Union

Union plan to lean on Brian Carroll, who's back in playoffs for 10th time

Union plan to lean on Brian Carroll, who's back in playoffs for 10th time

CHESTER, Pa. — Five years ago, there were few certainties in MLS ... but one of them was Brian Carroll making the playoffs.

From his first season in the league in 2003 all the way through 2011, Carroll’s teams got into the postseason every single year, leading then-Union manager Peter Nowak to quip, on the cusp of Philly’s first-ever postseason game, “That’s why we got him — because he never misses the playoffs.” 

But then things, um, changed.

Carroll himself remained a consistent player for the most part, but all around him, the Union were shook by turbulence, missing out on the playoffs in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, sometimes in crushing fashion, other times by a country mile.

Now, five years later, as the Union prepare to return to the postseason with Wednesday’s knockout round matchup in Toronto (7:30 p.m., ESPN2), Carroll is the only Union player left from the team’s last playoff squad in 2011. And you can be sure his playoff streak followed by his playoff drought makes the return trip that much more gratifying for one of the league’s longest-tenured players.

“I had a great run to start my career qualifying for the playoffs, carrying that through up to here,” the 35-year-old midfielder said. “But it hasn’t been easy of late. It’s a great feeling having accomplished that goal of getting back into the playoffs. Now that’s in the past and it’s already about what we can do and how well we can play and try to get a win, try to keep it going.”

With Maurice Edu officially on the shelf until 2017 and Warren Creavalle also nursing an injury, Brian Carroll will likely start in the defensive midfield, just as he did when the Union were swept out of the playoffs by the Houston Dynamo in the 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals. And he’ll play a critical role, shielding a young backline matching up against a star-studded attack that features two of the league’s top offensive players in Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore.

Perhaps just as importantly, Carroll will bring a veteran, winning presence to the lineup. During his stretch of making the playoffs in nine straight seasons — three shy of the MLS record — he captured championships with D.C. and Columbus, meaning he’s one of the only players on the team who knows what it’s like to win in the MLS postseason.

“Brian has been a guy who’s done it and won championships and lifted trophies,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “It was a long absence for him. There are a lot of guys in our locker room that have been in the league for a long time that have never been on a team that’s made the playoffs. It’s a new experience for a lot of guys. Brian will fall in the category of a guy I’ll lean on to talk with those guys and tell them what it’s like, what happens when that first whistle blows — and to really embrace the moment because you never know when you’re gonna be back.”

What will Carroll try to tell the young guys based on his past experiences?

“Everything is more intense,” Carroll said. “Everything is heightened. Just go out there and play without any fear. Play as best we can — connect passes, create chances, make defensive plays, play solid, control your emotions, but use the playoff adrenaline in a positive way. Put everything we have and lay it all out there. It’s one game and you never know what can happen, so hopefully we can go out there and play together and get something done.”

While it’s certainly true anything can happen in an elimination game, it’s also true that few people will think the Union can go up to Canada and beat a Toronto team that, despite stumbling to the finish, remains a top contender to win the MLS Cup. And given the Union’s history and the fact that they’re winless in their last seven games, that will make for an even bigger upset if the Union can return with a victory.

But even if just getting to the playoffs is an accomplishment for the franchise, Carroll knows winning the club’s first-ever playoff game would be a far greater one.

“It’s good to be back in the playoffs,” Carroll said. “We have a chance in the second season to come together and do something that maybe nobody is giving us much of a chance to. We’re going to go up there and do the best we can and enjoy the opportunity. Hopefully we’re able to accomplish something that nobody’s expecting right now.”

Once upon a time, everyone expected Carroll to be in the playoffs. But, as he says, sometimes it’s just as much fun doing things nobody expects.

That can happen Wednesday for a team that’s never won a playoff game and for a player who continues to turn back the clock every day as retirement draws closer and closer.

“It’s never a given,” Carroll said. “It’s a lot more difficult to accomplish this feat with more teams and better competition. But I think it’s a real positive step for our club and a good building block to do what we’ve done in accomplishing [making] the playoffs this year. Now it’s about taking the opportunity as best we can.”

Union believe they found their missing piece

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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

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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.”