. 

“I have a decent understanding of where I stand in the organization,” he said, “and I’ll continue to work to try to get it better and I know it’s not good enough right now, but I’ll continue to work as hard as I possibly can.”

Looking to the future
Despite the overall disappointing season, the Union used the finale Sunday to put on a show.

“There was something in the air,” said Union forward C.J. Sapong, who scored a pair of goals in the 6-1 rout. “It definitely felt like it was our day and it’s a good way to close the season. What can we take from this to implement for next season to do better.”

While the victory might feel like a deodorant that covers up the stink of another lost season, it did something interesting: It gave the Union the same record and point total as 2016, when they made the playoffs to only be dispatched by Toronto FC. 

“I think it just depends on which way you look at it,” Sapong said. “For me personally, given the talent we have in this locker room, I feel like we should be playing in the playoffs, playing for hardware. Give credit to my teammates, staff and fans for dealing with a very up and down year, but now it’s behind us. We put our heads down and look forward.” 

As Sapong said, the Union’s focus is on next season.

“We have offseason now to prepare,” Curtin said. “We’re not satisfied, but at the same time, the effort of the players, they gave everything. We asked them to bring a knife to a gunfight and they don’t complain. We recognized it wasn’t enough but there are still good things happening at the club.” 

Ilsinho's status
Ilsinho may not have a spot on the Union next season, but he played like he wanted one. The Brazilian playmaker buried two goals and had a key assist in Sunday’s season finale in an inspired performance.

‘I love it here,” he said. “I’m so happy here. All season I tried to help, I tried to do my best. Sometimes yeah, sometimes no, but it’s soccer you know. I love everything here, I like it here, I hope to be back.” 

But despite the output, it still wasn’t a productive season from Ilsinho, who has a team option on his contract for 2018. With six goals and five assists in 27 games, he was better than his two goals, two assist line in 2016, but still uninspiring. 

Still, the club liked what it got from Ilsinho at the No. 10 spot down the stretch.

“Ilsinho raised his game toward the end of the year,” Curtin said. “We’re happy for him. But again, the challenge is always to do it for 90 minutes, do it on the road. He shows he has incredible talent and he’s raised his level.” 

Record-breaking Sapong
With his 15th and 16th goals Sunday, Sapong finally snapped the Union franchise mark for goals in a season set by Sebastien Le Toux in 2010. While Sapong has brushed away talk of individual accolades throughout the year, the forward was able to appreciate the honor after the season finale. 

“Obviously, to have my name somewhere for hopefully a very long time, it feels good,” he said. “I still feel like we could’ve done better. We’re not playing for anything meaningful, but it’s good to get those individual accolades. At the end of the season, I feel like I impacted my team in a positive way and that’s all I try to do.” 

And to break the record in Carroll’s last game made it even sweeter. When Sapong was subbed out in the final minutes of the match to an ovation, he hugged Carroll. 

“I told him I loved him and it was a pleasure to play with him,” Carroll said. “I told him this week, too, that I remember in his days on an opposing team, I would have to mark him on set pieces. It seemed really unfair, so I’m really thankful that he’s on my team and I don’t have to mark him anymore.”

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.