A View from Afar / Commentary

The Union are a veteran team built to win now

Photo: Earl Gardner

There was a time when the Philadelphia Union locker room was a collection of castoffs, rookies and Danny Califf.

Not anymore.

The Union have suddenly become a destination of choice for current and former U.S. internationals.

It wasn’t so long ago that Maurice Edu’s signing was an outlier for the Union, the big name designated player who had played in Europe and was, at his best, a key U.S. national team contributor.

But now, the Union also feature Alejandro Bedoya, a regular national team starter.

They have Keegan Rosenberry, fresh off his first national team camp, who stands well-positioned to compete to be the national team’s starting right back if his trajectory continues upward.

Chris Pontius just got capped, and if he can stay healthy and productive, he can potentially be a consistent contributor either as a starter or off the bench.

Fafa Picault joined the club having gotten capped last year, and while he’s farther out of the picture than he’d like, a productive MLS tenure could see him back in the mix.

Oguchi Onyewu and Charlie Davies will be forever etched in USMNT lore among its greatest “What if?” questions, as in, what if they hadn’t gotten hurt before the 2010 World Cup? How far would the national team have gone, and would they have been international stars?

Add to the mix Jamaica’s starting goalkeeper, Andre Blake, and Bosnian international Haris Medunjanin, and you suddenly have a squad bursting with legitimate international experience.

Just three years ago, you could not have pictured this.

The Union had historically been built on youth, with quality veterans scattered about.

Now, it’s the other way around. They have legitimate, young contributors in Rosenberry, Fabian Herbers, Richie Marquez, Josh Yaro and Ken Tribbett (all age 24 or under), with Giliano Wijnaldum poised to join their ranks if he can win a starting job. Still, the older veterans far outnumber them.

Remember when the Union gave the captain’s armband occasionally to players under age 24 (Sheanon Williams, Amobi Okugo)? On a roster like the current one, it’s unlikely that would ever happen, because of the preponderance of quality veterans.

That’s a key intangible to recognize in the modern Union under Earnie Stewart. They didn’t just fill roster holes, position-wise. They have built a more experienced roster full of players who have been through the battles for years and who know what it takes to win — and to fall just short of it.

Onyewu won two Belgian titles while at Standard Liege. Edu won three Scottish championships with Rangers.

And yet, the list of U.S. internationals can also look largely like a list of “could have beens” who still have something to prove.

  • Pontius, always so talented, always so injured.
  • Edu, once seemingly poised for stardom in Europe, lost along the way to bad club situations, position-bouncing, and then bad fortune.
  • Onyewu and Davies, as noted above, briefly looked like they could become huge international stars surpassing anything the U.S. ever produced. Now, they’re both hanging on at the end of careers punctuated by catastrophic injury, each seeking to prove they both still belong.
  • And Bedoya, the ultimate glue player, often taken for granted by outsiders but rarely by his teammates, and someone as vocal as they come.

What an interesting collection.

The Union now have a locker room quite unlike any they’ve ever had. Brian Carroll remains a 36-year-old quiet, respected and reliable contributor. Ilsinho — or Ilson Jr. — is 31 but significantly slimmed down from last year. Fabinho is coming off his best season in MLS and now, at 31, has to fend off a challenge for his starting job at left back. But all these guys are still in that locker room. New striker Jay Simpson is 28.

This is no longer a young team. It’s a veteran team with a sprinkling of young players.

Anyone who thinks Onyewu won’t challenge for a starting job this year isn’t following the trend.

Stewart has built the Union to win this year.

Their biggest remaining questions are whether Simpson, Davies and C.J. Sapong (or even Picault) can score enough goals up top, whether the injury-prone veterans can get and stay fit, and whether head coach Jim Curtin can match the level of his players’ resumes.

It’s going to be interesting to watch these veterans answer those questions.


  1. We talk about Earnie being able to find guys. But I don’t think we’ve discussed how important his sheer presence is to this club. He’s a highly-respected member of esteemed versions of the USMNT with tons of high-level international and club experience. Players see him and think, “There has to be a reason why he’d go there. I’ll take a look.”
    He, Jim, and Chris have to finish the deals, but we’re getting looks from players that never would have even given us the time of day. And I think it all starts with the simple fact that Earnie works here. He is instant credibility.
    Keep the faith, everyone. This ride is really just beginning.

    • Great point.
      Plus add in the completion of the training fields and training building as a big plus. Having a player come in for a visit and hope in a van to a public park to train had to kill a deal or two.

    • Totally, and honestly a big reason for this is the ability of Cutrin, Albright, Sugarman, and Wilson’s ability to create something that Earnie wanted to be a part of. Hopefully (and signs are looking positive) he will be the final piece to put it over the top.

      • CPfief and A immediately above speak my mind.
        Well done, Pragmatist
        PSP readers creating collective wisdom. Time for lunch.

    • I think a lot has to be said about Edu in the same regard. As much as I’d like to see him play, he surely has drawn a lot of high caliber professionals to the club and fostered young talent (even if they have come and gone, cough Okugo cough). He seems like a guy people want to play with and be around. Once that deal was made was when the names started to arrive.

      • This is also likely true, and I’d love to hear some honest, first-person perspective from players about Edu’s impact on their opinions of the Union. That’s a good point.
        I think it’s secondary to Earnie’s impact, but when you add a few of these together, there is a positivity around the organization.

      • definitely a cascade of multiple factors. I think my major point was 1) to give Edu love because I rarely do, and 2) highlight that with each signing I feel Ernie job becomes “easier”.
        I feel like 3ish years ago the draw was like “look who you could play in front of”. Now it is that, plus, “look who you could play with”, “look where you train”, “look who you could play for”.(the last one, the jury is still out on, but the players seem to really respond to JC and obviously ES/CA seem to be gaining popularity).

      • Well I’d definitely say that it started when Mo arrived, but since Earnie showed up… WOW. The Union aren’t just targeting players that fit positional needs on the field, but that fit the chemistry and culture of the locker room. Hearing Jay Simpson talk about his first few days with the squad confirmed a lot of what we’d seen. And in a team sport, the culture is every bit as important as the strategy.

  2. I like how the roster has shaped up in terms of balance between youth and experience in basically every position, that every position has a legit backup plan, and that there is a nice mix of MLS players and foreign players (including Americans like Bedoya who never played in MLS).

  3. Is it really built to win or is it built to compete? Another word for “just out of the mix” and “could have beens” is “journeyman”,”oft traveled”,”injury prone”.
    But yeah, win now.

    • Well winning and competing go hand in hand?

      To win you need to competitive and be compete right?

    • John P. O'Donnell Jr says:

      But it was, never had a chance what so ever. No meaningful youth and bottom of the bucket journeyman. So technically it’s improving in the second season. Oh & we finished sixth as the the youth is just getting signed at a much younger age.

      I’ll agree it’s built to complete and that should be the first goal. Hopefully as the youth matures, this group you describe as “just out of the mix, could have beens, journeyman, oft traveled & injury prone players” will tell the circle of players they travel in how the franchise treats you. I’m sure that might appeal to players who might be a bit better. To me it’s changing the culture of a losing franchise and not trying to buy a championship.

    • Interesting question. You raise a good point.

  4. edu runs on the 10th? right? Will he be in midseason form by midseason?

    • I would think so. Edu is an elite athlete who is a hard worker. He’s also not really getting that late of a start. Assuming no further major setbacks or injuries.

    • thought I had heard the seventh, but no matter. The news blackout on Phase two is frustrating.

  5. I Am Citizen Insane says:

    This Earnie Stewart. What has he done. Same old same old.
    Everyone just wants to kneel before Zod… what has he actually done? This Earnie Stewart.
    Vision. Philosophy. Plan.
    cue hip jut, hand on waist, finger snap.

  6. Hopefully Orlando live streams that scrimmage the day after Valentine’s.
    I have frame-by-framed each talking head interview’s scrimmage footage background to try to get some idea of who’s actually present, but that’s not anything that provides further information.
    I understand freedom to experiment without having to put out media forest fires.
    I also understand starving for information with grinding teeth.

  7. Just a fun thought, but if Jim doesn’t make this team playoff competitive this year…
    “Herrera is reportedly out of contract with Tijuana at the end of 2017.”

  8. The upward trajectory of the club over the last year has been impressive. I’ve been a big fan of what Stewart has brought to the table. Very much looking forward to this season and next to be honest. Roster building as a spectator sport.

  9. And… it all feels to me like Stewart is just getting started. I don’t follow the other clubs in this league nearly as thoroughly (obsessively) as I do the Union, but it strikes me that this club as a level of depth now that isn’t enjoyed by other clubs in the league. Stewart has done an amazing job acquiring good talent at low prices, spreading roster dollars across all positions and building a team that looks like it can weather the sort of bumps that derailed it in the past. And some of these guys, if they don’t work out here, seem to have value that could come back to the club in selling them to other clubs in other leagues. I really like what the Sporting Director has done in the last few months.

  10. Not too long ago most of us were starving for just a RUMOR about a potential addition to the team.

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