2017 MLS SEASON PREVIEW
The Philadelphia Union were a young team in 2016, one that displayed promise at times but also showed some immaturity during a disappointing late-season stretch that saw them drop from first to sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
The Union still managed to make the playoffs, but their late-season collapse provided cause for concern. An offseason has come and gone and those concerns have been replaced by renewed optimism in Philadelphia — not only because of the knowledge that the Union's impressive nucleus of young talent is a year more mature, but also because of the good job Philly did bolstering its roster this winter.
The young nucleus, led by Andre Blake, recent U.S. national team call-up Keegan Rosenberry and impressive second-year forward Fabian Herbers, coupled with accomplished veterans Alejandro Bedoya, Chris Pontius and C.J Sapong, give the Union the base of a team more than capable of returning to the playoffs. If they are going to challenge for a top-three spot in the East, the Union will need newcomers like Haris Medunjanin, Jay Simpson and Oguchi Onyewu to provide upgrades.
The Union bid farewell to Swiss playmaker Tranquillo Barnetta and while they didn't replace him with a similar player this winter, they will be banking on players such as Bedoya and Medunjanin to help offset Barnetta's departure. Bedoya joined the Union last summer, and while he did play well upon arriving in MLS, the Union are expecting him to be even better after having a full preseason with the team.
The pressure will be on coach Jim Curtin as he enters his third full season in charge of the Union. With what might be the most talented roster in the club's history, Curtin's team will be expected to build on 2016 by going at least a step further in the playoffs.
How did the Philadelphia Union perform in 2016?
2016 finish: Sixth in Eastern Conference (11-14-9), eliminated in knockout round
The first half of last season went about as well as the Union could have hoped for. They were sitting in first place in the Eastern Conference after a June 22 victory, but that form faded in the closing months of the regular season as defensive issues and attacking inconsistency doomed them to a 4-10-4 slide in the second half of the season that nearly cost them a playoff spot. The Union lost to Toronto FC in the knockout round.
Philadelphia Union's key offseason losses
Tranquillo Barnetta went back to Switzerland, choosing to return to the club of his youth, St. Gallen. His departure left a major playmaking void in central midfield for a team that already felt the sting of the midseason departure of French midfielder Vincent Nogueira.
The Union managed to hold on to all of their other regulars from 2016, but did part ways with goalkeeper Matt Jones, defenders Anderson Conceicao and Taylor Washington, and midfielders Leo Fernandes, Kevin Kratz, Cole Missimo and Walter Restrepo.
Philadelphia Union's key offseason additions
The Union had a productive offseason, picking up some players who filled some obvious needs. Bosnian midfielder Haris Medunjanin is an excellent passer who could help the Union with their inability to keep possession.
Defensively, Oguchi Onyewu has looked excellent in camp and not only gives the Union a sorely needed veteran presence to help teach younger defenders, but also a player capable of starting.
Jay Simpson and Fafa Picault should help diversify the Union attack, with Simpson competing for the lead striker role and Picault helps give the Union a speed element they definitely need.
Dutch fullback Giliano Wijnaldum gives the Union competition for Fabinho at left back, while rookies Adam Najem and Marcus Epps could play their way into minutes if they keep showing well.
How will the Philadelphia Union starting lineup look in 2017?
The Union will work in a 4-2-3-1 formation once again, though there are still some tight position battles underway that will ultimately determine the look of the first-choice lineup. Ilsinho and Fabian Herbers are battling for the right wing role, while Jay Simpson and Charlie Davies are pushing incumbent C.J. Sapong for the lead striker spot. Simpson's arrival, and Davies' improved form, could give the Union the option to play a two-forward system at times as well.
Losing Josh Yaro for 3-4 months due to shoulder surgery is a big blow, and his speed on the back line will be sorely missed, but Onyewu looks ready to step into the void.
The Union have some options for the attacking midfield role, with Bedoya the more likely fit ahead of Roland Alberg. Bedoya can play as a box-to-box midfielder as well, and at times we are sure to see Alberg and Bedoya paired together.
One player to keep tabs on is Maurice Edu, who will start in a defensive midfield role once he is fully recovered from the broken leg he suffered at the end of the 2016 season. Warren Creavalle can fill that role in the interim.
Full Philadelphia Union roster entering the 2017 season
Goalkeepers: Andre Blake, John McCarthy
Defenders: Fabinho, Raymon Gaddis, Richie Marquez, Oguchi Onyewu, Keegan Rosenberry, Ken Tribbett, Auston Trusty, Giliano Wijnaldum, Josh Yaro
Midfielders: Roland Alberg, Erik Ayuk, Alejandro Bedoya, Brian Carroll, Warren Creavalle, Ilsinho, Maurice Edu, Marcus Epps, Derrick Jones, Haris Medunjanin, Adam Najem, Fafa Picault, Chris Pontius
Forwards: Charlie Davies, Fabian Herbers, C.J. Sapong, Jay Simpson
Philadelphia Union's national TV coverage schedule
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Philadelphia Union - Sunday, March 5, at 9:30 p.m. ET on TSN1
Philadelphia Union vs. Toronto FC - Saturday, March 11, at 4:30 p.m. ET on TSN1
Philadelphia Union vs. New York City FC - Friday, April 14, at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN
Philadelphia Union vs. New York Red Bulls - Sunday, June 18, at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN
Philadelphia Union vs. New England Revolution - Sunday, July 2, at TBD on FS1
New York Red Bulls vs. Philadelphia Union - Sunday, Sept. 17, at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN
Philadelphia Union vs. Seattle Sounders - Sunday, Oct. 1, at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN