2015 vs. 2016: A stronger roster at (almost) every position

Photo courtesy Philadelphia Union

With the signing of Ilsinho on Wednesday, the Philadelphia Union roster is more or less complete.

After an off-season that featured seismic changes in the front office and a barrage of subsequent player moves, we can finally see what the blue and gold will be working with in the season to come.

Going position by position is instructive in seeing how new Union sporting director Earnie Stewart has remade the team, aiming for a goal of two quality players at every position. At almost every position on the field, Philadelphia will go into this MLS campaign with a deeper, more talented squad then they featured at the end of 2015.

The question here isn’t whether the Union are strong enough to win the MLS Cup. (Uh, no.) Nor is it whether the Union are likely to make the playoffs. (Again, questionable.)

Rather, the question is whether this team will be better than last year’s deeply disappointing rendition, whether they will be an adequate reflection of Earnie Stewart’s vision, whether they might, just might, be fun to watch for the first time in years.

2015 Goalkeepers: Andre Blake, John McCarthy, Brian Sylvestre

2016 Goalkeepers: Andre Blake, Matt Jones, John McCarthy

Andre Blake enters the season entrenched as the starter, after flashing tremendous talent in some of his starts last year. The big upgrade, though is at the no. 2 position, which should see quite a few minutes this year when Blake is on international duty. Bringing Matt Jones in on a year-long loan is a savvy move which provides a huge upgrade over John McCarthy. Jones will offer international experience between the pipes — a calm, steady presence while McCarthy continues to develop.

Verdict: Upgrade

2015 Center backs: Maurice Edu, Steven Vitoria, Richie Marquez, Ethan White

2016 Center backs: Richie Marquez, Anderson, Joshua Yaro, Ken Tribbett

Center back is the biggest question mark for the new look Union. Gone is the expensive Canadian paperweight, Steven Vitoria, while Maurice Edu is (for now!) moved up into the midfield. Into the fold comes a mysterious Brazilian loanee, the second pick in the SuperDraft, and someone called “Ken Tribbett.” Marquez should be a sure-thing starter, while Tribbett’s strong showing in preseason suggests that there will be competition for the other position with Anderson and Yaro. Not having the steady hand of Mo Edu at the back is a big loss, but there’s the potential for a serviceable pairing in the four central defenders on the roster — and it’s tough to get much worse than a defense that leaked 55 goals last year.

Verdict: Push

2015 Fullbacks: Fabinho, Ray Gaddis

2016 Fullbacks: Fabinho, Ray Gaddis, Keegan RosenberryTaylor Washington,

Depth! Glorious depth! Stewart brought in a pair of rookies to challenge incumbent starters Fabinho and Gaddis. Rosenberry, in particular, has already impressed with his clean offensive game in the preseason, and his familiarity with the Union organization can’t hurt. The simple fact that Jim Curtin will have legitimate bench options for both fullback positions should be cause for celebration.

Verdict: Upgrade

2015 Center Midfielders: Vincent Nogueira, Cristian Maidana, Tranquilo Barnetta, Zach Pfeffer, Brian Carroll, Mike Lahoud, Warren Creavalle, Fred

2016 Center Midfielders: Vincent Nogueira, Maurice Edu, Tranquilo Barnetta, Roland Alberg, Ilsinho, Brian Carroll, Warren Creavalle, Cole Missimo

We shouldn’t get too carried away about Ilsinho. Let’s not forget that his performances thus far have been just in the preseason, and he celebrated his new contract with a red card against the Red Bulls last night. But nowhere on the Union roster is the improved depth more evident than here, where in just one offseason your backup CAM has gone from player-coach Fred to recent-Champions-League-appearer Ilsinho.

In fact, you might argue that there’s too much going on in the center of the park here, especially when Edu returns from injury. Tranquilo Barnetta is another player with a great pedigree who impressed in the later half of last season (and brings some much needed leadership to the field). Roland Alberg is younger and has tremendous talent; he ought to be a pretty big upgrade over Zach Pfeffer. Add in your depth pieces in Brian “Old Reliable” Carroll, Warren “Who?” Creavalle, and Cole “Really, Who Is This?” Missimo, and there’s a lot of potential in this midfield group. Not a Keon Daniel in sight.

Verdict: Upgrade

2015 Wingers: Sebastien Le Toux, Andrew Wenger, Eric Ayuk, Jimmy McLaughlin

2016 Wingers: Sebastien Le Toux, Chris Pontius, Walter Restrepo, Leo Fernandes, Eric Ayuk

There might be no clearer case of addition by subtraction then shipping Andrew Wenger to Houston. His replacement, Chris Pontius, comes in with a great MLS pedigree (if he can stay healthy!), and both he and Le Toux will be pushed by Leo Fernandes and Walter Restrepo. With the logjam in the center of the park, we may see Barnetta, Alberg, and Ilsinho playing taking some minutes out wide as well. And again, here, we see the benefits of depth. Eric Ayuk saw over 1320 minutes last season as an 18-year-old rookie. He won’t see nearly that many this year; at least, not in MLS.

Verdict: Upgrade

2015 Center Forwards: C.J. Sapong, Fernando Aristeguieta, Conor Casey

2016 Center Forwards: C.J. Sapong, Fabian Herbers

The ginger hammer and the big bald hammer have both moved on in the offseason, two well-liked players who nevertheless disappointed last year. Their losses will be felt, though, because the entire load of the no. 9 position has fallen on C.J. Sapong. Sapong had a surprisingly strong year next year, but holding down this position by himself will require him to make a leap to the level of MLS All-Star.

Along with the center backs, this is the biggest question mark for the Union. However, I think that the situation is not as dire as it appears. In particular, Le Toux has a long career as a solid center forward, and he’ll get some minutes in there this season. The Union will be expecting their midfielders to chip in more goals, and they should — Pontius, Barnetta, and Alberg should be more potent then Wenger, Maidana, and Pfeffer were.

Verdict: Downgrade

Now, all we have to go on at this point is what’s on paper. Up for discussion, of course, is whether Jim Curtin has the managerial skills required to blend this bunch into a coherent whole. To me, this is the biggest question looming over the team entering the season.

But the question in this column is simply whether the roster is stronger today than it was in the last week of October.

And, on paper, the answer is yes.


  1. Well summarized. No matter how you slice it, this new and improved roster is objectively more talented and better suited for success than the old. Excited for the season, excited to see eleven guys who earn (not fill) their spot. Competition breeds success.

  2. This is too rosy of a take for me, Peter. In some sense it relies on the fact that last year’s Union could only get marginally worse.

    I agree that the team is stacked with attacking midfielders, and we should be fine at defensive midfield too. I also agree that having backline depth is unprecendented in Union history, and should ensure that quality doesn’t drop off much when starters go down with injuries or suspensions. But I don’t think we’ve clearly made improvements int he starting quality of a backline that, as you said, gave up 55 goals last year. Rosenberry, Yaro, Anderson, and Tribbett are all unproven. And several of these guys are promising, but then again, so was Steven Vitoria.

    You’ve also missed our greatest point of improvement from last year:
    that we won’t have Rais M’Bolhi in goal for a bunch of games to start the season.

    • Which part is rosy though? I think the only potential argument is CB, where he has it as a push. There definitely are questions there, with three of the four CBs being new to the squad…and maybe even a question of whether or not Marquez is as effective paired with one of the new guys as he was with Edu. You could argue for a CB downgrade based on Edu moving out of there, but a push seems fair for now.

      I don’t think I could argue any other positional group rankings above. Outside backs clearly are better than last year, as the two season ending starters are back, with actual positionally appropriate back-ups now. You can argue if the group of four is good enough…but it’s in a better place than last year.

      • Even though Edu will most likely be playing midfielder all year he is still on the roster and could slide back if necessary. Add that to the fact that our other cdms are the same as last year I don’t see how you can say the cb roster overall is a push. we lost vitoria and white at cb and that is it. and they were terrible.

      • Section 114 (Formerly) says:

        We are clearly worse at fullback.
        And the fullback and GK “upgrades” are only incremental. Add in that we had Sheannon at the start of last season and it’s a definite downgrade at fullback.
        I’m not sure the slight improvement (and massive depth improvement) in the midfield is meaningful at all by comparison.

      • But the article is comparing the end of last season to now. With that as the base, I’m not sure how you can make the argument that we “are clearly worse at fullback.”

      • Section 114 (Formerly) says:

        Fair point. As to the very end of last season, I would argue that we are only marginally better at FB. We still have a gaping hole at left back.

      • I applaud your skill at playing the “jilted lover”.

      • As far as LB, there is Fabinho backed up by Washington. If you don’t think Washington can cut it yet, Gaddis can play on the left with Rosenberry on the right. Also Conceição has supposedly played some left back.
        Sure it may not be ideal, but in a salary capped and limit roster spot league, that is just how things are. At least there are a bunch of more legitimate options inside of “let’s convert Wenger to outside back”.

      • Well if you are including Sheanon you also need to include M’Boli and not include Barnetta or Sylvestre or Creavalle

  3. Aesthetic…. please just show me you can begin to play the right way… “I’ll take mid table punching above our weight” so long and the weekly two hour investment from me doesn’t require Prilosec before the game and an enema after.
    Maybe soon, eh men?

  4. Knee over the ball says:

    I am excited about the offseason changes and believe we are headed in the right direction. Historically we have failed as a team to get off to a strong start though we have rallied late and competed well in the Open Cup. I feel we are a stronger team than last years but still believe this year will struggle but learn and grow from it. The two areas of unknown are our defense and goal scoring. I think the comparison I would be interested in seeing is how does our 2016 lineup compare with an established playoff team like the red cows. Do we believe our strength (midfield) is a a strength versus them, LA or Seattle? Then as you mention how does the coach bring it together and utilize the pieces. It should be a fun ride and I hope we get off to good start.

  5. Sorry to nitpick, but please discern between then and than. Someone would be “better than” someone, not better then someone. Interesting take, otherwise.

    • John P O'Donnell says:

      So it’s the Union are going to score goals, then we’re going to Doop.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Be charitable about spell checkers. They take grammatically valid Sentences that employ conditional constructions and mangle them into insensate gibberish and when you correct their errors they do it again. The creators should not become billionaires, they should serve time in Siberian lumber camps.

      • Blaming your spell checker for grammar errors is like blaming your cruise control for a speeding ticket.

  6. Lucky Striker says:

    I believe:

    I believe that-

    Union are better in goal.
    Have the potential to be better at CB (including the possibility of Mo rotating there as needed)
    Are deeper at FB, but would have been better with Vincent over Yaro.

    Are scary shaky in the defensive midfield.
    Are deeper and more versatile on the wing. Performance remains to be seen-but at least they now have legit options.

    Are worse up top, owing to the removal of Casey, Nando and Hop-with only Herbers arriving.

    Are the same technically speaking.

    What that translates to in terms of final numbers?


    • MLS is so “any given Friday night on Univision” that it wouldn’t surprise me a little if their new wingers helped to nick a few 2-1 wins here and there.

      Author is correct that the biggest variable is whether Curtin has the chops. He’s got “his guys”, he’s got an executive who knows what he’s doing behind him, he’s got more bench help, more technical players. The only thing he doesnt have anymore…excuses.

    • Lucky Striker says:

      Should add that they appear massively better at CAM-but that’s merely a guess. They haven’t really attempted to show much in terms of link play this preseason, and I’m not sure most of the candidates have even garnered significant PT at that position yet…….

  7. A team with this much depth is a team built to win…

    The US Open Cup!!

    Back to back US Open Cup finalist so far and I’m thinking this pushes us to be the Champions this year.

    As for the MLS season – I agree that there have been upgrades and I also think they will be more entertaining to watch but they would really have to come to together quickly to do more than just miss the playoffs again or flame out early. IF they stay healthy and Curtin gets some mad-jedi skills as a manager they might exceed (low) expectations

    • You know Big Earn probably has a coach or 2 in mind, just in case. ES does not seem to do “random” and reading between the lines, I think Jimmy is quietly going to be on the hot seat this season…

  8. Nice summary.
    The GK update reminded me: I would like to thank Brian Sylvestre for his service last year. I don’t remember if he had a proper send-off. I thought he played rather well on loan.

    • I second this. If it were possible, I’d rather have had Sylvestre than McCarthy. But it seems it was never in the cards.

    • Section 114 (Formerly) says:

      AMEN! I’d like to have him back this year and forever.

    • Yes! His on-field demeanor quietly shouted, “Everybody calm down!” He was the exactly right person to step into that position and that situation at exactly the right time.

  9. team looks, feels, seems, may be, could be, might be … better THAN last year. Will still attend the games to see if it works out. Earnie will keep making changes to his team (players, coaches, etc.) as is his practice in the past. He has been successful (no Hinkie trust here), so it should be interesting. focus on guys who play the ball nice to see. Guys like Barnetta nice to see. Someone annoying and skilled like Ilsinho nice to see. Need one more striker – may be a DP signing? The
    Sakenstein monster has been set on fire and is now roaming the countryside looking for lacrosse players. the angry mob can take a break, stow the torches and pitchforks, and let this play out. If it doesn’t work, THEN it can reform.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Don’t have Much salary cap space left. To sign a DP without applying TAM you’ve got to have well over $400K in cap space. To reduce that with TAM, you’ve got to have the TAM left. We will have no idea of any of that until mid-May at the earliest.

  10. I might be dense… but i can’t for the life of me figure out what “Verdict: Push” means! 🙁

  11. i believe that missimo is actually a winger, not a center midfielder

  12. Yeah… but a better Union only as other MLS teams are on-the-whole better too. The overall average quality of MLS teams improves at a greater rate than the Union players IMO. However, no other team has improved their FO more than the Union from 2015. That’s the real story of 2016 I’m going to follow.

  13. Need to add another striker. Most of Herbers experience is either left wing or cam. Sapong goes down… Although I guess we can use Ilsinho, Alberg or Herbers as a false 9.

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