Season Previews

PSP roundtable chat on Philadelphia Union

Photo: Ryan Griffith

Editor’s note: This is the latest piece of PSP’s season preview on Philadelphia Union. Read the other posts of the season preview here.

Grade the Union’s off-season and explain your grade. 

Nick Fishman: A-, provided Borek Dockal signs this week. If so, the Union have addressed their biggest need. Dockal, though, wouldn’t be the club’s best addition. Nobody is talking enough about David Accam, one of the best wingers in MLS. Additionally, Stewart earns marks for trusting his youth system rather than signing so-so veterans.

Peter Andrews: B. Assuming they bring in Dockal. It took far too long to address the No. 10, which sapped the team of momentum heading into the preseason. But the Accam signing looks like good business, and there should be more opportunities in the squad for young players. Trimming Chris Pontius, Maurice Edu, and Roland Alberg from the payroll may have been obvious, but they were the right moves.

Dan Walsh: C. The Union did just above the minimum required to stay competitive. Accam is a good addition, but everything hinges on Dockal, who will be a good addition but should ideally have been locked in eight weeks ago. They still need a veteran left back upgrade, as they have since 2011.

Christian Sandler: C. As I covered in a column earlier in the offseason, I don’t think signing Andre Blake to an extension was in the Union’s best interest. He’s a crowd pleaser and one of the best in the league, but no keeper is good enough to win the Eastern Conference by himself. David Accam, on the other hand, was a great signing. He will help Sapong greatly and spark a bunch of goals. Another signing of this caliber in the attack is what the Union needed.

Jim O’Leary: Assuming the Dočkal loan happens as advertised, B-. They’ve cut a lot of fat, and addressed the most obvious position of need. A lot will be asked of the young players, but if they are able to deliver it could be quite an interesting season.

Chris Gibbons: Off-seasons are like draft classes: it’s tough to know if good decisions are actually good until years into the future. However, the Union got rid of a lot of dead weight, locked up some solid talent for the long term, and started putting the products of their youth system into First Team rotation. Assuming they can “Czech” a number 10 signing off the list, too, I give them a B+.

Steve Whisler: B-. The David Accam acquisition was unexpected and refreshing. The assumed signing of Borek Dockal may just solve the attacking midfielder black hole, but after all this searching, will he fit into a midfield without a real No. 6? Bringing up Matt Real to the first team and signing Mark McKenzie to a pro contract is smart business.

Adam Cann: C. David Accam is a wonderful bit of business, but the defense remains too full of question marks for anybody to set aside weekends post-October. Signing a high-quality No. 10 is a big move, but doing it in the final days before the season — when it has been an issue since about this time last year — is not ideal.

Mike Servedio: C. Accam was a solid pickup, and a much needed known MLS quantity. Getting Dockal is essential, as the team has been missing a #10, the key position in the formation they are too stubborn to change for over a year. But even still, as I write this with 6 days to go before the season, he hasn’t signed and most likely won’t be ready for at least a week or two if/when he officially becomes part of the team.

Ryan Rose: C. The fact that we even need to speculate on whether or not Dockal is headed this way with less than a week before opening day is a huge negative. David Accam is a great signing, but I don’t think it’s a enough. MLS is still a young league. Every team improves during the off-season. Once again, the Union have failed to keep pace.

Have the Union done enough to compete for a conference championship? 

Nick: Realistically, no. The 2017 version of Toronto was one of the best teams in MLS history. This offseason, they got even better. Best case scenario, the Union will be fighting for a home game in the knockout round. Ideally, this season serves as a launching point, with a young back line proving it’s the real deal.

Peter: No. They’ll still be relying on a very inexperienced back line and a midfield without much defensive stiffness. The Union may need to score a lot of goals per game to get wins this year, which isn’t how Jim Curtin likes to play. The ceiling is probably fourth place in the East.

Dan: No. Like Curtin said last year, they’re bringing knives to gunfights. Toronto, Atlanta, Orlando, and New York City are way ahead of Philadelphia in terms of ambition and resources.

Christian: No. There are some aspects you can analyze and some numbers you can look at it if you want, but the answer is no.

Jim: In a conference with Toronto and Atlanta, there’s plenty of teams that have done a lot more and still haven’t done enough.

Chris G: Why not? Is there a team in MLS you’d put money on every weekend to win a match? Maybe Toronto, whom the Union should have beaten last year. Everyone else has flaws, Atlanta included. With six playoff spots and a league up to its neck in parity, a surprise conference championship is not the craziest idea I’ve ever heard. The craziest idea I’ve ever heard was one for a plastic pet carrier with a velvet glove sewn into one of the sides so you can keep the pet in the carrier and still pet it for comfort.

Steve: Nope. There’s always a team that makes an unexpected deep run in the playoffs (see Columbus Crew last year), but that team will not be the Union in 2018. The team failed to keep up with fellow middling clubs D.C. United and Orlando City’s offseason buildups.

Adam: No, absolutely not. Think about it this way: The Union are one injury at any position (other than right winger) away from putting out lineups that may succeed but do not inspire confidence. That said, this roster is, on the surface, a far more entertaining and balanced one than a year ago.

Mike: No. Not a chance. They seemingly don’t have the resources to compete with Atlanta or Toronto.

How do you predict the Union will do this season? (Start with a predicted finishing spot in the Eastern Conference table.) 

Nick: With Dockal, fourth place.  The East is far stronger than the West, so it’s that much more difficult to climb. Orlando City looks like the only other club in the conference’s bottom half that could change the playoff picture. Toronto and Atlanta are nearly locks for the top two spots. That leaves Chicago Fire, New York City FC, New York Red Bulls, Orlando and Philadelphia jostling for the final two “home” seeds. I believe in the Union’s attack, and the best goalkeeper in MLS can cover for a young defense.

Dan: They could finish anywhere from fourth to tenth, and it wouldn’t surprise. Dockal is a complete variable, and the back line may be the league’s youngest. Let’s toss a coin in the air and optimistically say sixth.

Jim: Fifth place in the East. Competitive but not dangerous, but I think we’ll finally see soccer worth watching at Talen.

Chris G: Sixth in the East, with a road playoff match against Red Bulls. The Union win their first playoff game in Harrison, host their second-ever playoff game in the Semifinal round, but are eventually knocked out by top-seeded Toronto.

Steve: Eighth place in the East. They easily finish above New England, Montreal, and Columbus, but won’t have what it takes to keep pace with the rest of the conference. To eek out a playoff appearance, they’re going to have to be better than the Chicago Fire and/or revamped D.C. and Orlando squads, which I don’t foresee. If the academy players actually see the field this year, though, I’m okay with that.

Mike: They aren’t competitive enough to finish in the top three. Finishing around or in one of the final playoff spots seems reasonable. If they start strong and can add one or two more players in the summer, a playoff spot is obtainable.

Ryan: Eighth in the East. They beat out New England, Columbus, and Red Bulls.

Who or what will be the Union’s biggest positive surprise this year?

Peter: Auston Trusty. Technically an MLS rookie, Trusty spent last year on the Union roster and excelled with Bethlehem and the U.S. U-20s. He’s flashed strength, aerial prowess, and a comfort on the ball in the Union’s preseason so far. Trusty will make the step up to MLS and become the Union’s best center back by the end of the season, if not sooner. (I’ll believe Jack Elliott isn’t a one-season wonder when I see it.)

Nick: Tactical flexibility. One of the biggest criticisms of head coach Jim Curtin has the rigidity of his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. While it still might be the same on the lineup sheets, there will be fluidity to the Union’s structure. Already this preseason, Curtin has shown he can deploy a 4-3-3, a two striker system, and a three man backline with Haris Medunjanin dropping between Trusty and Elliott.

Dan: Alejandro Bedoya. With most of the back line sitting at the kids table, Bedoya will prove just how valuable he is and why he’s worth a DP contract.

Jim: I’m going to be bold and say Jay Simpson will prove his worth.

Chris G: Trust. No, not Austin Trusty (though he’ll be a key contributor). Trust, as in: Union players will begin to trust one another on the pitch. That trust has appeared in moments over the past few seasons, but the Union will start to look like they know where one another are and are going.

Steve: Matt Real. Sure, Fabinho is a Curtin “glue guy,” but Matt Real has already shown he can be the left back of the future. He might just have a chance to win long-term playing time if Fabinho is still injured come Saturday.

Adam: Marcus Epps. Though I’d consider Corey Burke only because expectations are low and he’s the second best striker on the roster.

Mike: Bedoya. Assuming Dockal comes in or Fontana exceed all of our expectations. With less emphasis on him having to be part of the offense, I think he can actually contribute more to the offense. But more importantly, free him up to do what he does best, take away the opponents best midfielder, run tirelessly to create space for teammates, and be an efficient mover of the ball.

Ryan: Anthony Fontana will be the starting no. 10 at the end of the season. Yes I know, that doesn’t sound like an ideal surprise. But I’m honestly skeptical of their bringing in Dockal without any hiccups so late in the off-season, and they clearly look to Fontana as the future.

What is the team’s killer flaw? 

PeterThe manager. For the Union to have a successful season, two things need to happen: The team must become tactically adept, and the young players need to continue to grow. Neither of these are Curtin’s strong suits. His conservative approach to away matches and marriage to the 4-2-3-1 are legendary. More worryingly, almost every young player regressed under Curtin’s stewardship last year. I would be thrilled to be wrong about Curtin’s capabilities, but I think it’s plausible that he won’t last to the end of this season.

Nick: Midfield defending. For all the positives about Medunjanin’s game, it comes at the expense of excellent defending. Captain Alejandro Bedoya helps mask some of those deficiencies, but the Union lack a true defensive midfielder. In games where Philadelphia struggles with possession, it’s tough to envision the Union will earn positive results.

Dan: An inexperienced back line. Who will organize and lead that back line? Nobody there has the chops for that.

Christian: Consistency. Maybe that’s every team’s killer flaw. It just seems that the Union often put together a tremendous performance and follow it up with a dud. Like it can never get things going to full speed before slowing down. A solid win streak early in the season would do wonders.

Jim: Adaptability. It’s fine and good to have a plan for how you want things to go. But when that plan isn’t working you need to change the plan. This team, from players through to the highest level of management, fail to do that at any kind of meaningful pace.

Chris G: Confidence. Will the team wilt at the first sign of trouble? Will they play kick-and-chase in every road match? Will they hold substitutions ten minutes too long?

Steve: Asking too much of Alejandro Bedoya. With the defensively-suspect Haris Medunjanin about to be joined by the (apparently) defensively-uninterested Borek Dockal, Bedoya is going to be really busy in the center of the pitch. In front of an inexperienced backline, that’s troubling.

Adam: Depth. Plugging in a young kid or two during a long season isn’t an enormous risk, but when the depth is, across the board, either kids or guys that have had multiple chances to grab a starting role and have not done it, the length of the MLS season can be your undoing.

Mike: I’ll second Jim’s answer of adaptability. The team (manager included) must figure out how to adapt to face different formations, different styles, and different tactics.

Ryan: Using what depth the Union do have. Curtin likes to play a consistent line-up regardless of circumstance. It looks like they’re going to press high a lot again this season. If that’s the case, the same line-up week in, week out isn’t going to cut it.

Who is this team’s most intriguing player to you? 

Peter: Derrick Jones. The young midfielder started on opening day last season, but only played two MLS minutes after July 6. Now, Jones is stuck behind Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin in the midfield. Can the youngster force his way into the starting lineup — or, at the very least, earn reserve minutes off the bench? It’s hard to believe that the midfield destroyer we saw early in 2017 won’t be able to contribute to this year’s Union side.

Nick: Auston Trusty will prove to be the real deal. He’s going to have his growing pains, but he has all the qualities of a game-changing center back. It’s going to be fun watching him develop. He might not be playing in MLS for long.

Dan: Matt Real. He’s a proper left back, and he’s all the Union did to upgrade a position in need of major upgrade since … 2011. Let’s see if he can break through and eventually win the starting job.

Christian: Keegan Rosenberry. His first two seasons in the league were perplexing because they were so different. As of now, it’s expected that he’ll get a decent amount of playing time, so it will be interesting to see which Rosenberry emerges. He may not get a pass if it’s not something close to the rookie-sensation version.

Jim: Fafà Picault. He had a good season last year, but having followed him for a bit in Germany, I know he’s capable of even more. If the Union field a functioning No. 10 this season, it could really open up Picault’s abilities.

Chris G: Haris Medunjanin. How does the smooth-passing Bosnian fit in front of a young back four and behind a talented but not exactly protective midfield when the Union have to defend?

Steve: Jack Elliott. The second-year centerback is going to be asked to anchor a backline alongside the even greener Auston Trusty and the suddenly enigmatic Keegan Rosenberry. Add in the lack of a defensive midfielder, and that’s a huge burden on Elliott. The Englishman has the goods, but can he overcome the typical Union sophomore slump?

Adam: Dockal.

Mike: Dockal if he signs, because we know so little about how he’ll adapt to MLS. How Keegan Rosenberry bounces back (or if he does) will be interesting to follow. As will Jack Elliott’s sophomore season.

Ryan: Definitely Matt Real. He’s primed to win a starting spot this year, and he may be a Union staple at left back for a long, long time.

What are the Union missing? 

Peter: A veteran center back. After the Union parted ways with Oguchi Onyewu, Richie Marquez — age 25 — is the closest thing that passes for a veteran in the center of the park. With both Marquez and Josh Yaro fighting to get into the lineup (or serving as the juiciest assets for a possible trade), the role of mentor to a young group of defenders remains vacant. Oh, and I can’t believe Fabinho is still on this team.

Nick: When watching perennially great teams, there’s almost a sense that they can’t lose. The Union jumped out to leads against Toronto, Portland, and NYCFC last season. Did it ever feel like the game was over? Philadelphia lacks that same swagger– and swagger is only bred through success.

Christian: A No. 10 is the short answer. The long answer may go beyond that. Maybe it’s money. Maybe it’s ownership. Maybe it’s coaching. It just doesn’t feel like the Union are particularly close to competing at the highest level in the league. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how that can change.

Jim: And as is traditional, a left back.

Chris G: A gold-striped bib on their home kit? I kid, but not really. The Union are missing an identity. Nearly a decade in and nothing the team have done can be said to have been memorable. Losing Cup finals and having the most goalkeepers (or the most Farfans) count. Maybe it will be their Academy, finally, or maybe a deep playoff run. Until the team can have something to hang their hat on, they’re still just the chair closest to the door that all the other MLS teams drape their coats over.

StevePersonality. It will be interesting to see how this team comes together on the field this spring. Under the brooding, subdued gaze of Jim Curtin, the Union have seemed like a collection of players over the past few years, not necessarily a team on the same page. They need to rally into a real unit, both in a literal tactical sense and in the mythos of a team personality. Who or where is that going to come from?

Adam: The ability to kill off a game. Does Philly have the tools to possess late in games? Can they go from a team that devours opponents in transition to one that grinds out points on the road?

Mike: They still haven’t signed Dockal as I write this. So I’ll say a DP level no. 10

17 Comments

  1. For all the “if they sign Dockal” comments:
    .
    https://twitter.com/sportsdoctormd/status/968525432638332928
    “Borek Dockal wearing No. 10”

    • Could it be true?

    • Announcement seems set for tomorrow…
      .
      1) Another De George tweet hinted as much and shows Earnie will be available to press: https://twitter.com/sportsdoctormd/status/968139924963758080
      .
      2) Wednesday is the usual press day for the Union anyway
      .
      3) Chinese Super League transfer window closes tomorrow
      .
      .
      Kind of odd though that they made such a big deal about Accam (“come welcome him at airport”) and then be so subtle about a #10. Maybe because loan vs purchase? IDK. I get the whole staying quiet until the deal is made but once done, you would think they would make a bigger deal about bringing in “the” #10.

      • It is intriguing isn’t it. Could it be the Union aren’t so sure about the signing either? Could it be they plan on just keeping it a loan for one year in prep for Fontana next year? Could it have been a panic move so the fans don’t bring knives and pitchforks to a footy pitch?

      • I think the Accam thing was just 100% done and they needed the goodwill with the draft in Philly and all. It’s kind of a dead period now and I bet he wasn’t 100% done when he first got here. Seems like it’s a done deal at this point, especially if he’s training.

      • I’m going to attribute this to the eccentric dealings of the Chinese League and the fact that they were reluctant to let him go. Maybe the U just didn’t want to piss off his team and ruin the deal by jumping the gun.

      • I think its because it has been slowly leaking while the contract hasn’t been signed yet so they can’t announce it and make a big show of it

      • His training if it is not 100% done is surprising to me. Wonder what would happen if he tripped up on the turf like Edu and was injured in practice.

    • We are anticipating a Dockal contract announcement tomorrow. We’ll have someone there.

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    Grading a Roster Upgrade… please look around a league, even just the East, to see what Upgrading the Roster actually looks like.
    .
    I’m with Dan on this one. C…..at Best… a 10 upgrades to B.
    .
    Predictions for the Union finishing the season— Mid Table… the exact business plan and expected trajectory of this franchise- since the very beginning.
    .
    Most Intriguing Player- toss up… Trusty for Upside….though I also pick Andre (who I agree is spectacular), but more is needed of him in order to bring this team into 21st Century footy.

  3. Trade held up because China awaiting compensation for the terra cotta thumb…or the thumb of the idiot…a human thumb for a 2,000 year old thumb.
    Why did the moron just have to be from Philadelphia?
    UnionGoal

    • Unfortunately, it’s even worse, the young jackass lives in Middletown, DE (probably in his parents’ basement with the rest of the family’s dirty laundry). While the Franklin Inst. deserves a HEAP of pain for not putting air tight security around that display with an in museum event going on, Philly got blamed for a DE bonehead.
      .
      Full disclosure, I also reside in DE (But not in Middletown…Thank God)

  4. “You want a thumb? I can get you a thumb this afternoon!”

  5. John P. O'Donnell Jr says:

    I think there is one player who might hold the key to the season for the Union and he’s been mentioned zero times….CJ Sapong. Playing last season with an underwhelming right winger and a emerging Fafa Picault he had a breakout year. Now with an upgrade in Accam and some familiarity with Fafa, can those three players score 45 goals as a front line? I think CJ has the possibility of scoring 20 this year with a slightly better cast around him. That only leaves a four goal improvement for Accam and Fafa between them to accomplish that magic number. If that happens, I think they get to host a knockout game in the playoffs. Now to get into top three, the young back line would would have to perform so well that European teams would be offering millions for them come 2019 and somehow they have to find five wins on the road this year. Should be fun, let’s get it going. Doop.

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