Union open preseason camp with hungry returning core, intriguing newcomers

Union open preseason camp with hungry returning core, intriguing newcomers

CHESTER, Pa. — There were some new faces out there at the Power Training Complex on Tuesday as the Union officially opened preseason camp. And there were some guys missing because of their inclusion in U.S. national team camp (Alejandro Bedoya, Chris Pontius and Keegan Rosenberry) or visa issues (new additions Jay Simpson and Giliano Wijnaldum).

But as the team gathered on a cold, windy day in Chester before it flies south to Florida for the bulk of its preseason next week, this much was clear: almost the entire core from the 2016 season has returned.

For a franchise that’s often lacked stability, that was reassuring to head coach Jim Curtin as he looks to build upon the team’s first playoff berth in five years — and an early playoff exit that still stings.

“We got a taste of the playoffs last year and we want more,” Curtin said following Tuesday’s training session. “A good core of them have now played in two U.S. Open Cup finals and the playoffs. And there’s a whole ’nother level and next step we need to go to.”

The one big player the Union did lose is attacking midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta, who decided to end his career in his native Switzerland. But Roland Alberg or Bedoya could fill those spots, and the midfield should be bolstered by Maurice Edu, who’s hoping to return from injury before the start of the regular season on March 5.

Perhaps the best part is welcoming back young players like Rosenberry, Josh Yaro and Fabian Herbers — all of whom had productive rookie campaigns last year and are looking for more in 2017.

“I think guys did really well in the offseason,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said. “I was very pleased with how they came back. From a general sense, you can see it already, just talking to Fabian Herbers and Josh Yaro … they’re at a young age but almost veterans the way they perceive themselves and the way they go about their business.”

Rosenberry, too, has those same qualities. But Stewart has yet to welcome in the MLS Rookie of the Year runner-up, who’s currently with the U.S. national team in California, along with Pontius and Bedoya. 

Both Pontius and Rosenberry are looking for their first cap when the USMNT plays Serbia on Sunday and Jamaica on Feb. 3. The alternative isn’t too bad either — at least from the Union’s perspective.

“The hope is that they’ll play,” Curtin said. “The feedback we’ve gotten is good. Keegan, it’s his first time going through it. Chris is Chris — a great professional that I’m sure is showing well. And Alejandro is a guy in and around a starting spot at all times for the national team. The hope is they get minutes because it would be a great experience. But if they don’t, then we get them back here and they’ll be confident, flying and fit. It’s a win-win.”

There were plenty of other guys to help fill their void Tuesday with Curtin calling on some youth academy players as well as some from the affiliate Bethlehem Steel to round out training. Perhaps the most surprising addition was Oguchi Onyewu, a former U.S. national team star who Curtin said was just there to keep his fitness level up.

But even if it’s unlikely, Stewart didn’t rule out that the player known as “Gooch” could be signed, especially with the team in the market for an experienced center back.

“Never say never,” Stewart said. “That’s going a bit too far right now. But it didn’t take Jim and myself too long to say yes when Gooch asked if he could maintain his fitness. We’re open to that. I think Auston Trusty will be better for that, I think Josh Yaro will be better for that, I think Ken Tribbett will be better for that, just by being able to stand next to him, talk to him and speak about the game situation.”

On top of signing a veteran center back — Onyewu or not — Stewart is in the market for a new defensive midfielder. The Union also could move to sign Fafa Picault and Adam Najem, two players who are currently on trial. The club appears to be especially high on Picault, who was called into the U.S. national camp as recently as last May. 

“He has a bounce in his step,” Curtin said. “He’s a guy who can add pace to our wide areas and has played up top as a 9, too. He checks a lot of boxes of someone we need.”

Whether or not they sign one or both of those trialists, the Union will likely continue to make moves throughout the rest of the preseason, as they’ve done in past years. The difference now is those players will be added to a stabler, hungrier locker room.

“The expectations from fans should rise,” Curtin said. “Certainly on paper we added good pieces, and I think there’s more to come. The roster is still fluid and evolving."

For Union season ticket plans, visit here, here or here.

Union believe they found their missing piece

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 the 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 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 of 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 that 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 old 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.”