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Question to answer: Are the Union a playoff team?

Editor’s note: To read each post in the Questions to Answer series, click here.

Making the playoffs isn’t a great indicator of an MLS team doing well. Even with the addition of Atlanta United, over half of the Eastern Conference is going to get to play at least one postseason game, so securing a sixth or even fifth place berth is as much about not doing poorly as it is about doing well.

But none of that matters because, despite attempts to make the Supporter’s Shield relevant, the MLS Cup final is still the definitive answer when someone asks who won the league. And in order to make it to that final, a team has to make the playoffs, so the question facing the Union is the same facing every team in every league in this country:

Will they make the playoffs?

Last year, the Union made the playoffs more due to Orlando City and New England failing to take advantage of a rapidly declining Union than the Union out and out earning their spot. Even though that spot was only good enough for an away loss to Toronto, it still allowed the team and its fans to head into the winter with some positives despite the team’s hapless performance in the second half of the season.

That’s really where we first start to find an answer to our question. If last year’s team was good enough to make the playoffs, then this year’s team must be good enough too.

Bump in the road: Barnetta’s departure

The first bump in the road is the departure of Tranquillo Barnetta. It was an admirable decision on his part to return home to play for his hometown team, and the Union did the right thing allowing it, as it should have cemented the front office’s player-friendly image.

But there is unquestionably a cost to that decision as, in light Jim Curtin’s decision to play Bedoya as a No. 8, there is no clear replacement for Barnetta at the No. 10. No doubt there are players on the team that are capable of filling the role, but it remains to be seen if any of them can deliver same level of play our former Swiss international. That question hanging over the team is the biggest uncertainty this team faces right now, which is concerning considering the uncertainty this team faces at other positions.

Question mark: Striker

Last February, C.J. Sapong set his sights on 20 goals in 2016. As we all know, he came up well short of that. While his holdup play was praised, the simple fact is he scored less than half that, even less than Roland Alberg despite spending over twice the amount of time on the field. The late-season addition of Charlie Davies led many to think a change was coming, but Davies failed to see much time on the field and the season ended without either player finding previously untapped wells of performance.

Heading into the off-season, many thought a major striker would be the obvious use of Designated Player funds. Instead they signed Jay Simpson, an Arsenal academy product who has roughly the same credentials Bradley Wright-Phillips came to this league with. It remains to be seen though whether Simpson will share Wright-Phillips’ sudden elevation of play upon moving to MLS. If he doesn’t, the Union will once again be without an ace goalscorer and playoff ambitions rightfully in question.

Question addressed: Medunjanin

What isn’t uncertain though is that Haris Medunjanin has removed the revolving door at deep midfield, providing the decisive passing and playmaking the team lost with Vincent Nogueira’s departure, paired with a defensive work rate and physical presence that should make him an even more effective player in MLS. He’ll be playing with a fully integrated Alejandro Bedoya, who should really start to pay dividends now that he’s had the time it traditionally takes mid-season DPs to find their bearings in this league. The pair could be a scary unit for opponents and a position of concern from the second half of 2016 might be the most exciting area of the field to watch going forward.

A fairly stable back line

Lastly, the defense is largely unchanged, with all the starters from last year returning and backed up with new reinforcements. Oguchi Onyewu will be providing a veteran presence that should calm some of the nerves that undoubtedly contributed to the rookie mistakes that plagued the young center backs last season. Giliano Wijnaldum, if nothing else, should be ready to take over when Fabinho realizes just how old he’s become. At the very least there is no reason to worry about this back line performing at least to the level of last year, and knowing Andre Blake will be there to compensate for any deficiencies in play might be justification for even a hint of optimism.

Outlook: Is this a playoff team?

In the week before the 2017 season kicks off, Philadelphia Union have a stronger back line than the team that made the playoffs last year, one of the most exciting midfield pairings in the league, and a trio of strikers that are at least as good as last season even if it remains to be seen if they’re good enough. The uncertainty at number 10 is of course a concern, but with the depth of midfield talent on this team it’s unimaginable that some sort of arrangement can’t be found that allows the Union to equal last year’s result. They’re better in several areas and no worse almost everywhere else.

So yes, absolutely, this is a playoff team.


  1. Unfortunately everybody else improved as well. ESPNFC had a link yesterday to I think this podcast http://www.espnfc.us/major-league-soccer/19/video/3070406/max-and-herc-mls-season-preview and they had ranked the Union 13th team, so not making the playoffs. I think it will be 50/50 again and will depend a lot on how the Union as well as the other teams perform.

  2. If this team starts poorly and is in the bottom 3 or 4 come mid season, and the squad is mostly healthy during that stretch, I think Curtin is a goner. This team should be able to compete in this league. Prognosticating the club is tough because it added a lot of quantities unknown in the league — like Simpson.

    Only thing outside the current picture is that the club could make a move in the summer if it has to. We got Bedoya last summer and Barnetta the summer before that. I still feel like the greatest potential weakness for this club is defense, central defense in particular. We may be clamoring to reacquaint Mo with the centerback position by April

    • I can’t imagine Edu doing anything for the back line that Onyewu isn’t already capable of. Granted Gooch is a few years older, but it’s not like Mo is a healthy young man at this point either.

      • Edu is a much smoother and faster athlete than Gooch ever was. Hopefully Jones has claimed a DM spot when Edu is ready to return and we actually have to really decide if we should push Edu to CB.

  3. My feeling about this year is it’s going to come down to the defense. Even with Sapong’s lack of scoring we were still scoring enough goals last year to be winning games, the problems arose later in the season when we started leaking goals left and right. If we give up goals like we did in towards the end of last season and in the preseason…forget about it.

  4. Getting to playoffs will be tough this year, despite the abundance of spots. The team was basically a disaster by the end of the season, and then lost their best player. All additions sans Medunjanin are fair to describe as question marks. If they work out, we will be a better team, but almost all of the other Eastern Conf. Teams have made quality additions and should be much better as well. If they don’t work out, we could fall very far from last year’s record. I’d predict a 25% chance we get to playoffs.

  5. el Pachyderm says:

    Playoffs? Playoffs?

    • What is your measurement for success? (just asking… no spite or malice implied)

      • el Pachyderm says:

        I am glad you asked.
        This is my measurement for success.
        Mind you, before reading this, written by me last week, I’m not sure how long you have been reading and writing here but I have been unforgivingly ruthless regarding this team, franchise and culture for about three years. Post game commentary by me is often an unforgiving tirade with…
        …skewer(ed) as my voice word cause they earn(ed) it… this will not change, but I feel it provides context when you read what my measure for success is.
        I Am CItizen Insane February 23, 2017 at 3:08 pm

        I need a team that dominates possession at home. That pursues clean sheets in Philadelphia….that attacks when up 2-1… then sees out the win in tidy fashion; that steps on the other team’s throat up 2-0; that has a lethal counter so when on the road a smash and grab steals the point in a low scoring affair.
        A body of work that displays greater sophistication; that says this is a team and organization coalescing. Complete leadership at every level of the franchise from 8 year olds up year in year out. PROTOTYPE.
        Playoffs as metric. Not for me. Joy first. Always.
        Once all those pieces are in place and repeatable – lets talk about playoffs and winning titles. This is not about being a One Off.
        – this is my metric for success…. if playing in such a way results in a bunch of points great. I need aesthetic though. I need to be able to breath and repose and get lost in the art of likemindedness- I need Miles, Bird, Monk, Medesky Martin and Wood. Give me standards and improvise off them beautifully. and that is success.

  6. OneManWolfpack says:

    Sounds cliche but on paper, they are a playoff team. They have depth, talent, youth, veterans, etc. They have good to very good players at most positions. No superstars, but we know that isn’t necessary to make the playoffs.
    If they miss the playoffs it will be because Curtin mismanaged the team or they have a rash of injuries they can’t recover from.
    Other than that they should have a 4th-6th place finish in the East.

  7. Spin the same basic question a different way.
    What are worst-case-scenario single events from which they cannot recover?
    Or to restate with more drama, removing which player creates a situation from which they cannot recover?
    Call it the Nogueira Analysis.
    Yaro’s speed is a real candidate given that they play a high line counter-pressure defensively, to quote substantively but not literally from Adam Cann.
    Haris Medunyanin’s passing technique and vision. We have yet to assess his defending.
    Alejandro Bedoya’s defensive pressure as a #10.
    As I look at my own thinking, I notice it focuses on the central spine.

    • And the central spine is the question mark from back to front. The team could end up being very entertaining/attractive to watch or frustrating/embarrassing. The possibility gap feels that large to me.
      Too little sample size from preseason. Too many questions still begging an answer.

  8. Folks,- Playoffs? You are asking with trepidation and answering with fornication. The question is : can Edu, Davies and Onyewu
    return to anything resembling their past form? If the answer to that is yes, the answer to the other becomes obvious.

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