Inside Doop: Blowing a lead ahead of toughest game of the season

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Inside Doop: Blowing a lead ahead of toughest game of the season

The Union traveled all the way across the country, scored a couple of goals, and came within seconds of pulling off a huge win over a team that rarely loses at home.

In the end, of course, that will only make Saturday’s 2-2 draw with the San Jose Earthquakes even more frustrating as Union coaches and players are well aware that stringing together wins is the only way to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive.

In this week’s Inside Doop, we’ll take a look at how a win turned into a draw and the brutally tough week that lies ahead.

Three thoughts about Saturday’s game
1. Anyone who’s watched the Union for the last eight seasons knows one-goal leads are never safe in the final minutes, especially on the road. And in San Jose, some of those old ghosts came back to haunt the Union again as a late penalty called on Josh Yaro allowed Chris Wondolowski’s 95th-minute PK to tie the game and spoil an otherwise positive performance. Afterwards, Haris Medunjanin threw his arms up in the air and stormed off the field, the team’s first-year midfielder perhaps learning some of the many frustrations that comes along with being a Union player.

2. Yaro has now made critical mistakes in each of his last three starts, all filling in for Oguchi Onyewu. That’s surely a tough thing for Union fans to swallow considering Yaro was the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft and is not really progressing as well as he should be, injuries aside. Contrast that, meanwhile, with Jack Elliott, the 77th pick in the 2017 draft. Elliott continued to build his case for Rookie of the Year with maybe his pest performance yet, scoring his first MLS goal and looking far more comfortable defensively than Yaro, his center back partner.

3. Questions certainly remain about Roland Alberg’s consistency and chemistry with teammates, but we can’t forget that he’s one of the better ball strikers this team has ever had. He showed that again Saturday with a very nice goal that put the Union ahead 2-1 early in the second half. With Ilsinho hurt, some may have thought promising rookie Adam Najem would assume the No. 10 role. But until the team is eliminated from the playoff contention, Alberg will likely still get the chance to show just how dangerous he can be and perhaps keep racking up the goals.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. Any time a team has to play games Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday, it’s a rough stretch. This one is even harder for the Union considering they had to fly back to Philly from San Jose before they quickly turn around to head to Toronto and face the league’s best team Wednesday, and then come back home to host upstart expansion side Atlanta United FC on Saturday. As always, there will be questions as how head coach Jim Curtin deals with minute management to keep everyone fresh. It might be especially interesting to see if he’d consider resting anyone in Toronto considering even a full-strength Union team has little chance of knocking off Toronto FC, who are currently 9-0-3 at home and maybe even one of the best MLS teams ever assembled. That said, if the Union can pull off the upset, it would be a huge boost toward their playoff push and a moment they’ll remember for a long time.

2. Remember Maurice Edu? The Union midfielder hasn’t played an MLS minute in nearly two years but suited up for USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel on Sunday, playing just over 30 minutes vs. Louisville City. Does that mean he’s ready to play for the Union? Not necessarily. Last year, he made three rehab appearances with Bethlehem, before then getting hurt as he was set to play for the Union. So the coaches may still want to give it a bit more time with the Steel, meaning a trip to Toronto is unlikely.

3. Another player who’s probably closer to returning is Andre Blake, who’s now missed eight straight games because of the Gold Cup and hurting his hand in the tournament final. John McCarthy continues to play well in his absence, but getting Blake back in time to face a star-studded Toronto attack could make a huge difference north of the border.

Stat of the week
With his goal Saturday, Alberg is tied for second on the team in goals this season with five. He also finished second on the team last season in that category, and his 14 total goals in nearly two seasons ranks fifth all time.

Quote of the week
“Both teams needed three points to be honest, so a tie kind of doesn’t do much for either of us at this stage.”

— Union head coach Jim Curtin, after Saturday’s 2-2 draw

Player of the week
On top of his goal, Elliott also helped set up the team’s second goal and made a couple of huge clearances in the box. The rookie was, by far, the team’s best player on the night.

Rookie Adam Najem hopes to prove he's the playmaker the Union need

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Rookie Adam Najem hopes to prove he's the playmaker the Union need

CHESTER, Pa. -- Jim Curtin has made it clear he won’t use falling out of playoff contention as a reason to throw the team’s youngest, most untested players into the fire.

But the Union head coach also made clear Adam Najem doesn’t necessarily fall into that category, saying this week the rookie midfielder is “right in the discussion” to see more time regardless of where the team might be in the standings.

For Najem, though, just getting onto the field during Philly’s last 10 games of the 2017 season — starting with Saturday’s road tilt vs. the San Jose Earthquakes — is only a short-term goal. Long term, the 22-year-old New Jersey native hopes to emerge as the kind of attacking midfielder the Union can build their team around — in a role that’s usually been occupied by international imports.

“I want to kind of get rid of the stigma that Americans can’t be playmakers,” Najem said after Thursday’s practice. "And if they give me the opportunity to continue improving at the No. 10, I’ll try to show what I can do.”

The Union have struggled to find a consistently good option at that No. 10 spot — an important position that sits behind the striker (CJ Sapong) and in front of the two other central midfielders (Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya). Roland Alberg, a native of the Netherlands, and the Brazilian Ilsinho have both shown occasional flashes of brilliance but not nearly enough consistency, leading to speculation that both could be on their way out when the season ends.

At that point, the Union will likely chase a high-priced player, possibly from South America or Europe, to fill that void, as MLS teams are prone to do. But Najem believes he can be the guy, and that more starts as the season winds down can perhaps prove it.

“For me, I want to cement myself as the No. 10 wherever I am,” he said. “Right now, I feel if I continue improving, that can be here. I want to reward Philly for giving me the opportunity to be here. And I want to be that player they look upon to win games. If I get the opportunity, I have to continue working and show I can be the No. 10 they’re looking for.”

Although most of his game action has been with affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC, where he’s made 14 starts, Najem has seen more MLS minutes of late, playing three straight games last month, including his first career start in Columbus on July 22.

And while he felt like he showed for the ball and maintained possession well in that game, he knows he didn’t do nearly enough to help jumpstart a stagnant offense in a 1-0 loss.

“That’s something I want to improve on,” he said. “It kind of left a sour taste in my mouth.”

Najem knows there are other things he can improve upon, and he’s been trying his best to pick up little lessons from other midfielders on the team. 

Medunjanin’s quality on the ball? Bedoya’s vision and awareness? Alberg’s striking ability? Ilsinho’s dribbling moves? Najem has been paying close attention to all of it.

“The type of player I am, I like to take the best out of everyone around me,” he said. “Everyone brings their own style to the game and you try to pick up anything you can and implement your own style of play into that as well.”

Najem has seemed to do that well in training, where he often looks sharp and in control of short-field scrimmages. But as his rookie season winds down, it could be time for him to take the next step — if he’s given the chance.

“In my position, it’s obviously an important one on the field,” he said. “Being a young guy, you have to learn how to deal with that and deal with the pressures.

“If the coaches see I’m working hard enough or improving enough, I’ll be on the field. And if not, I’ll just continue working.”

Preaching patience, Union stay quiet during summer transfer window

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Preaching patience, Union stay quiet during summer transfer window

From Alejandro Bedoya last year to Tranquillo Barnetta the year prior, to Rais Mbolhi and Freddy Adu and Bakary Soumare and others before that, the Union have made some of their splashiest signings over the summer.

But current Union sporting director Earnie Stewart isn’t a splashy kind of guy. He’s about careful scrutiny, analytics and building a foundation.

And with that in mind, he decided that this summer’s MLS secondary transfer window, which ended Wednesday night, was not the time for the club to make a move.

“Sometimes I think people want to go very fast with some things,” said Stewart, who’s been in charge of personnel moves for the last 18 months. “It’s as simple as that. It’s up to us to judge if going that fast is good. And I don’t believe that right now.”

Few would argue against prioritizing long-term growth over short-term sizzle, especially for a franchise that’s struggled with consistency and roster turnover since their 2010 expansion season. 

The counterpoint, of course, is that acquiring a talented player at this point of the season, especially at a key position like attacking midfield, could provide a jolt of energy or even prove to be the missing piece for a team trying to sneak into one of the final Eastern Conference playoff spots.

But it seems like that kind of difference-maker wasn’t on the table when evaluating possible options — at least not for the kind of dollars ownership was willing to shell out.

“We don’t want to make a mistake and make a judgment for a significant amount of money where it’s not right for the Philadelphia Union,” head coach Jim Curtin said. “We’ve been smart and I think sometimes the best move is not to make a move.”

While many of the Union's midseason transfers haven’t panned out (the Mbolhi move, for one, may have been the worst in Union history), their last two summer signings yielded well-liked and talented players in Barnetta and Bedoya who certainly raised the bar.

But even in both of those cases, they struggled to adjust to the demands of joining a new team and new league with only a couple of months left in the season. It’s particularly hard for European-based players who are currently in their offseason or preseason.

“It’s a tough time to hit a home run, to have a [Nicolas] Lodeiro-type situation,” said Curtin, referring to Seattle’s prized acquisition last year who led them to the 2016 MLS Cup. 

“This is not an easy league to play in,” Stewart added. “It takes time to adapt to the physicality and travel that there is.”

Integrating new players into the club, of course, is much easier in January and February when MLS preseason begins. The Union will also then have much more money and roster space at their disposal when Maurice Edu, who’s been injured for the last two years, comes off the books, along with others who haven’t been giving the Union the necessary bang for their buck.

But it makes sense why fans may be upset no moves got done this week, especially when nearby rival D.C. United opened up its wallet as it never has before. (The fact that the Union announced the signing of a “Chief Tattoo Officer” on deadline day certainly didn’t help with the optics, either.)

For now, though, those fans will just have to try to be as patient as Stewart and hope the exciting changes come in a few months. Perhaps some may also take a little bit of solace in the fact that the Union are optimistic they can still do some damage in 2017 with their current roster — even though they’re currently in eighth place in the East, sport a 1-7-3 road record, and have a very difficult remaining schedule.

“The difference between being really good and where people perceive us to be, it’s not that big,” Stewart said. “It’s not as big as people think. Is there a difference between our home games and away games? That’s for sure. But you only want to add something you know will help you.”

Added Curtin: “We’ll have a lot of freedom, a lot of flexibility going into the next year and we still have a group we believe can get into the playoffs this year. That’s my main focus right now: getting this group into the playoffs. Because from there, we all know anything can happen.”