In seven seasons as a Major League Soccer franchise, it’s fair to say the Philadelphia Union don’t have a stellar history: three head coaches, one former CEO, two playoff appearances and one legit sporting director.
It’s under the watch of that sporting director, former AZ Alkmaar executive and U.S. men’s national team player Earnie Stewart, that the Union’s fortunes appear to finally be heading in a positive direction.
The Union don’t have the financial clout to compete with the New York Red Bulls, Seattle Sounders FC, New York City FC, Los Angeles Galaxy or Toronto FC, so it falls at the feet of Stewart to reshape the Union roster and make them into a team that can go deep in the playoffs and eventually compete for an MLS Cup.
And with a pair of new clubs coming into the league this season in Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United FC, the Union’s path to the playoffs will be a bit tougher this season, but management, players and front office staff believe they are poised for big things this season.
This is PI’s position-by-position 2017 Philadelphia Union season preview.
We’ll start at the back and work our way forward.
In past seasons, goalkeeper of the Philadelphia Union was a position that was ridiculed around the league for some of the past regime’s poor moves on that front. Union fans will remember all the way back to 2011 when the club signed Colombian stopper Faryd Mondragon, who made 30 appearances and was an all-star, leading the club into the postseason for the first time.
Mondragon left the club the following season and was replaced by former University of Maryland and No. 5 overall draft selection Zac MacMath. MacMath performed admirably in the Philadelphia net, establishing his reputation as an excellent shot-stopper.
He was, however, rushed into the starting role at the age of 20 and struggled with certain aspects of his game, namely commanding his penalty area and dealing with crosses effectively.
The club then drafted Andre Blake with the No. 1 overall pick in 2014, but MacMath continued to start as Blake battled injuries his first couple season. MacMath then officially lost his starting spot when the club signed Algerian national team goalkeeper Rais M’Bolhi during the summer of 2014.
M’Bolhi started nine games over two seasons and, frankly, was a terrible fit for the team at the time. But with all that nonsense behind them, Blake assumed the starting role last season and was outstanding, He made 32 starts and posted six clean sheets on his way to claiming the goalkeeper of the year award.
It’s not hard to see why his college coach at the University of Connecticut once referred to him as “the LeBron James of goalkeepers.”
Blake is a lock to be the starter again this season, and if he stays healthy as he did last season, he’ll be the anchor of the Union defense. The only question is whether the Union can fend off some potential interest from other clubs.
But that’s a question for another column.
The Union have had mixed results in defense in their history. Some defenders became fan-favorites very quickly like inaugural captain Danny Califf, Carlos Valdes or even local boy Jeff Parke, but there have also been some struggles along the back line.
Who can forget the short-lived Union tenure of former Rookie-of-the-Year defender Austin Berry?
Aside from a rotating stable of center-backs, left-back, in particular, has been a sore spot for many years. It can be argued the Union haven’t had a true left back since they dealt Jordan Havey to Vancouver Whitecaps FC in 2011.
But with Stewart at the helm, the Union have seemingly solved that hole at left back and have one of the youngest and most promising defensive units in the league.
Keegan Rosenberry will be slotted in at right back, and expectations will be high for him to continue his potential rise to stardom. After being drafted by the Union No. 6 overall last season, the Ronks, PA native played every minute of every match for the Union and was named to the MLS All-Star team. He also was a top contender for Rookie of the Year, and probably would have won the award if those types of votes didn’t tend to favor forwards. (Jordan Morris of the MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders won it, by the way).
Moving away from right back is where things get a little interesting. Richie Marquez started 33 of the Union’s 34 league matches last season and was their best defender. The 6’1, 185 lb Marquez was a rock, consistently finding himself in good positions and he has the closing speed and tackling ability to make up for his (and his teammates’) mistakes.
The other center back spot was split between Ken Tribbett and Josh Yaro, both of whom bring unique strengths to the squad. Tribbett was originally slated to play for Bethlehem Steel FC, the Union’s USL affiliate, but he impressed out of camp last season and made 22 appearances for the big club.
He brings a unique blend of strength and tenacity, although his positioning and tackling do leave a little to be desired. Yaro, on the other hand, made 17 appearances for the Union last season after being drafted with the No. overall selection out of Georgetown last season. (He was teammates with Rosenberry in college). Yaro brings more of a speed element into his game than Tribbett does, but Yaro battled injuries last season, and is on the shelf for the first 3-4 months this season following shoulder surgery.
Which brings me to one of two new faces along the back line this season: former U.S. men’s national team standout Oguchi Onyewu. Onyewu was a mainstay on the USMNT for the 2006 and 2010 World Cup cycles, which earned him a transfer to AC Milan in 2009, but he has battled a lot of injuries and bounced all over Europe during his club career.
He last played for Charlton Athletic in League One and was originally only with Union to train, but he impressed in camp and was signed to a one-year deal. With Yaro out of action, Onyewu will slide next to Marquez to start the season.
He’ll provide plenty of veteran leadership and mentoring to a young group, many of which are under the age of 24, but it will be interesting to see how he handles an increased workload and the physicality of MLS.
Left back will be a battle between incumbent Fabinho and new signing Giliano Wijnaldum, who signed with the club from Bundesliga 2 side VfL Bochum. Fabinho made 26 appearances for the Union last season and does exceptionally well getting forward down the left flank to deliver crosses. His actual defensive prowess is passable.
Wijnaldum has excellent bloodlines (his brother Georginio is a starting central midfielder for Liverpool), and is good with the ball at his feet, but he will need time to adjust to the game in MLS. He may take over the starting spot eventually, but isn’t ready quite yet.
Throw in academy product Auston Trusty along with 2017 draft picks Jack Elliott and Aaron Jones and MLS veteran Raymon Gaddis and the Union have a deep group in the back which will be interesting to watch all season.
The crux of any good team is the midfield. Can they control play, keep the ball and distribute to runners efficiently? The answer to those questions in the Union midfield is absolutely yes. Stewart and manager Jim Curtin stick to a 4-2-3-1 system, which can occasionally morph into a 4-3-3 when the attack is flowing.
In the 4-2-3-1 system, the heart of the team is holding midfield pairing along with the No. 10 attacking midfield role. It’s crucial that both defending midfielders are comfortable with the ball so as to feed it up to the attackers quickly and avoid getting caught in possession.
The same goes for the No. 10 as it is this player’s job to create scoring chances by finding his runners with passes quickly to pull opposing defenses out position.
The midfield maestro this season will be U.S. men’s national team member Alejandro Bedoya, who arrived from FC Nantes in Ligue 1 during the summer transfer window last season. Bedoya largely played out of position with the Union last season, spending some time at the No. 8 and some time as a winger, but his preferred spot is the No. 10, which is where he’ll likely play most of the season.
Bedoya assumes the No. 10 role after fan-favorite Tranquillo Barnetta returned to Switzerland at the conclusion of last season. With half a season in MLS under his belt and Curtin handing him the captain’s armband, Bedoya will take on a more prominent leadership role with the team.
Plus, he can do this:
Bedoya’s presence will help reel in some causal Union fans, but there is another former USMNT player on the Union roster that we didn’t hear too much from last season, and that is Maurice Edu.
Edu missed all of last season due to a fracture in his leg, and he won’t be ready to face Vancouver on Sunday, but if he can get back to full fitness he can slot into one of the defensive midfield spots, forming an excellent partnership with one of the Union’s marquee offseason acquisitions in Haris Medunjanin.
The sudden departure of key midfield cog Vincent Nogueira in June last season left a gaping hole in the center of the park. Nogueira made the attack flow with his vision and precise passing, but it appears Stewart has filled that gap with the signing of Medunjanin, a crafty 31-year-old veteran with many of the same qualities as Nogueira.
Medunjanin came to the Union from Maccabi Tel Aviv, where he made 11 appearances in league play and six in the Europa League. He is exactly what Philadelphia need in the center of the park, someone who is calm on the ball, can control play and hit pinpoint passes, abilities he showcased during the team’s preseason.
He’s also adept at conserving energy on the field, which is not say he doesn’t run hard, but much like Andrea Pirlo, he knows when to go and when to stay home.
Medunjanin is likely to pair with either Warren Creavalle or youngster Derrick Jones in the defensive midfield, so long as Edu remains out. Creavalle played well last year, he tracks back and tackles well, but there will be an occasional poor decision. Jones, meanwhile was Bethlehem Steel FC’s first-ever signing and he spent the season in the Lehigh Valley, where he made 20 appearances and scored five goals.
Jones is a bit of a longshot to make the opening day starting 11, but he performed well in preseason and is certainly an option, plus being compared to Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure is one hell of an endorsement.
The Union also have excellent depth in attacking midfield to support Bedoya on the wings. These spots will most likely fall to Chris Pontius on the left and either Fabian Herbers or Ilsinho on the right side.
Philadelphia traded for Pontius prior to last season and it was viewed as a bit of a risky signing due to his injury history, but Pontius remained healthy all season and led the club in scoring with 12 goals. He also added six assists and claimed the Comeback Player of the Year honor.
Ilsinho might be the most skilled player the Union have ever had. The silky smooth Brazilian made 25 appearances last season, scoring two goals and adding two assists. He had some trouble staying fit as he adjusted to the pace of the league, but he brings much-needed skill and flair with the ball. He’s able to lose his mark and find his teammates with ease.
The two wildcards in the midfield are a pair of new signings in Fafa Picault and Adam Najem. Picault signed with the Union this offseason from Bundesliga 2 side FC St. Pauli, while Najem was acquired in a trade with the hated New York Red Bulls.
Both players could get sporadic starts throughout the season, but will more likely be important pieces off the bench which bring pace and vision. Also don’t forget about Roland Alberg, who filled in for Nogueira in his immediate departure. The Dutch midfielder netted nine goals and added three assists in 28 appearances.
Midfield is the strength of this team, with talent and depth in the middle of the park, they should have little trouble scoring goals.
Despite all the midfield talent, you need a quality striker to lead the line. Finding a top-quality striker has been an issue for the club since it’s inception. It’s very much their bogey position, similar to goaltender with the Flyers and wide receiver with the Eagles.
But Stewart has done his best to add to the striker depth with the signing of former Leyton Orient striker Jay Simpson. Simpson, an Arsenal product, comes to the Union after scoring three goals in 14 appearances for the League Two side.
League Two is the fourth tier of the English football pyramid, so it isn’t the greatest competition, but the club will be hoping he follows the same path as Bradley Wright-Phillips, who joined the New York Red Bulls in 2013 and tied the MLS record for goals in a season with 27 the following season.
Now, Simpson isn’t likely to reach those heights, but he should be able to reach double digits. He’ll have a little healthy competition for the starting nod as C.J. Sapong and Charlie Davies are both back for another season.
Sapong netted seven goals in 2016, but went long stretches without scoring and will need to show more consistency if he is to keep his starting place. Davies, meanwhile, made eight appearances without scoring last season following a trade from the New England Revolution in August. Davies will be an important spark off the bench, and will be counted on to score late in games when called upon.
Here’s how I see the Union lining up when they take the field for the season opener at BC Place on Sunday against Vancouver:
The Union reached the postseason for the second time in franchise history last season, losing to Toronto FC in the knockout round. That loss certainly stung, but it also represented progress.
Stewart, Curtin and technical director Chris Albright did an excellent job this offseason filling the obvious holes in the roster, while also adhering to Stewart’s philosophy of having two starting-caliber players at each position. It’s a nice mix of youth and veteran leadership, and it’s clear that on paper this is the most talented roster in club history.
It’s now up to the players to perform and Curtin to get the most out of his roster. Things get underway on Sunday against Vancouver at BC Place at 9:30 p.m. The game can be seen on The Comcast Network or streamed on MLS Live.
Predicted Finish: 4th in Eastern Conference, home win in the knockout stage but a conference semifinal exit