Season Previews

What to realistically expect from the Union in 2018

Photo: Ryan Griffith

Editor’s note: Today kicks off our weeklong season preview for Philadelphia Union. Check in all week for more in-depth looks at the 2018 season. Read the other posts of the season preview here.

Philadelphia Union missed the playoffs in 2017, and they followed up by adding just two players from outside the organization, the fewest of any MLS club.

Now we’ll see whether the quality of those players outpaces the quantity.

In David Accam, they have brought in one of the league’s most electric attacking players, who also happens to play some of the most static defense.

In Bořek Dočkal — whose addition we presume will occur — the Union are bringing in via last-minute loan a Czech international who can man the No. 10 role but has never played a full season in a top domestic league as good as MLS will be in 2018.

All the Union’s other additions came from within the organization. None played first division pro soccer last year. Most are teenagers.

Clubs like Atlanta, Orlando, Toronto and New York City FC are springing for discretionary targeted allocation money (TAM) to pack the second tier of their roster after filling all three designated player slots.

In contrast, the Union spent the preseason desperately — but maybe successfully — scrambling in the loan market to fill a hole at the No. 10 that’s been there since November 2016. They are unlikely to fund discretionary TAM signings. (Update: They did!) Their youth movement appears to be a default choice, occurring (and perhaps being forced) now because ownership will not spend at the level of their best competitors.

They could make the playoffs, but 2018 will still be an uphill battle for the Union. This is not a club with sufficient financial backing to contest the top tier of MLS 3.0.

That doesn’t mean they won’t compete though.

The rest of the playing field

First, take a look at what the Union are up against in MLS’s Eastern Conference.

  1. Toronto: The best team in MLS history lost legitimate contributors but may have upgraded with imports from first divisions in Spain and Italy.
  2. Atlanta: MLS’s new big money club splashed the cash again and should have the league’s most exciting attack, but they still have big gaps.
  3. Orlando: The Lions added three MVP candidates from the past four seasons in Justin Meram, Sacha Kljestian, and Uri Rosell after bringing in another, Dom Dwyer, last summer. Their other signings include the NASL’s MVP, a designated player, and a center back who was starting in the Bundesliga a few months ago. This team is stacked and just needs time to gel.
  4. New York City: They lost Jack Harrison and replaced him with DP Jesus Medina. That’s how NYCFC does things with their roster.
  5. Chicago: They lost David Accam to Philly but held steady otherwise, hoping loanee Aleksandar Katai can replace him. With plenty of roster space and allocation money, Chicago looks to have another big move or two coming.
  6. D.C. United: Much improved, with a new revenue-producing stadium that will take this club to the next level.
  7. Montreal: A major youth movement with some interesting signings and a big-time coaching hire in Remi Garde. Montreal is a wild card.
  8. New York Red Bulls: Jesse Marsch is ruthless. They’ll be good by August. Next.
  9. Columbus: Anthony Precourt is basically the movie Major League. They lost their two best attackers, and their coach could follow them out the door to be the next U.S. national team coach. Next.
  10. New England: The worst franchise in MLS. Next. (Wait. There is no next.)

Those top three teams are better than the Union. New York City probably is too, but the moment David Villa starts feeling old — any day now, folks, any day now, really — they’re in trouble.

The rest? It’s wide open. Gregg Berhalter’s system could keep Columbus afloat, or they could crater. The Red Bulls traded another captain, so who knows how they’ll fare. It’s that sort of field. But it’s also a conference with some proven head coaches.

The Union’s key challenges

The Union haven’t kept pace with the top half of the league in terms of broadly improving their roster. They have just two designated players. They have fewer TAM players than the top clubs. They’re likely going to start two or three teenagers on opening day.

But if they can get the kind of performances their players are capable of, they could be a fun team to watch.

  • Keegan Rosenberry must return to form.
  • So does Richie Marquez, but he won’t get the chance. Talented teenager Auston Trusty will likely start opening day. He has yet to play a minute in MLS, but he must produce.
  • David Accam needs to be the player who dominated for parts of last year — and stay injury-free. He has never started more than 24 games in an MLS season.

So it goes.

The Union face significant challenges.

  • No. 10: Dočkal must acclimate to his teammates and the unique challenges of MLS (notably the travel) quickly despite missing the preseason.
  • Left back: They needed a veteran upgrade at left back but didn’t get one. Expecting the inexperienced Trusty to clean up after Fabinho’s occasionally catastrophic messes could have spectacularly awful consequences. If Matt Real eventually wins the job, it would put two teens on the left side, which could be just as messy.
  • Young defense: Philadelphia could field a lineup with two young center backs and no true defensive midfielder in front of them, with Haris Medunjanin expected to run man the No. 6 slot again as a regista. Alejandro Bedoya can’t be everywhere.
  • Direct wingers: Accam and Fafa Picault are both burners who play direct. Neither plays a ton of defense. Neither is big on the possession game.

Will the Union’s strategy be bunker, counter, and long ball?

Can their top players (Bedoya, Accam, Medunjanin, C.J. Sapong, Andre Blake) replicate their best form and stay healthy?

How will their young players fare this year?

Will Jim Curtin, having lost his top assistant coach to Los Angeles FC, finally silence the doubters of his coaching acumen?


Union fans could be in for another tough year.

Or the Union front office could have done just barely enough to keep this team competitive.

The team has talent, but it’s not clear they have enough with experience. Their center back pairing will be the league’s youngest. If Real eventually wins the left back job, the back line’s average age will be lower than the legal drinking age. The back line could be a train wreck of chaos that not even Blake can save. Or the kids could come good.

The addition of Accam doesn’t, by itself, make the Union a playoff team. They needed a quality No. 10 attacking midfielder, an upgrade at left back, and a stabilizing of the back line. We’ll see if they sufficiently addressed those needs.

The Union could finish in fourth place or last place, and neither would surprise. Anything better would.

Dočkal is the key. Someone has to step up as a creative playmaker. If nobody does, then nobody’s watching playoff soccer at Talen Energy Stadium.

But if someone does, anything’s possible.


  1. ‘Tis the season for the hypotheticals…
    What if this team has added all the right pieces to be a top 5 scoring team in the league…but it’s U20 backline makes enough rookie-esque mistakes to be the reason we miss the playoffs? Basically, what if we lose a bunch of 4-3 games, and we play an exciting wide-open style of play, and we can point to youth as the reason for our shortcomings?
    How disappointing would that be? (Actual question, not saying “that’s ok, let’s shoot for that!”)

    • I was originally going to say I’d be happy with this. Probably the best outcome I see as possible. But I’d like to add one caveat in that the youngsters can struggle as long as Elliot doesn’t have the Union year two regression. If the mistakes are Trusty, Real et al., then I’m more than fine.

    • I’d be happy with that. Definitely.

    • “Basically, what if we lose a bunch of 4-3 games, and we play an exciting wide-open style of play, and we can point to youth as the reason for our shortcomings?”
      So for me, when you say we can point to youth as the shortcoming, that implies that we see improvement from Trusty, Real, Rosenberry, and so on. That means (again, to me) that the mistakes we see in March don’t happen in August / September / October.
      That is, for me Trusty can stink up the joint in March – as long as “stink up the joint” means he’s getting schooled by more experienced players and learning from that schooling. If we’re losing 4-3 in March, April and May, but then winning 3-1 or 2-0 in August, September, and October then I won’t be at all disappointed.
      On the other hand, if Rosenberry continues to do his Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde impersonation; if Trusty gets beat early and it goes to his head; if Elliott has a patented Union-Year-2-Regression; if Real can’t get on the field because it’s clear Fabinho is the better option; if Jones doesn’t play and so can’t improve…
      Actually, never mind. I don’t want to contemplate just how ugly that could be…

      • It would be a matter of the frequency of the issues of youth decreasing as the year goes on. Maybe during the first month they have trouble containing New England and Columbus, but they handle them without problem in July. But in July they are still having trouble with Toronto and Atlanta.
        Growth. Are they more sure of themselves as the year goes on, even if there is the occasional error?
        The “4-3” is a generality, implying that we might be open to a faster pace of play. The high line/fast pace can lead to more goals on both sides, especially when we are fielding such young players.
        If we continue to play “hoof-and-hope,” then all this goes out the window, too.

      • “Frequency of the issues of youth” is a good way to put it, and exactly what I was going for.

  2. Fabinho is the vet LB. I think this article under-rates him. Also I think Piccualt plays more D then he’s given credit for. The team went out and filled our 2 biggest holes with legit players (Accam is one of the best in MLS, Dockal who knows but he seems good) and we will be forced to play the kids which people have been screaming about for years.
    We don’t match up to the top 3, that’s for sure (although Orlando’s D still seems weak and they lost some good players too) but it’s not unreasonable to think we finish anywhere for 4-last this year.

    • Fabinho has always held status quo and been better than most expect each year, but he’s already been out with injury this preseason. I expect to see Real to see some decent minutes throughout the year.

      • I agree, I just don’t see us signing a vet LB who is any better than Fabinho, especially when we want Real to take that starting spot buy next year at the latest.

  3. This should work out seeing as how MLS is infamous for being highly predictable.

    • It will start to get more predictable now that owners can have up to 3 DP’s and can choose whether or not to fully fund their TAM coffers.

  4. “So does Richie Marquez, but he won’t get the chance.”

    Well he got a chance, but he let some no name player in the pre-season steal it from him and score on us.

    • From what I’ve seen of Richie so far this preseason, he’s looked really bad. Same for Yaro.

      • Yaro was a premium draft pick and is still young. If its true (as it seems) that his ship has sailed on centerback for the U, maybe they should move him down to BSFC and see if they can develop him as a #6.
        If he can run and tackle as well as Crevalle, but is calmer on the ball offensively with great passing range, maybe there is still a future for him.

      • I’ve thought Yaro should have been converted from the start. But his decision making is very suspect. His red card accumulation per minutes played is not good.

      • I’m a big Marquez fan. He doesn’t look himself, even compared to the end of the season when he was starting. I think his confidence took a hit big time this off-season. The mistakes he’s making this off-season are different from what we usually see from him. (i.e. All guys make mistakes. His are usually losing a mark on a set piece, not giving the ball away inexplicably.)

    • 2 years ago I would say “look at what Marquez just did” and during preseason I started saying the same thing, but with my hand on my head. Yaro has simply relied on speed too long and he hasn’t adapted to MLS speed. We don’t need another #6, we need to understand how Jones is going to get playing time. He looked like the only adult soccer player on the field against the Rowdies and he is going to be sitting on the bench. Early last season he looked good with Haris, then he sat. I appreciate depth, but the guy needs to play. Heck, play a 3-5-2 and let the kid be a destroyer and make some enemies.

      • Last year he looked good, got hurt, and then looked bad when he came back as the speed of the game picked up. He got a lot of time with Steel so it wasn’t all lost, but he needs to be better this year.

      • I’ve been saying ever since we lost Barnetta that we should do 3-5-2. But now with Docal coming in, feel like it is unnecessary. We would be adding a questionable center half (Yaro/Marquez) at the expense of a midfielder. That is unless you wanted to put Rosenberry at RCB, played Fafa & Bedoya as wingbacks, a spine of Jones, Haris and Docal with Aacam and CJ up top.
        It could be good, but that is a heck of a lot of chaos to create to get in Jones.
        Not sure your Captain/DP should be slotted into wingback position either.
        With a legit #10, I would rather keep our existing formation and play some games with Bedoya at #8 and some at #11 with Jones at #6 – depending on competition – like Conte does with Fabergas.

      • My biggest concern is defending. Fafa is better than he gets credit for. I think that CJ will be a better defender than Fafa, Accam, Docal, and Haris. So that leaves Bedoya to shield a young and potentially impetuous backline.

  5. I have to admit that I was slightly more optimistic about this team until I read this piece. Now I’m like, “Jesus F. Christ, Bedoya is gonna have to be everywhere…”

    Or maybe, as El Pachy suggested on a thread last week, we might have to consider moving Bedoya out to the wing and putting Derrick Jones in at D Mid to play destroyer. If he’s ready for that, it could potentially settle the offensive/defensive balance of the team. Come to think of it, that would be the way I could see this team really surprising on the upside: if Jones develops the flashes of awesomeness we saw early last season.

    • Just hope we get enough O because our midfield is going to overrun at times. Just the way this roster has been setup. Playing Bedoya at the wing will help but doesn’t solve the problem.

    • Bedoya on the wing though sits Fafa though, which is not ideal either.
      Maybe you do a Jose Mourinho thing and play for the tie in the first half with Jones on as #6 and Bedoya at #11; then go for the win in the second half, pulling off Jones for Fafa’s speed against tired legs and pushing Bedoya from #11 back to #8.

      • Reverse the order and I’m on board.
        Start with Bedoya and Haris behind the #10 to go for the win then, depending on the situation, bring in Jones for Fafa, Accam, or #10 to see out the game either by pushing Bedoya wide or by inverting the midfield triangle (as was done a few times last season).

  6. Speed kills and we have it in bulk now. Medunjanin is going to find those guys on breaks as long as their hammys hold out. If Fafa improves his finishing…It’s going to be a lot of fun.
    They’ll likely leak a bit more on defense, but I think they just might just outgun a few teams this year by putting them on their heels early.
    Really not sure about the Dockel thing. Loan? OK. The kind of money that’s being tossed about? Mmmmmm…I fear this will be too much money spent on the wrong kind of player, and then we’re stuck.
    50 points this season.

    • If there was a prior record of competitive spending (and there is not, inarguable) I could grudgingly say that reasonable mins can differ, but there is not. So I say spend the money. The ownership has to justify the people’s support. Spend the money.

  7. The whole season pretty much rests on an unknown quantity who still remains unsigned less than a week from opening day. So Union. So Sugarman. So over it

  8. el Pachyderm says:

    bunker counter long ball.
    kill me.

  9. very optimistic read

  10. I think we might be getting whiplash in the stands this year. Our back line is prone to the quick break, and on offense we have 3 long-ball specialist distributing from the back. I hope we have some tennis enthusiasts in the crowd, because it’s going to be back and forth for good portions of the match!

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