The Inside Doop: Union season hits new low

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The Inside Doop: Union season hits new low

Is this the bottom?

On Saturday, the Philadelphia Unions disappointing season reached a new level when they dropped a 1-0 decision to previously winless and pointless Toronto FC. And afterwards, Union manager Peter Nowak whos already under heavy scrutiny from fans blasted his teams effort and execution.

Heres a closer look at the loss that dropped the Union to 2-7-2 on the season, and a look ahead to whats next for the struggling club:

Three thoughts from Saturdays game

1) Throughout his tenure as Union boss, Nowak has been living dangerously by keeping few natural defenders on his roster. That cost the Union on Saturday when right back Ray Gaddis needed to come out of the game in the first half because he was feeling sick. With no defenders on the bench in part due to the recent trade of Danny Califf, the international absence of Porfirio Lopez and an injury to Chris Albright Nowak plugged midfielder Michael Lahoud into the backline. And it was Lahoud who ended up getting victimized on the play that led to the games only goal in the 88th minute.

2) Nowak was upset with the entire team for putting only two shots on target but specifically called out Freddy Adu for not having a feeling for the game in Toronto. Adus performance was especially disappointing because he was brilliant in the first half against the Red Bulls two weeks ago before missing the next three halves because of a red card. Union fans should pray that red-card suspension didnt stall the momentum the talented midfielder was building and that Adu can regain his footing as the teams top playmaker.

3) Due to injuries to Zac MacMath (concussion symptoms) and Chase Harrison (ankle sprain), the Union started their third goalie in as many games. And just as Harrison did last week, third-string keeper Chris Konopka performed excellently in net, making six saves and keeping his team in the game despite an offensive onslaught from Toronto. The Union have shown they have an impressive collection of goalkeepers, even if all three dont have much MLS experience. Right now, that position is the least of their concerns.

Three questions for the upcoming week

1) The Union have an interesting upcoming schedule. Their next league game is not until June 16 but they have a U.S. Open Cup game Tuesday at PPL Park and then a pair of friendlies against affiliates Reading and Harrisburg on June 9 and June 12, respectively. Some teams value the U.S. Open Cup an expansive tournament involving American clubs from all levels more than others but leading up to Phillys contest against the Rochester Rhinos of the USL-Pro Division, Nowak said he will play his first team. Still, given that its not a league game, it will be interesting to see if the Union boss decides to rest some of his banged-up players.

2) A loss to Toronto FC seemed to really rile up the Union fan base. What will happen if the club loses to a lower-division team at home three days later? It certainly wont be pretty.

3) While Lionard Pajoy and Danny Mwanga have taken hold of the starting striker spots, there looks to be an interesting battle brewing for their top backups. Rookie Antoine Hoppenot, a 2012 supplemental draft pick, got 25 surprising minutes against Toronto (after playing just one minute previously in his MLS career) and Josue Martinez also got some run. Meanwhile, 2010 first-round pick Jack McInerney, who hasnt even made the 18-man roster over the past few weeks, made a case for himself by scoring a pair of goals in the clubs Reserve League game in Toronto. Throw rookie Chandler Hoffman into the mix and the Union have a lot of options up top. The question now is which of those players, if any, can help the Union start to score goals. Speaking of which

Fact of the week: Danny Mwanga has played 1,283 minutes since his last goal.

Quote of the week: I congratulate Toronto coach Aron Winter because they wanted it more. They played better. They competed for every ball. They chased for every ball. Thats how teams should play in this league. Union manager Peter Nowak

Player of the week: Despite it being only his second MLS start of his career, Chris Konopka looked comfortable and in control. He was certainly the Unions best player in what was an otherwise forgettable game in Toronto.

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com and CSNPhilly.com. Email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin. The Inside Doop appears every Monday.

Union's homegrown program produces latest signing Derrick Jones

Union's homegrown program produces latest signing Derrick Jones

CHESTER, Pa. — Long after most of the Union players retreated from the heat Wednesday, Derrick Jones remained on the practice field. Not even his new rookie responsibility of carrying the bag of balls could dampen the 19-year-old’s enthusiasm of participating in his first official training as a member of the Union.

“I was just excited,” said Jones, who signed a homegrown contract with the Union a day earlier. “I was just happy. I didn’t know where I was going to be four years ago.”

Jones' path to the pros was certainly an interesting one as he came from Ghana to South Philly in 2012, and at the time, “didn’t know anything about the Union.” But he soon found his way to YSC Academy, the Union-run high school in Wayne, and after graduating from there, was the first player ever signed by the Bethlehem Steel, the team’s expansion minor-league affiliate.

He then played well enough for Bethlehem this season to ink a deal with the Union on Tuesday as their first Homegrown signing since 2012 and just the fourth in franchise history.

“It's a proud moment for me as a coach, a former academy coach,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “I’d like to thank (YSC Academy head and Union part owner) Richie Graham and (academy director) Tommy Wilson for the job they did developing Derrick, and also (Bethlehem Steel head coach) Brendan Burke sprinkling in that extra polish for the half a season that Derrick put in. I'd also like to thank the players because the one thing people don't always get to see is how valuable it is with our first-team players being around Derrick in the preseason and putting him under their wing and all of those little things. 

“As a club, it's a proud moment because everybody has played a role, from our medical staff to our trainers to our equipment guys, all the way through our academy to Bethlehem to now our first team.”

Ever since the franchise’s inception, Union coaches and executives have always said how they wanted to build a team from their youth ranks with several players hailing from the Philadelphia area. But, as it turned out, it was easier said than done.

Zach Pfeffer was the first player to sign a homegrown contract (an MLS mechanism that allows teams to directly sign youth players from their own development academies) as a 15-year-old Upper Dublin High School sophomore in December of 2010. And although he showed some promise, the teenager was never able to become a regular and was traded to the Colorado Rapids this past offseason. Former manager Peter Nowak signed two other homegrown players — Jimmy McLaughlin and Cristhian Hernandez — during his tenure but neither played much and they're no longer with the club.

You can certainly argue that Pfeffer, McLaughlin and Hernandez were all victims of an old system that didn’t allow them to properly develop at such a young age. In many ways, that’s why the Union launched YSC Academy and the Bethlehem Steel: to create a more surefire pathway from high school to the pros without throwing teenagers directly into the fire.

And Jones, the only current homegrown player on the roster, is the first to truly benefit from that improved structure — and will very likely usher in a new, better era of youth development for the Union.

“Everyone likes to compare who's doing it the best, and there's a lot of really good things being done right now in the U.S. Developmental Academy and specific MLS academies, but I can say with confidence, having coached in it and lived through it and having seen it up close, our academy is the one that prepares these kids for life more so than any,” Curtin said. “So everyone wants to talk about the successful homegrowns and how many each team has, but no one writes the article about a lot of the homegrowns that are out of this league in a year and no one cares about them anymore.

“It does need to be said that our structure, in the way Richie Graham has set it up, is holistic in every way. The school and the things that they do there, it is amazing. It’s a special environment, and it’s one that is based on each individual kid and their needs, because every kid has different spurts in their development, highs and lows. And the support system that they provide at our academy is second to none in this country.”

Curtin’s glowing praise of YSC Academy is not hyperbole. The school is the first in the country to fully integrate a college-preparatory education with an MLS-affiliated youth soccer development program with practice time embedded into the school day. And although Jones is the first from the school to sign with the Union, many others in the first two graduating classes have moved on to play high-level Division I soccer (and can still sign with the Union, or the Steel, as a homegrown player if they shine at the collegiate level). 

“They helped me a lot,” Jones said of YSC Academy. “It was good. I got to train twice a day. I spent my whole day over there. In terms of working on my fitness, it really helped me.”

The school also helped Jones adapt to the United States away from the field, and even though he’s a quiet kid, his new teammates made sure to greet him with a lot of smiles this week. MLS veteran Chris Pontius said he expects Jones’ personality to come out in a few months and praised his soccer skills, calling him “a good two-way player” in the midfield.

It might be unfair to expect Jones to play right away for the Union, but the 19-year-old will certainly be ready if called upon, as early as Sunday’s home game vs. Real Salt Lake (7 p.m., CSN).

“I don’t know what that’s going to be like,” Jones said. “Maybe I’ll get nervous since it’s my first game. But I’m looking forward to it.”

Union sign prospect Derrick Jones to homegrown contract

Union sign prospect Derrick Jones to homegrown contract

Midfielder Derrick Jones has made Union history.

On Wednesday, the club announced Jones, 19, has been signed to the Union first team as a Homegrown Player. Currently playing with the Union’s USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel, Jones is the first Union Academy graduate to make the move from Union Academy to Union first team.

“Derrick’s progression through our system has been quicker than anticipated and it’s evident that he is ready for the next step of his career,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said in the team’s official release. “This is a testament to Derrick’s commitment to his trade, and it should be considered a tremendous accomplishment to become the first player to come through our Academy, to Bethlehem Steel, and finally to the first team.”

Jones, who moved to Philadelphia in 2012 from Bantana, Ghana, and worked his way through the Union Academy before joining the Steel in 2016, made his Union debut in a friendly match against Crystal Palace on July 13 at Talen Energy Stadium. 

The 6-foot-3 rangy midfielder, who doesn’t have a set position, showed well playing the entire second half, presenting his on-the-ball poise at the attacking mid position.

“Derrick has now set the benchmark for every player in our youth system,” Stewart said. “That there is a pathway to the professional level, and that it is achievable if you remain committed to your goals.”

Jones is the first Union homegrown signing since 2012. Homegrown status means the player avoids being submitted into the MLS SuperDraft. The Union Academy has been around since 2013 and is located at the YSC Center in Wayne, Pennsylvania. 

“I’m delighted that Derrick is our first and that the work of our staff has come to fruition in this way,” Academy director Tommy Wilson said. “This is a proud moment for Derrick and his family. I would like to congratulate them and everyone else who has played a part in his development.”

Inside Doop: Union limp home after brutal week

Inside Doop: Union limp home after brutal week

It’s time for the Union to get some rest — and try to forget what happened over the past few days.

On Saturday night, the Union suffered their worst loss of the MLS season just four days after getting knocked out of the U.S. Open Cup in crushing fashion.

What went wrong on the road trip? And how can they move on from such a brutal week? We’ll examine in the latest edition of the Inside Doop:

Three thoughts from the past week
1. Following last Sunday’s 2-2 draw with the New York Red Bulls, Union head coach Jim Curtin sort of dismissed the idea of “squad rotation” while several players praised the team’s fitness for being able to rally from two goals back to tie New York. And it was true that the Union had successfully managed busy weeks for much of the last two months. But even the most fit and deep team would have struggled with what followed for the Union, who lost in an Open Cup shootout in New England after playing 120 minutes before then leaving the country to face the star-studded Montreal Impact, who drubbed them 5-1. Curtin said he wouldn’t use the grueling schedule as an excuse, but it’s certainly obvious that it played a big role.

2. Before saying he would “tear up the tape” from the rout in Montreal, Curtin candidly stated the team was “beat by stars.” That’s certainly true as the ageless African legend Didier Drogba netted his second MLS hat trick and standout Argentine playmaker Ignacio Piatti assisted on two of those goals and also scored one of his own. Perhaps in the subtext of that statement is this: the Union don’t really have any true stars of their own (except perhaps a rising one in goalkeeper Andre Blake), and while they’ve won a lot of games this season by playing well as a unit, sometimes the talent gap can be too much to overcome.

3. There’s no sense analyzing too much of how the Impact were able to score five times in a single game. Everyone along Philly’s backline played poorly and even typically surefire midfielders like Tranquillo Barnetta didn’t do enough to slow down the Montreal attack as the floodgates opened. But the fact that it came just four days after the Union had a bad breakdown to leave a player wide open on a free kick and let New England score basically an uncontested goal is troublesome. And that came just three days after the team gave up two goals at home. In other words, you can be sure a defensive-minded coach like Curtin will work to correct some of these glaring issues moving forward. Speaking of which …  

Three questions for the week ahead
1.
For a team that’s worked tirelessly on its fitness, sometimes even training twice in the same day, this week will start in somewhat of a unique way: the Union will get Monday and Tuesday off. It’s certainly understandable why Curtin wants his players to get time away from soccer after an arduous 11-game-in-39-day stretch. But will it help reenergize and galvanize the group heading into Sunday’s home game against Real Salt Lake (7 p.m., CSN)?

2. One player to keep an eye on during this week is Maurice Edu. The Union captain has yet to play this season because of a stress fracture but recently returned to the training field. Curtin has stressed the midfielder still needs time to get his fitness back up to where it should be, but there’s no question his return would give the team a big boost at a time when such a thing is needed. Could we see him get on the field, perhaps off the bench, in Sunday’s game?

3. Two players that won’t be with the Union for most of the week are goalkeeper Andre Blake and right back Keegan Rosenberry — and for good reason. The team’s two young rising stars made Thursday’s All-Star Game and traveled to San Jose today to begin preparations for the contest that features the top MLS players vs. English Premier League power Arsenal. Seeing how the two players both perform — and how much playing time they get — in such a marquee matchup will certainly be fun for Union fans. But either way, the fact both players simply got there so early in their careers is quite an accomplishment.

Quote of the week
“We've been a group that's been together and has been a team all year, and that's why we've had some success. Tonight we were beat by stars. Drogba and Piatti were unstoppable.”

-- Union head coach Jim Curtin

Stat of the week
Saturday’s 5-1 loss was the Union’s worst since they lost by the same scoreline to the L.A. Galaxy on June 20, 2015.

Player of the week
It sort of got lost in the general frustration of the week but rookie Fabian Herbers did a lot of damage off the bench, scoring his first career U.S. Open Cup goal in dramatic fashion before getting a secondary assist on Philly’s only goal Saturday. Did he earn himself a start coming up?