Union

Union boss Earnie Stewart is optimistic about a turnaround — but why should fans believe him?

Union boss Earnie Stewart is optimistic about a turnaround — but why should fans believe him?

CHESTER, Pa. — In some ways, Earnie Stewart should be commended for not panicking. 

Even as his team is in the midst of a near-historic winless streak, the Union sporting director firmly stated this week that making a change just for the sake of making a change is “not something I believe in.” 

And it’s hard to fault him for that line of thinking. If Stewart really believes that Jim Curtin is a promising young coach — a notion many seem to agree with — then he shouldn’t fire him for the short-term gain of possibly changing the team’s current momentum and abandon the long-term foundation he’s trying to build with him.

But it seems clear that something should be done — or, at the very least, for Stewart to provide some sort of cogent rationale as to why the Union’s epic streak could match an all-time MLS record following two more games without a win. And that’s where things get a little dicier.

When asked this week to discuss the current state of the team, Philly’s second-year sporting director mostly talked in generalities about things like momentum and confidence and how players are “human beings” who feel the weight of such a streak.

“If you win four, five games in a row, the chances that you win number six and seven are pretty good because everybody feels good about it,” Stewart said. “But it also works the other way around, and that’s the situation that we are in right now. The key is to get out of that as quickly as possible.”

Momentum in sports is certainly a real thing, though perhaps not something you’d expect to hear as much from a guy who specializes in data and analytics. Not to mention the fact that if the Union were expected to do well this season (they weren’t, according to most pundits), you could make a better case that the terrible start is a blip rather than a predictable regression. 

But, sure, fine. Most people would probably agree that a win could do wonders for morale and help transform the club from a potentially historically bad one into a run-of-the-mill mediocre one.

But that brings us to Stewart’s next claim. When asked if the talent is there to make the playoffs, Stewart said that it is, pointing to the fact that the lineup is similar to last year’s postseason team, save for a couple of spots. While this may be true, it likely won’t ease many fan concerns considering the 2016 Union limped into the playoffs, finished with an 11-14-9 overall record, and then lost a player in Tranquillo Barnetta that Curtin called “the best player that ever wore a Philadelphia Union jersey.”

Haris Medunjanin — Stewart’s top offseason acquisition — has helped to fill the void left by Barnetta and Vincent Nogueira (a major departure in the middle of the 2016 season) but he’s a deep-lying midfielder that plays in a crowded position for the Union while questions remain in the attacking midfield. And the club’s other high-priced signing this past offseason — striker Jay Simpson — has been “unlucky,” according to Stewart. Others would probably put it in less kind terms, considering he’s the team’s fourth-highest player and rarely plays more than 10-to-15 minutes at the end of games.

But Medunjanin looks like a good pickup and Simpson still has time to turn it around. A bigger issue right now, Stewart said, is the regression of certain players who enjoyed breakout seasons last year — which he said, “is totally normal.”

“And unfortunately we have a couple of dips all together,” he added, “and that is never the situation that you want to get in.”

Sure, “sophomore slumps” can certainly be an issue and that seems to be something that Keegan Rosenberry — last year’s star rookie and MLS All-Star — is dealing with as he’s been benched for the last two games.

But is there any guarantee that Rosenberry will regain his All-Star form, or that the other promising youngsters like Fabian Herbers, Joshua Yaro, Andre Blake, Derrick Jones and Jack Elliott will improve and grow with the club? 

Think about all the other exciting young players that have worn a Union jersey. From Roger Torres and Danny Mwanga to Jack McInerney and Amobi Okugo to Michael Farfan and Zach Pfeffer, there have always been guys the Union have touted as prized building blocks, only to see their development stalled and their suitcases packed. When does a “normal” dip just become the norm?

Curtin can be prone to pumping up unproven youngsters at times, too. He called Leo Fernandes the sharpest player in preseason camp last year but that never materialized to anything. Ken Tribbett looked to be a revelation as the 2016 season kicked off but it seems unlikely he’ll ever have much of an impact on the team again.

So when a rookie like Jack Elliott comes out of nowhere to start at center back, ask yourself if it’s more likely that he’ll be a starter in this league for the next few years or if he’ll fall back into the shadows like Tribbett? Will Rosenberry be a star in Philly for the next decade or will he suffer from the same developmental problems as other Union players? Or is the problem more that the league keeps getting better and better every year and that’s why guys who once looked like promising upstarts or sure things suddenly no longer do? Will the Union ever be able to keep up? 

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare current players to past ones. Rosenberry, for what it’s worth, does have a shot to be a foundational player, even if such a thing has been hard to find on a team with so much roster turnover over the years. This is, after all, being billed a new era under Stewart and Curtin, and they rightfully don’t want to be lumped in with the mistakes of their predecessors.

But Stewart would be wise to realize that Philly fans have seen it all, the ghosts of Union past lurking around every Talen Energy Stadium corner. And while there’s certainly nothing wrong with expressing optimism during a brutal stretch, you can forgive those fans for treating it with a whole lot of cynicism.

Sebastien Le Toux immortalized in Union Ring of Honor

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USA Today Images

Sebastien Le Toux immortalized in Union Ring of Honor

CHESTER, Pa. — Over six seasons with the Union, Sebastien Le Toux became the face of the franchise, the expansion side’s foundation, and local folk hero. 

On Saturday, the Union made him a legend. 

“It’s great to have this moment and it was very emotional, but it was amazing,” Le Toux said. “I cannot describe it. When you are a player, you cannot dream about it. For it to happen to me, it is weird but awesome at the same time.”

At halftime of the Union’s 4-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps at Talen Energy Stadium, Le Toux was officially unveiled as the first member of the Union Ring of Honor. His name, boldy presented, was strewn opposite the River End above sections 116 through 118. 

“There was an energy in the stadium, which was special,” said Union manager Jim Curtin. “It was a really good job by our front office to honor him on a special day. With the signage, I think they renamed the stadium from the size of it.” 

Gathering at midfield, Le Toux was flanked by former Union midfielder Brian Carroll and former Homegrown player Zach Pfeffer, along with Union sporting director Earnie Stewart and team owner Jay Sugarman. The team presented Le Toux with a fan-signed jersey, framed jersey and tribute video, which included former players Conor Casey, Kyle Nakazawa and Tranquillo Barnetta. 

“I had a great time with all those players and this team,” Le Toux said. “I still have a lot of great memories, more than any player in this team, Tranquillo, Conor, all those guys, we had a great time on the field but also of course I’m still friends with a lot of them. Even though they’re far away.”

Despite the fairytale finish on Saturday, Le Toux’s time with the Union had its ups and downs. He leads the Union franchise in games played (175), career goals (50), assists (50), career shots (320) and shots in a season (90). 

He scored a hat trick in the Union’s first-ever home match against D.C. United in 2010, but he was also traded twice, unceremoniously, by the club on separate occasions. It hurt at the time, but was something Le Toux joked about at halftime. 

“They traded me once, they traded me twice, but now I’m here forever, and nobody can trade me from that,” Le Toux said. “It’s awesome. I’m a part of this team and this club and I can’t be more proud of that.”

Le Toux was the first name added to the Union’s Ring of Honor, and there’s room for a second, which Curtin believes should be Brian Carroll, who retired last season and currently lives in Indianapolis working as a financial planner.

“If there’s a guy who should be the next one in, it’s him,” Curtin said. “He’s embodies this club, this team and he’s a winner. His career, he’s just a special player. It’s always good to see him.”

Union honor Sebastien Le Toux with highlight reel win over Whitecaps

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USA Today Images

Union honor Sebastien Le Toux with highlight reel win over Whitecaps

BOX SCORE

CHESTER, Pa. — Borek Dockal and the Union honored Sebastien Le Toux’s induction into the Ring of Honor the best way they knew how: With an offensive onslaught. 

Dockal scored twice and Ilsinho, Fafa Picault buried penalty kicks, as the Union took down the Vancouver Whitecaps, 4-0, Saturday at Talen Energy Stadium. Andre Blake earned the no-save shutout. 

The win snapped a two-game losing streak for the Union to move their record to 6-7-3. It also broke a six-game unbeaten run for the Whitecaps, who fall to 6-6-5. 

• After spending the first 23 minutes almost exclusively in the Whitecaps’ end, the Union finally broke free in the 24th minute. Inside the box, Ilsinho and Dockal made an exchange in traffic that resulted in Dockal with a clean left-footed shot for the 1-0 Union lead.

• He wasn’t done. In the 71st, Dockal worked his defender after accepted an in-box pass from Alejandro Bedoya. He took two steps and beat Brian Rowe to the left side to give the Union the 2-0 advantage. 

• It was Dockal’s fourth and fifth goal of the season and fourth in his last six games. After a slow start, he has been on fire for the Union. 

• One downside to the match is C.J. Sapong’s struggle. Despite the overwhelming pressure in the first half, Sapong wasn’t able to muster more than a couple wasted chances, forcing Union manager Jim Curtin to pull him in the 66th minute for Cory Burke. 

• Sapong has only two shots on goal (one on Saturday) since May, and hasn’t scored since April 28. It’s a troubling trend for the starting forward. 

• Burke made his presence felt immediately by earning an in-box foul after being hauled down by Jose Aja, who earned the straight red. Lining up for the kick wasn’t Dockal for the hat trick, but Ilsinho, who ripped his shot over Rowe for 3-0 Union lead. It was his fourth goal of the season. 

• And that wasn’t the only red card or penalty kick. In stoppage time of the second half, Yordy Reyna fouled Picault in the box for his second yellow and ejection. Burke lined up for the PK, but Picault pulled him away, then buried the goal. 

• Entering the match, the Union were at a disadvantage. Haris Medunjanin was issued an addition two games to a red-card suspension he earned against Atlanta United on June 2. In his spot, veteran Warren Creavalle sat behind Alejandro Bedoya in the midfield. 

• Le Toux was honored at half time and his name was placed in the Union’s Ring of Honor opposite the River End. Le Toux, who still lives in the city, spent six seasons with the Union and leads them in almost all offensive categories. 

• The Union players wore armbands with the initials WB to honor the late Walter Bahr, a Philadelphia-area soccer legend who died June 18. Bahr is considered one of U.S. Soccer’s greatest players and influencers. He was 91.