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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Consistency is Pontius's secret to comeback success

Time to heal and consistency helped Chris Pontius launch
his Comeback Player of the Year season in 2016.
(Times File)
Chris Pontius’s first reaction two weeks ago at being named a finalist for the MLS Comeback Player of the Year Award struck at the fundamental conflict in the award: It’s nice to win, sure, but you’d rather avoid being in a position to.

That contradiction is fitting, since it informs how Pontius got to a point where the 2016 award was bestowed on him Wednesday. By not constantly considering the injuries that had dogged him for the better part of three years, Pontius finally moved past them to compile a career season.

“I tried to not think about it,” Pontius said Thursday by phone. “Late on in the season, maybe 27 games in, I was like, ‘holy cow, I haven’t missed a game yet.’ And it was just trying to (think), let’s keep this thing going, not thinking about it. I just was like, let’s keep this thing going and doing what I was doing, just week by week and focusing on the week ahead.”

For the first time since 2012, Pontius enjoyed a season not defined by injuries. He scored a career-high tying 12 goals to go with a career-best six assists. Including the U.S. Open Cup, he bagged 14 goals. The winger also set career marks in games played, starts and minutes.

In his first season with the Union, Pontius doubled his combined goal total from 2013-15.

And as Pontius explained Thursday, from out on the golf course with former D.C. United teammate and roommate Steve Birnbaum, one of the keys to a change in outcome was consistency of approach. Read more »

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Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The 2016 Stephen Okai Award goes to ... Kevin Kratz

Where have you gone Toni Stahl? (AP)

Among the least consequential yet most puzzling moments of last Wednesday’s valedictory address by Earnie Stewart and Jim Curtin concerned Kevin Kratz, a bizarre coda on a quizzical and abbreviated tenure with the Philadelphia Union.

Stewart in the press conference announced that the Union wouldn’t be retaining Kratz’s services and that he “was on loan so he’ll go back to Atlanta at one point,” referring to MLS expansion side Atlanta United FC. An Atlanta spokesman later clarified that the Union had agreed to trade Kratz’s rights to Atlanta in a deal that is pending the reopening of the trade window Dec. 11. Very MLS.

Either way, the German midfielder’s career with the Union, which started ahead of the Sept. 15 roster freeze and ended with nary a bench appearance, has come and gone in a blink of an eye. Kratz was originally announced as midfield cover, yet even as Alejandro Bedoya, Warren Creavalle and Maurice Edu picked up injuries (which the previous two played through), Kratz never entered the picture. Yet the player with Bundesliga experience presented an intriguing piece, perhaps even to build with next year, and seemed an engaging interview subject excited to be in Philly. Yet still, his blink-and-you-missed-it tenure came to nothing but a footnote to view someday and wonder, ‘who was that guy?’

Which got me thinking – Kratz isn’t the first player that Union have brought in to flesh out a roster late in the season. He’s not the first player to pop up, generate speculation, pique fan interest and vanish into nothingness. He’s not the first member of the Union whose tenure was so evanescent as to make you wonder if he really was even here or if it was all a peculiar dream caused by some by some bad Thai food too close to bedtime.

So to commemorate Kratz’s time in Philly – and in a vain effort to actual have him leave some tangible legacy besides his 5-foot-8 frame filling in at center back in practice during the October international break – I hereby bestow upon Kratz the 2016 Stephen Okai Award.

What is that, you may ask. It’s a way to mark the passage of Union time by enshrining each year’s most head-scratching personnel move of a certain exalted kind. It’s the one player each year who brings an abundance of under-the-radar hope, whose resume succeeds in raising the possibility that he could be something, whose praises are sung a bit too disproportionately by management, but who ends up never impacting the club. Sometimes it’s the player whose past travels make us in the media go, ‘but this guy was at (blank), wasn’t he?’ Others, it’s a player that so thoroughly impresses in practice and is recognized for it, but never translates it to a game.

In short, it’s inspired by the player who generates the most lopsided proportion of fan-generated Twitter mentions directed at Union writers to actual contributions on the field.
Read more »

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Friday, November 4, 2016

Edu's bad breaks the outlier for the Union's healthy season

Maurice Edu, seen in last year's U.S. Open Cup semifinal against Chicago,
was dealt a difficult hand of injuries this season, but he's the outlier
for a mostly healthy Union squad. (Times File)
Earnie Stewart and Jim Curtin covered a bevy of topics Wednesday in their end-of-season media address. From specific personnel groups to philosophy on changes to a vote of confidence on Curtin from Stewart, the full range was covered.

But one particularly perplexing aspect of the Union’s season didn’t quite receive a definitive answer, and perhaps that’s because one doesn’t exist.

The travails of Maurice Edu have been a constant story line dogging the Union this season. His injury has followed a devastating trajectory, from a groin tear last year to sports hernia surgery in the offseason to a stress fracture to a more severe leg fracture. Somewhere along the line – perhaps at many junctures – reality deviated from the rigorous plan that the Union set for Edu’s rehab. So the question, more genuinely curious than accusatory, from me Wednesday was, does the handling of his injury by the staff require any reevaluation?

Stewart’s answer in full:
“Oh, yeah, also that, except that it’s, like you say, it goes from one into the other, and a lot of times you see that. If you have an injury left, you favor something else right and that might happen. I’d have to say a lot of things are very, very unfortunate, too, in the way that it went from, one, having a surgery, to it going into a stress fracture — a stress reaction first, and then a stress fracture. I mean, that has a lot to do with favoring and all that kind of stuff so it’s very unfortunate, his season is.”
That answer would seem to shift the reasoning – not blame, per se – for the injury onto the circumstances surrounding it. Edu had never before dealt with bone injuries, and he’d discussed that the process for rehabbing them is different that with muscle problems. By all accounts, the re-injury before the Red Bulls game in the season finale was a fluke on the training ground. How the original stress fracture was sustained has never been discussed beyond that Edu wasn’t progressing in his rehab in the preseason then got a scan showing the fracture that drastically altered estimates of his return.

The timeline set then, at the beginning of March, called for three to four months. Edu returned to the practice field four and a half months later, on July 15, and played for Bethlehem Steel for the first time Sept. 4 (six months after the original diagnosis). Edu made the Union bench for the first of three times Sept. 24.

Understandably, the Union aren’t placing a timeline on this latest injury. But the club also isn’t providing much explanation for the protracted saga beyond bad luck. Read more »

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Thursday, November 3, 2016

'I still think that there's more': Brian Carroll ready to return for 2017

Union midfielder Brian Carroll, right, defending Columbus' Justin Meram
in a game June 1, is preparing to return next year for his 15th MLS season
and seventh in Philadelphia, at age 35. (AP)
Brian Carroll’s first comments assessing the 2016 Philadelphia Union season Wednesday were optimistic about what had gone and bullish about what could lie ahead. Implicit in that answer is that Carroll wants to be around for the latter pursuit.

So when it came time to fulfill the journalistic duty of asking a 35-year-old player, one just two years younger than his coach and older than Jim Curtin was in taking over the Union, the answer seemed a mere formality.

“I still think that there’s more,” Carroll said.

With the season that the club captain put together, it’s hard to argue with that appraisal. It’s been clear for months that Carroll’s level of play warranted another season in MLS if he so chose. And Carroll confirmed Wednesday that retirement isn’t in the cards just yet.

“Obviously (I’m) getting up in age and it’s going to be a year-to-year thing at this point,” Carroll said. “I think I proved to myself that there’s a little bit more left in the tank, and I’d like to have a strong offseason and I’d like to contribute similarly next year. I didn’t know how much I’d be able to be called upon this year, but I think when I was called upon, I handled my end of the bargain and maybe exceeded my own expectations. I’m willing to put in the work, continue doing this next year and see how next year goes and make a choice after that.”

Rather quietly, Carroll assembled an extremely strong season. He played 26 games and started 23, both his highest totals since 2013. He logged more than 2,000 minutes for the 10th time in his illustrious career. And he didn’t look outpaced by improvements in an increasingly technical Union side.

Per WhoScored’s metrics, Carroll’s passing percentage dipped slightly to 82.2 percent. But he had his most combative season with the Union at 2.6 tackles per 90 minutes, up from 2.3 last year and 1.8 in 2014. That speaks to a simplified role for the No. 6, and when surrounded by playmakers, Carroll can be an important, steady cog focused on breaking up opponents’ attacking moves.

Carroll entered the season with modest expectations. When questioned Wednesday, he threw out numbers of “maybe … five starts and play in 10” games as a for-instance. But he played well enough to earn considerably more time, partially due to Maurice Edu’s injuries. Read more »

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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Wrapping up 2016: 30 good minutes with Earnie Stewart

Jim Curtin, left, and Earnie Stewart wrapped up the Union season
with a lengthy press conference Wednesday.
For over an hour Wednesday, members of the Philadelphia Union worked either on the field or in the weight room, a coda on a long campaign and a gateway to the offseason. Then coach Jim Curtin and sporting direction Earnie Stewart fielded questions for 30-some minutes, wrapping up a playoff season that was and previewing an offseason of tinkering rather than rebuilding.

Those two, particularly Stewart, discussed a wide range of topics. Some takeaways:

- First, big picture. The Union announced options declined on six players: Loanees Anderson and Matt Jones, plus Cole Missimo, Taylor Washington, Walter Restrepo and Kevin Kratz (more on that later). It’s still mulling decisions on Charlie Davies and Leo Fernandes. Everyone else is back. That is a level of decisiveness and transparency that past squads have lacked.

- Breakup days of seasons past have been helter-skelter affairs – exit interviews, players slinking back to their personal lives, some informal workouts organized. This year, the Union are in Chester for two weeks after the season, working with the staff to prep for the offseason. Captain Brian Carroll indicated that that was a stark departure from the past, emblematic of the changes Stewart has instituted.

- Plenty of fans have opined about Curtin’s future as the coach of the Union. Stewart was unequivocal in assessing his performance:
“Really good, and I say that with a lot of confidence too. The way we set out the start of this season, I was curious in the United States how we go about practicing and do we go out with purpose, and Jim has exceeded those expectations in going out every single day. When we talked about roles and responsibilities as the players, you can go out and play games, or you can put a purpose behind everything that you do in the exercises that we have and in trying to create those moments of, the angled passes that we always talk about, playing forward that we always talk about. You can say it, or you can go out and practice it. I have to say Jim and his technical staff have been excellent in that in what I’ve seen, the level of training. And that’s my form of recognition to seeing how things go. If you see the progress in the beginning of the seasons in our keepaway and if you see the process now of where we are in our keepaway games, that’s a major, major difference and a lot has to do with the coaching staff in that.
“I think the beginning of the season showed that confidence level that we have, the way we can play. Do things happen during the season that we can’t reach that totally? Yeah. Do I feel that there’s open discussions about trying to tweak it left and right within our formation, within our style, within our system in getting better and getting those results? Yeah, they’ve been there. We’ve had open, honest discussions with each other which I think is fantastic and a very good way of working. That evaluation has been really good.”
- The Union adapted to a new training load, with two-a-days and other new tactics. Stewart was adamant that the increased burden didn’t precipitate the late-season swoon. “No, I don’t think so,” he said. “I do know how it works from a player perspective. That’s my own experience. When you win games, you’re never tired, and when you lose games, you’re very tired. And that’s just it. A human body can do way more than we think, so I don’t believe in that. That’s not an excuse.” Curtin added that per team data, he didn’t see players late in the season failing to reach the physical outputs they did early on. “To put in on fatigue, I don’t buy it,” Curtin said.

- The reasons for the late struggles remained elusive. Some of it was a young roster in the heat of a playoff chase for the first time. Some was untimely injuries. Part of it was the schedule getting tougher, leading to crises in player confidence. Some of it, as Stewart pointed out, is simple perception. Said Curtin: “We are examining and trying to pinpoint exactly what it is, too, and the harder we search and the more we look at the data, the analytics, the games, it comes back that it’s a variety of things.”

- Stewart has said that the club hasn’t received concrete offers for Andre Blake. The goalkeeper, who graduated Generation Adidas Monday, will count on the Union’s salary budget for the first time in his career in 2017. Stewart concurred that Blake has earned that and he would listen to offers for the Jamaican goalie, but they haven’t yet materialized. Stewart: Read more »

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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Expanding on the horizon: Eyeing the Union's expansion draft plan

What do the futures of Brian Carroll, center, and Warren Creavalle, right,
with the Union look like? The MLS Expansion Draft could provide hints. (AP)
It’s the first week of November, and the stage is ready to discuss how the Philadelphia Union should guard against losses in an upcoming expansion draft. As some things change, others stay the same.

The Expansion Draft to boost the rosters of incoming Atlanta United and Minnesota United will take place Dec. 13. Unlike the last such draft in 2014 to populate New York City FC and Orlando City’s rosters (aside: Do paired expansion teams have to have identical naming structures?), Atlanta and Minnesota will each pick five players from MLS rosters, as opposed to 10 each last time. That lessens the risk of loss for current clubs. There’s also a limit of one players picked per team, as opposed to two last time.

All the rules briefings are here, and I’m not the first to share thoughts on how the Union should approach the expansion draft.

Here’s the list of who I would protect, in no exact order:

1. Alejandro Bedoya
2. Keegan Rosenberry
3. CJ Sapong
4. Chris Pontius
5. Richie Marquez
6. Ilsinho
7. Roland Alberg
8. Warren Creavalle
9. Ray Gaddis
10. Andre Blake
11. Eric Ayuk

Exempt from protection: Fabian Herbers, Josh Yaro (both Generation Adidas), Auston Trusty, Derrick Jones (Homegrowns)

Not protected: Matt Jones, Anderson, Tranquillo Barnetta, Taylor Washington, Cole Missimo, Maurice Edu, Kevin Kratz, John McCarthy, Ken Tribbett, Walter Restrepo, Leo Fernandes, Brian Carroll, Fabinho, Charlie Davies.

That’s all 29 players on the Union roster. Here’s the logic behind it, with players broken up into categories.
Read more »

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