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's U.S. Open Cup dominance continues against Red Bulls

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Union's U.S. Open Cup dominance continues against Red Bulls

CHESTER, Pa. — Alejandro Bedoya and Cory Burke led the way Saturday night, as the Union eliminated the New York Red Bulls from the U.S. Open Cup with a 2-1 win at Talen Energy Stadium in the Round of 16.

"It was a very good win against a very good team," said Union manager Jim Curtin. "Survive and advance mentality. We’re three wins away from a trophy, which is something to be proud of."

After taking down the Richmond Kickers to open the tournament, the Union’s victory Saturday sends them to the quarterfinals on July 18, where they will host either regional foes DC United or Orlando City.

• The win was a continuation of an eye-popping 12-match Open Cup unbeaten streak for the Union, who haven’t suffered a regulation loss since 2014. When it comes to the Open Cup, the Union are hard to beat, which they showed against the Red Bulls. 

• Despite it being an Open Cup game, the match had MLS regular-season flavor. The Red Bulls hit the field with a strong starting lineup that included Tyler Adams, Kaku and Luis Robles. In return, the Union dressed Bedoya, Haris Medunjanin, Andre Blake and Ilsinho.

• Those lineup decisions made for an exciting but fruitless opening half. Both teams worked to strike on the counter by using pressure to jar the ball loose. Led by Fafa Picault, the back-and-forth equalled 17 total shots, with the Union claiming eight of their 11 attempts from inside the box. 

• Eventually, the Union those attempts would begin going in. In the 52nd minute, the Union took the 1-0 lead, when working down the right side into Red Bulls territory, Bedoya cut to the middle and slid possession over to Medunjanin. The veteran faked out his defender and ripped a shot that appeared to deflect and beat Robles.

• The goal seemed to unlock something in the Union. Nearly 10-minutes later, Burke made it 2-0 when a Bedoya pass found him between two defenders. Burke, who had been on the doorstep of a goal all night, broke away and slipped his shot to the right. Bedoya finished with two assists. 

"He’s playing at his highest level for us," Curtin said. "He’s taken a bigger leadership role and tonight was an excellent game from him. Our team will go as our central midfield goes." 

• To catch up, the Red Bulls called on some heavy artillery. In the 60th minute, Bradley Wright-Phillips subbed in for Daniel Royer. He scored in the 77th minute, cutting the Union’s defense, then the lead, in half.

• The Union look to carry Open Cup momentum into the MLS regular season, when they face the Vancouver Whitecaps on June 23 at Talen Energy Stadium.

Union see U.S. winning 2026 World Cup bid as 'inflection point' of American soccer

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Union see U.S. winning 2026 World Cup bid as 'inflection point' of American soccer

CHESTER, Pa. — For Jim Curtin, Alejandro Bedoya and everyone else associated with American soccer, the pain of missing the World Cup remains fresh, especially as the tournament kicks off this week.

But Wednesday’s announcement that the United States, in a joint bid with North American neighbors Canada and Mexico, won the vote to host the 2026 World Cup not only eased a lot of that pain but also gave them a whole lot of hope for the future of the sport.

“Obviously this year everybody talks about the big setback and the generation of kids that can’t turn on the TV this go-round and watch the U.S.,” Curtin said during the Union coach’s weekly press conference. “It does hurt the game a bit, for sure, but to now have the World Cup in our home country is something that I think is incredible to grow the game. There’s nothing quite like seeing a World Cup match live. I think that will be a great experience for young kids, a great experience for our country.”

As for Bedoya, the Union captain will probably never get over the U.S. national team’s recent World Cup failure, especially since he played a prominent role at the 2014 World Cup and during this past qualifying cycle before watching from the bench in horror as the Americans were stunned by Trinidad and Tobago last October to miss out on Russia 2018. 

And given his age, the 31-year-old midfielder will be past his prime for the next World Cup in Qatar, and possibly retired when the World Cup comes to North America in eight years. Even still, it’s nice to think about what hosting the 2026 World Cup could mean for the growth of the sport he loves.

“Hopefully by that time, 2026, it’s like the inflection point of soccer in our country,” Bedoya said. “The sport keeps growing, the league keeps getting better. From my time in Europe, I know all of the European guys would love to play in this league, live in America and play here. It’s only a matter of time before soccer continues to take over, let’s say, hockey in the ratings and viewership and attendance. So it’s a big moment we officially got it for our country.”

Curtin agrees the sport has already grown a lot since the last time the United States hosted the World Cup in 1994, pointing to increased television coverage of MLS and the big European leagues as well as, more locally, the kids he spots in his Philadelphia neighborhood wearing Bedoya or Lionel Messi jerseys.

He can only imagine how much bigger it will get if Lincoln Financial Field is selected as one of the venues for the 2026 World Cup — and also what that would mean for Philly, a city that he says has a “lot of buzz” right now in a lot of different ways.

“Specifically to Philadelphia, this is a soccer town,” the Union coach said. “There’s a rich history here. It’s tough to predict what 2026 will look like, but to think a team could be using this campus down here [in Chester] as kind of their home base, whether it’s Argentina or Spain or who knows what country, that’s a really good thing to envision.

“It’s great for the game. There’s a lot of happy faces throughout soccer in our country right now.”