Analysis / Union

Five Union preseason battles to watch

Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Union

“Phase two.”

It sounds like what a supervillain in a pulpy summer movie might call the second stage of his master plan to take over the world.

Or, alternatively, it’s what Jim Curtin calls this part of Philadelphia Union’s preseason, when the team will play a couple of scrimmages in Clearwater and train until Friday. After a quick return to Philadelphia, they’ll head back to Clearwater for the Rowdies Suncoast Invitational — the last preseason matches before first kick in Vancouver.

Now, Curtin’s second phase might not be motivated by any evil intentions. (Of course, we can’t say for sure.) But it is an important step towards putting together an attack at MLS Cup 2017. With what Curtin has described as one of the deepest Union sides ever — “To get into our 18 this year will be a very big challenge,” he said Friday — there will be a lot of competition to figure out who the best XI are.

Here’s a quick look at the five most interesting positional battles that Curtin will be keeping an eye on during Phase Two. One note: I’m leaving out the center of midfield in this post. The health status of Maurice Edu really complicates things, and we simply don’t have enough information about where the coaching staff sees as Alejandro Bedoya’s best position. So — for now — let’s put that one to the side.


C.J. Sapong carried the load last year for the Union, starting 29 of the team’s 34 MLS games. Yet Sapong struggled down the stretch, finishing with just 7 goals on the year. That’s two fewer goals than 2015, despite playing nearly 600 more minutes.

The new import is Englishman Jay Simpson, an Arsenal academy product with a long history in the Championship and League One. Simpson just arrived in Clearwater late last week, and Curtin sounded eager to see what he brings to the table.

The scouting report on Simpson suggests that these two have different skill sets. Where Sapong is a bruising No. 9 who looks to hold up the ball and score through sheer physicality, Simpson offers more finishing skill and guile in the box. Though it’s unlikely Earnie Stewart envisions Simpson as a bench player, he’ll still have to earn the coach’s trust in training. The tiebreaker for Curtin is often defensive play, so if Simpson can’t come close enough to Sapong’s defensive work rate, we might see more of C.J. to start the season.

Charlie Davies is also on the team.

Right midfield

Both Fabian Herbers and The Artist Formerly Known as Ilsinho came into camp with something to prove. The second-year pro faded regularly at the 60-minute mark in his first professional season, even while he exceeded the expectations many observers had for him. The Brazilian struggled with fitness and injuries throughout the campaign, flashing tantalizing glimpses of his exceptional skills between stretches in street clothes.

Both have impressed Curtin so far. The manager called Herbers “the sharpest guy in training,” pointing out how much his fitness has improved over the last year. Ilson Jr., meanwhile, is down eight pounds from last year, and Curtin praised his fitness as well.

The solution here might be matchup-based. Curtin mentioned that the Union might play different lineups at home and on the road this year. Herbers is more of a “road” player because of his defensive qualities, and Ilson is more of a “home” player. My gut feeling is that Curtin trusts Herbers and would like to play him more often, but I expect this to be a spot where both players will see a lot of minutes this year.

Left back

After his best season in a Union shirt, it looked like Fabinho had cancelled his one-way rocket journey to the sun once and for all. But, in a somewhat surprising move, Stewart brought in a young player from the Dutch league to challenge for his spot.

Giliano Wijnaldum, the new Dutch left back, is this year’s co-winner of the “Most Difficult Last Name To Spell Award” along with Haris Medunjanin. Other than that his brother plays for Liverpool, I can’t say I know too much about Wijnaldum. But he wouldn’t have been signed if the Union didn’t envision him supplanting Fabinho, whether this year or in the future.

This preseason will give Curtin a chance to figure out what qualities Wijnaldum brings to the table. If he can pair Fabinho’s speed and attacking instincts with more composure and defensive consistency, the young Dutchman will likely end camp in the starting back four.

Center back

The 2016 Union never settled on a solid center back pairing. With Josh Yaro and Ken Tribbett rotating alongside Richie Marquez, chemistry on the back line ebbed and flowed as the season went on.

Tribbett’s miserable playoff performance left a bitter taste in the mouth all offseason, and he faces a tall task to claim a starting spot in the lineup. Yaro has more speed and ball skills and should be the first choice in his second season in the league. The wild card is Oguchi Onyewu, who Curtin praised as “playing center back at a very high level” early in the preseason. Onyewu is the Union’s tallest player, which negates Tribbett’s biggest advantage over Yaro, and has more experience than every other center back on the roster combined.

Marquez and Yaro are the presumed starters, but expect Onyewu, Tribbett, and Auston Trusty (in that order) to push them for playing time. I’d expect the latter two to be playing a lot of games in Bethlehem this year.

The bench

For the first time ever, the battle to make the game-day 18 might be as fierce as the battle to make the starting lineup. Curtin will only have six spots to allocate to field players, so there will be some excellent players watching each match in street clothes.

Let’s use this two-deep to illustrate the point.

If you assume that the team on the left is the “starters,” you can only pick seven of the eleven players on the right for the bench. If that’s Sapong, Roland Alberg, Herbers, Warren Creavalle, Onyewu, Fabinho, and John McCarthy, then your street clothes squad is Charlie Davies, Fafa Picault, Brian Carroll, Tribbett, Ray Gaddis, Auston Trusty, Derrick Jones, and Eric Ayuk.

Those are some good players on the street clothes squad! There will be real decisions at the back end of the roster every week, and Phase Two is a crucial chance for these players to show that they deserve a reserve role. Chaos is a ladder, and the opportunistic player will stake a claim as soon as possible.


  1. Earnie is working magic making us two deep everywhere.

  2. Two very good points raised…
    1) “The solution here might be matchup-based”. In addition to competition during training pushing players and possible injuries, on-paper this is the best roster the Union have ever had making it possible for Curtin to make changes based on the opponent. Do they sit compact and deep? Ilson Jr can break them down on the wing, Medunjanin can manage the defensive midfield to get another offensive minded player on the field. Do they try to build out of the back and the U want to high press? Herbers’ defensive work and the range of Edu or Crevalle in the midfield might be better next to Medunjanin. And so on and so forth. I think this year could be a good measuring stick to see how much Curtin has learned/grown as a head coach.
    2) “…and we simply don’t have enough information about where the coaching staff sees as Alejandro Bedoya’s best position”. The flexibility of a bunch of players on the team really gives a lot of different options. Edu can play the 8 or the 6. Bedoya can play the 8 the 10 or the wing. Picault and Herber can both play the wing or striker. With Wijnaldum now on the team there is the option of using Fabinho at LM. Medunjanin it sounds like can play the 6, 8, or even 10. Sapong can play up top or on the wing. Etc, etc, etc.

    • I’m pretty sure our midfield 3 are Bedoya, Edu, and Medunjanin. The only thing that could really change that (other than injury or formation change) is if they want to get Alberg in so they shift Bedoya to the RW (or I guess Edu to CB but I doubt that).

      • I agree. But the options are still there.
        The other thing is that with Edu having missed pretty much a whole year, I could see them being cautious with him for the first half of the season – sub off around 60-75min mark or on the bench for a Wed game after playing the previous Sat.
        Edit: Also, there is the assumption that Medunjanin is a 90min player. As always with new players to the league, the travel and amount of running is much different then most other leagues.

  3. Jimbo can’t play everybody so there will no doubt be some frustrations. Thankfully I think Fabi will be a good sport about the new Dutchman. I wonder how well Edu will jell Haris and what will come over our spine. Sapong and Simpson are very different and I’m hoping Jim has the wherewithal to change things up game to game. Illy and Herbs are going to be in a great battle all season and I think only good things will come of that. Who is our ten at this point – Bedoya or Alberg? If they both get on the field is Ponty sitting?
    Being so deep is a blessing and a curse. Good luck Jim!

    • I’m thinking Pontius is a start all the time regardless. I think they like him more than Ilsinho and Herbers, and I have to agree.

    • Good Lord, I hope they do not start Alberg at the 10 spot. The man is simply not a #10. It’s pretty clear that they want Bedoya in that role, and I think the other good option would be the Flashy Brazilian (whatever he’s calling himself now), who connects excellent passes and dribbles at people.

      • While I also do not love Alberg at the 10, I thought Ilsinho also looked bad there last year. Honestly unless Najem is ready to backup there our best option is probably to put Herbers there.

      • I have this suspicion that Edu will not be healthy enough to start the season and we’re going to see Bedoya and Medunjanin behind Alberg in the midfield. They already gave him the #10 jersey…. Not saying it’s ideal, I just see it coming.

      • The jersey and other positions vacant are what I’m going off of as well.

      • I think we all agree that Alberg is a) an attacker and b) very good at popping into the right spaces to strike at goal. What that means is he needs someone in front of him who moves opposing CBs around to create space for him. Sapong doesn’t do that well, especially when he’s not a threat to score. Simpson may be much, much better at that. Plus, I suspect Medunjanin will be significantly more creative playing behind him than Creavalle ever was. And lastly, he’s got a year under his belt now. Let’s let the man show us his stuff. We just might be happy with it.

      • I agree. Let’s remember his hot streak coincided with Herbers playing the number 9 if I remember correctly.

    • And yes, Pontius is an almost-every-match starter, as long as he maintains his 2016 form. (Maybe you rest him for one of those evil 3-matches-in-8-days stretches).

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        No maybe to it, I suspect. They were very careful with his minutes last year. They have even greater depth this year on the left flank.

      • True, but he’s also now a whole year removed from injury issues. I would imagine he’d go the full 90 more often this year, although you are probably right he will probably start less games. Especially because they will probably have Edu on the Pontius minutes plan this year.

  4. It seems like there will be 1 guy left off for me. The staff seems to be very high on Picault and right now he’d be my 19th. I do have a few questions:
    Does Fabihno have experience playing on the right side? If not, does that give Gaddis the nod since he has had serious minutes on both sides?
    How many games do we think the following players will play on turf fields: Edu, Gooch, Ilsinho, Carroll? (maybe this is part of the home/away conversation)
    Would it make more sense to pair Herbers with CJ and Illsinho with Simpson?

    • I think Creavalle would be the emergency RB. He is a nice bench player. Fabinho give you depth at LB and LW (his right foot is nonexistent but I guess he could play RB in a pinch). Gaddis gives you depth at RB/LB. Really interesting depth questions this year honestly.

      • These are both very interesting points. I was thinking the same as Az, that Gaddis’ flexibility would make him the default backup at wingback for either side. Creavalle is really not much of a wingback — his performances there were quite iffy at best. The other thing I wonder is: does Wijnaldum play another position? If he can back up at RB too, and Fabi wins the positional battle, then maybe Wijnaldum makes your 18 instead of Gaddis.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Keep in mind the possibility that Rosenberry makes the Gold Cup.
        Me, I would be looking at Wijnaldum’s flexibility, not Fabinho’s.

      • Yes and yes OSC. I still think Fabinho starts at LB, at least at the beginning of the year. New European players often take some time to adjust to the league (even Barnetta took half a season, and he had way more pedigree than this kid). Be patient. Wijnaldum will play his way in.

  5. I don’t think Davies is getting enough love on any of this. I have a feeling he’s going to look much better this year than he did last year. I agree that Sapong give you more depth as he can swing out to the wing, and is also a different look than the others, but Davies just seems forgotten. He probably had the most potential of all of our attackers at one point.

    • gotta think if Sapong(or anyone for that matter) goes through a similar drought, his playing time will have to be cut with all the other options sitting, waiting (wishing) behind him.

    • Davies still feels like your last 15 -20 minutes sub when you need a goal.

      The overall depth on this team is really terrific, and it’s worth noting how big a change that is for a team that was frequently left criminally short handed from injuries. This looks like a club now that can compete in MLS and make a credible run at the Open Cup (The Union’s White Whale these last three seasons).

      I’m feeling pretty optimistic we have a team that can compete this season. Not a favorite for MLS cup, but one that should be a lock for a playoff spot and to show well all season.

      • Yeah, it’s the first time you feel like if things come together this team could really make a run. The roster finally feels like it has some balance to it too.

    • Not enough love? Maybe you missed this gem above:
      “Charlie Davies is also on the team.”

      Its like Valentine’s Day with this man crush on CD. Any more love and it involves chocolates and Andrews holding up a boombox in the rain outside Charlie’s window.

  6. That’s about $750k in street clothes and that doesn’t even address the question of Najem. (Thanks to OSC for the figures by the way). Not sure how that compares to other teams’ budgets but it looks better than some of our other street clothes budgets…cough Adu, cough Soumary, cough he who must not be named, cough Anderson Conceicao, cough Kleberson.

  7. It is hard for me to envision a situation in which WC or Gaddis makes the game-day 18. WC is behind Edu, Haris, and BC as 6 depth imo and does not even make the 8 depth chart.
    Gaddis is a practice squad player at this point and the Union might as well just buy out his contract and gain $150k in cap space. He has no place on this team whatsoever imo. There is too much talent ahead of him and too much potential behind him to justify a spot on the roster at this point.

    • I’m shocked Gaddis hasn’t been unloaded. He’s serviceable depth in MLS and would start on most USL squads.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Too soon.
        Among other things, not fair to cut without some run outs in scrimmages. Only in case of ” totally obvious” or “a danger to himself” which shouldn’t be an issue professionally.
        Being perceived as fair by your locker room should be a consideration for a coach if he wants to hold genuine authority in the long term.

      • +1 but you’re coming from a sensible place. I’m coming from a Gaddis-made-me-pull-my-hair-out-too-many-times place.

    • I think Creavalle is ahead of Carroll on the bench. He’s got a lot more versatility than Carroll and can be used as a late game defensive #8 who basically just runs around and makes life difficult for the other team. I think he’s still improving as a player mentally too. Totally agree ion Gaddis though. I would not be surprised to see him traded before the end of the offseason. I do wonder who’s the backup there though if that happens.

      • I agree, I think WC is much more versatile, not to mention younger and fitter than BC. And that isn’t knocking BC, I love his attitude and he was clutch in a lot of games last year.

        What about Yaro moving to RB if we Keegs has to sit/miss for something? With the true backup coming from the Tribbett/Gooch tandem at RCB?

      • To me these two things are pretty simple Gaddis unless offered something good is going nowhere, because he is young and can fill both OB roles if there is injury (there is no real backup for Rosenberry on the roster other than Gaddis). Creavalle with this roster should never see the field period. I don’t know what people see in him. As far as organization goes he kills the organization of a team and I never want to see him coming in as a late game sub to kill the game it will be a disaster. The only late game sub killer of a game on this roster is Carroll.

      • I completely disagree, Creavalle had some great games last year. And bringing him in as like a last 10 minutes sub at the number 8 to harass the other team around the middle of the field is a great position for him.

      • +1

      • I’m with the Dr. here.
        Gaddis provides serviceable depth on either side and is a decent backup to have. $150K isn’t too terrible of a salary for a decent depth player either.
        Also, Creavalle covers a lot of ground and is athletic. He can make plays and appears all over the field, but that isn’t always what you want in a defensive center midfielder to kill off a game. He creates an imbalance sometimes when he tries to play hero ball. I wouldn’t say Creavalle should never see the field, but I’d prefer Carroll over him.

      • Yeah, That’s why I said play him at the 8 for end of game defense, because it allows him to roam a little more without opening up the middle of the d. But without a doubt the bench choices are going to be tough this year.

      • I Am Citizen Insane says:

        I agree, Doc. I’m of the opinion Creavalle isn’t MLS quality and is WAY too undisciplined. Carroll over Creavalle for 15 min of lockdown play every time.

    • We have to have someone to backup Rosenberry. We can’t expect him to play every freakin’ minute again this year. We’re liable to break him. Plus, he may miss a few games for international duty!
      There’s no other RB on this roster except for Creavalle (who is really lousy as a fullback), unless Wijnaldum can also play there. So we either need Gaddis, or we have to go get another backup RB. Having said that, I agree that he is probably good enough even to start for some teams, and I would expect to see him traded this year.

      • Something I just remembered is we drafted a RB this year who profiles similar to Rosenberry (in style). Maybe they want to see how he handles the preseason before making a decision of Gaddis?

      • Aaron Jones is his name. Im guessing we’ll sign him to a steel contract, although it is possible he inks a first team deal and then goes out on season long loan to Steel. In either case, he can be called up to a maximum of 4 first team matches (friendlies included) throughout the year. We should absolutely be keeping an eye on this kid before we make ANY Gaddis related decisions.

      • He also requires an intl spot, which we seem to be fresh out of.

  8. “Charlie Davies is also on the team.”

  9. What’s the deal with Adam Najem? What’s taking so long?

    • probably $$$$. the kid wanted more than the minimum…

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      He is not yet excluded, because a season-long loan of Trusty to the USL, a move that makes sense — if he can still practice with the Union — because of Onyewu’s presence, would clear a roster spot for him and leave one for a 3rd goalkeeper.
      I believe I am correct that you get one such loan per season, but would be happy for others to correct my memory.
      The MLS emergency goal keeper rule applies ONLY if you have three keepers on you roster. They get no relief in case of injury with Blake away with Jamaica and McCarthy goes down unless they have a 3rd keeper already. The rule provides a fourth keeper, not a third.

      • There have also been rumors of Ayuk going on loan overseas. I’m sure there’s multiple possibilities in the works.

    • They have to trade for his rights, so it’s clear they’re taking a long look at him before doing so. Looks like some kind of handshake deal is already in place for the Union to make that trade once they give him a full preseason’s worth of a trial.

  10. Man.. there is a scary amount of optimism flying around today… remember.. this is Philadelphia…

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Also remember the two Ps in Philadelphia use up the P in Patience.
      Me included, everybody is so itchy to see them on the field. We are all running fantasies in our heads, probably.

  11. I Am Citizen Insane says:

    If Carroll and Crevalle at any point this season are on the field together…. I’ll sink. As simple as that.
    I like the depth though. I like CJ Sapong on the bench in every permutation of starting lineup I can think of. He’s the effort guy at the end when nursing a one goal lead… hold up striker looking to maintain possession. There is a place for this type of player… not at first kick though.

    On another note and I’ll post it here until the Union/MLS/World Footy Daily News is sorted out since Ed is not posting it… and because
    1. I Iove to belabor a point.
    2. Damnit I’m certain I’m right and
    3. To irritate Union Goal, with respect of course— did anyone read the Tannenwald follow up piece on Union Academy with Richie Graham commenting on the merits v detriments of travel soccer? I’ve tried to find it online but haven’t — as I read it through his Twitter Feed.
    Spot on…. I am not alone. I am not in a wilderness chasing my tail. There is a legitimacy to the argument. This is no way disparages the untold volunteers who work to make the broken model work.
    Play local. Play localer. PLAY.
    Intramural path and Academy path … keep it simple.

    • I get the point about travel soccer, but it seems like it’s not hard to mitigate the main complaints. With the number of teams and kids playing, you should be able to restrict travel time to 30 minutes at most. My local club also gives “scholarships” to kids who can’t pay the fee. I agree that fee is a barrier, but until MLS clubs /US Soccer starts funding academies more fully and extending those development dollars down stream, I don’t see them disappearing any time soon. But yeah, emphasis should be on playing, not getting ranked.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      el P, look at either the Inquirer or the Daily news. They have a combined site whose name escapes me. Read it there earlier this AM.

    • I kinda want Edu to not be ready and Medunjanin to miss the first game for some meaningless reason and have us start C&C just for your reaction!

    • “If Carroll and Crevalle at any point this season are on the field together…. I’ll sink. As simple as that.”
      No one wants that, however everyone has jumped to the conclusion that a central midfielder who by last reports won’t be cleared to “run”, not even fully practice, but run, until Friday the 10th, will be able to contribute significant minutes. His number should be changed to 17 for the close approximation to the word IF. I would consider the C+C Midfield Factory to be a cheap term insurance policy to get us thru 2017 and then all 3 can come off the books.
      The real ? is can Haris hit the ground running or do we play mix and match midfield all year. If he struggles, expect Ale to drop back again and Alberg to be CAM.
      It’s like that red and blue ball that little kids shove plastic shapes into the corresponding holes was the toy that tortured Curtin as a child.

  12. I had not been as optimistic as the rest of the PSP crew about this squad, but dangit, Peter, seeing your “two-deep” lineups has convinced me.

    We need to keep in mind that some of what we have is “potential depth”, as there is a guarantee that at least SOME of the new signings simply will not work out. Of course we can’t say which ones, but well into the season it will become apparent, and at that point our “depth” options will close up somewhat.

    There is one other thing that comes with this much depth: the ability to make trades. I would expect to see Earnie make a couple deals, either before the season starts or early into the season, to pick up some $$$ and/or some allocation money. The money could be used flexibly to address urgent areas of need later in the season, if we have a disaster like the Nogueira departure. (Or, it could possibly even be used to generate some profit for the owners; I would assume they have made little or nothing from this club so far.)

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Comments from .mr. sugarman at the time of the Sakiewicz departure reinforce you instinct, Scottso.

    • I think you make two good points here and I’d like to add a little.
      As to the potential depth, I believe they’ve come the closest to total flexibility within their system yet. Sure some of the new acquisitions may not work out, but there’s also room to move up or sign those from the academy/BSFC. I suspect if Najem ever signs he’ll go immediately to BSFC unless he shows well for preseason. I also imagine he’ll get a shot during the season at some point.
      Which leads me to under E.S. everyone is for sale. I think Alberg becomes window dressing. Maybe even Gaddis. Does Pontius become expendable with Fafa here? There is always some sniff of a Blake rumor. I think they’d feel confident in selling all but a few starters and bringing in a BSFC player for depth.
      I fully expect E.S. to sell at some point this year. He’s been here over a year and has to be getting itchy. It should make for an interesting season.

    • Their soft equity has more than tripled in 8 years, I’d say they are quite pleased with the investment. Remember, this is a long term buy and hold stock, no one gets in and out of a sports team short term. Sugarshack is a real estate guy, he bought low in a depressed market and is letting other investors raise the overall tide without having to make significant capital investments.

  13. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Peter Andrews, In re spelling, think of the Js as Ys in the fashion of Hispanic pronuounciations.

    Dutch is linguistically related to German I think, which does exactly that. J=Y auf Deutsch.
    Bosnian is part of the South Slavic group which often does that as well.
    The other day I googled how to pronounce our new Bosnian midfielder’s name and this is my rendition of what I heard with no regard for proper linguistic rendition

  14. Along the same lines as above, since there is no Daily News right now, I’ll point anyone who is interested to the article below. Really good read on what Cherundolo has been up to since he hung up his boots – which is become a very well regarded “up and coming” coach.

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