Season Previews / Union

What can we realistically expect from the Union this year?

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Editor’s note: This piece is part of our week-long series previewing the 2019 Philadelphia Union season. For the full series, click here.

The 2018 campaign was probably bittersweet for a lot of Philadelphia Union supporters.

A playoff appearance for the second time in three seasons felt like promise. It felt like the squad was good enough to make something happen.

Then a 3-1 crash-out in the Bronx erased it all instantly.

A third U.S. Open Cup final appearance against a mediocre Houston Dynamo team felt like the charm. Surely it couldn’t happen a third time. The eventual 3-0 drumming felt cruel and familiar.

Now, with the 2019 season less than a week away, can Union fans expect something different?

The Major League Soccer assist leader in Borek Dockal is gone. Jim Curtin, with a record of 69-34-69 since 2014, is back. The formation is changing and some familiar faces are being asked to adapt. A proven Mexican international in Marco Fabian is now the club’s most expensive player ever and the youngsters on the backline have valuable experience. For quite a few reasons, 2019 is supposed to be different.

Curtin has a lot to of work left to do on the pitch, and he will have to navigate a difficult Eastern conference if he wants the difference to be substantial.

Did the Union improve?

The primary question to ask about the Union in 2019 is did they actually get better in the offseason? Let’s look at it position by position.

Goalkeeper: Andre Blake remains one of the best goalkeepers in MLS and will unquestionably earn the Union more points in 2019. Check.

Left back: Fabinho returns at left back, but he’s 33 and not what he used to be. A much younger option in Kai Wagner has looked a bit shaky in the preseason thus far. Matt Real is also in the mix, but we may see a lot of him with Bethlehem Steel in 2019. Left back isn’t exactly solidified at this point.

Center back: The only new signing is Aurelien Collin, who will make a nice supplement to his young teammates, but he’s not an MLS regular — especially not at 32. The club is truly banking on Jack Elliott, Mark McKenzie, and Auston Trusty improving on their own and taking the next step. The defense, which conceded 50 goals (for a -1 differential) in 2018, will continue to be a focal point with such a young core. All three have shown promise, but it’s consistency that wins in MLS.

Right back: Ray Gaddis is back and no longer competing with Keegan Rosenberry, but he has Olivier Mbaizo in the mix now. Ernst Tanner was pretty adamant about dealing Rosenberry to Colorado, but it is fully up for debate on whether or not that makes the squad any better. A lot would argue Rosenberry provided much more going forward than Gaddis. Mbaizo is a wild card.

Center midfield: In the holding spots of the midfield, Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin should, theoretically, be that much more comfortable playing together. There will be no more questions about filling in at the No. 10 spot and both players can get settled into their respective roles in the 4-4-2 diamond. A lot of Union supporters would like to see more of the 6-foot-4 Derrick Jones, who has made a couple of worthwhile appearances off the bench in Florida preseason matches. Warren Creavalle will be there as defensive-minded sub, while Brenden Aaronson and Anthony Fontana are exciting prospects in the mix. They probably aren’t ready for full-time MLS duties, but the Union midfield remains above average as a whole.

Attacking midfield: Not even to mention Marco Fabian, the big hitter. It will be a major relief for the Union to not have to worry about the No. 10 spot heading into a campaign, because as great Dockal turned out to be, he started very slowly in 2018 and the pressure was on. Fabian is undoubtedly that guy, and the only question is just how good he will be. He has a lot of creative flare and brings immense international experience, but he’s also a different player than Dockal. It won’t be fair to expect 18 assists from him this season, but he’s fully capable of scoring more than five goals. Ultimately, it’s unlikely Fabian will be that much better or that much worse than Dockal. Everyone will be hoping for an improvement behind the attack, but it won’t be astronomical. Eighteen is a lot of dimes.

Striker: Finally, the forwards. C.J. Sapong is off to Chicago, but there are still a lot of them competing right now with only two starting spots. Cory Burke and FaFa Picault led the squad with 10 goals each last season — is that the partnership moving forward? Newcomer Sergio Santos is a big question mark and, frankly, so is the entire attack right now. Can Ilsinho function as a centered forward? Is Kacper Przybylko the unexpected man with the answers? How about David Accam? Remember him? The Union have a bunch of talent up there, but not one guy. Not the guy. If they’re fully going to be better in 2019, he will have to emerge.

At least on paper, the squad really didn’t get better in the offseason. It didn’t get worse, but it didn’t get clearly better. 2019 will be about the individual parts getting better. It will be about a fresh new formation and players thriving in it. Sometimes you don’t need help from the outside.

How the East looks

Regardless of what the Union produce internally, the Eastern Conference will always play a role in whether or not the season is successful. It’s not getting any easier. Atlanta United sent shockwaves through the league last year and they’re not going anywhere. Yes, they lost midfielder Miguel Almiron to England and manager Tata Martino to Mexico, but Josef Martinez and his record-shattering 31 goals remain. Pity Martinez comes over from Argentina and he’s the real deal. They also won MLS Cup without Darlington Nagbe for a majority of the year. He’ll be back, the league’s biggest crowd will be back, and you’ve got to think Atlanta is a lock for the playoffs.

Things aren’t as flashy for the Red Bulls, but they will also be there. They’ll be there because they’re always there. 2018 was their third Supporters Shield in six years and they conceded a league-low 33 goals. New York has proven it doesn’t need superstars to win. Chalk them up for a playoff spot.

That means, essentially, the Union are competing for five Eastern conference playoff spots. With newcomers FC Cincinnati in the mix, 10 squads are vying for them and five will be left out.

New York City FC, like Atlanta, lost a big star and are transitioning with a new coach. David Villa will go down as one of MLS’s early pioneers and most influential players, but the club did post a 6-3-2 record without him in 2018. His loss may not be as drastic as fans outside New York would hope. NYCFC still has a solid core and brought in Alexandru Mtrita, a highly-touted forward from Benfica. They’ll be a favorite to make the playoffs again.

Columbus Crew lost coach Gregg Berhalter to the U.S. Men’s National team, but replaced him with an MLS Cup winner in Caleb Porter. They retained key players like Gyasi Zardes, Federico Higuain, and Will Trapp, and will have one of the league’s best goalkeepers Zach Steffen until he leaves for Manchester City in the summer. Expect the Crew to be strong.

D.C. United should also contend for a playoff spot. They managed to keep Luciano Acosta from signing with a big club overseas and English legend Wayne Rooney is back for more. D.C. was all but done and dusted before Rooney came to town in 2018 and the next thing you know, they’re in the playoffs. They also brought in a pair of promising players (Lucas Rodroguez and Leonardo Jara) from Argentina to bolster the side.

The rest of the teams in the East — Montreal, New England, Toronto, Chicago, Orlando and Cincinnati — are all clubs the Union should feel like they can be better than. Toronto just got blasted in the CONCACAF Champions League and has been on a downward spiral since winning MLS Cup in 2017. Now Sebastian Giovinco is gone. Orlando just nabbed Nani, but he’s way past his prime and isn’t dynamic enough anymore to turn around the conference’s weakest side. Montreal has some good players but is inconsistent and who knows what Cincinnati will produce — they may not be a factor at all or they could be very good.

Unfortunately for the Union, the East looks to be the more difficult and more competitive conference right now. Western Conference powers Sporting Kansas City, Portland Timbers, and LAFC also feature on the schedule in 2019.

The verdict

Let’s cut to the chase:

If the 4-4-2 switch goes according to plan and Fabian meshes well, the Union have a solid squad. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect them to push for a playoff spot again.

If they don’t make the playoffs, Curtin should be gone.

But truthfully, just making the playoffs shouldn’t be the goal. The goal should be to do something in the playoffs, because that hasn’t happened yet. The goal should be to get a trophy, not play for one. Union supporters can expect the club to be in contention for those things, but achieving them is something different.

This team is not good enough to win MLS Cup. Most aren’t. Union faithful should expect a competitive squad that can finish as high as fourth in the Eastern Conference. Another U.S. Open Cup run is always in the cards and there are plenty of things to be excited about.

Realistically, though, those things aren’t big enough yet.

16 Comments

  1. One thing I’m expecting given this past offseason is that Ernst Tanner is going to make sensible, transparent decisions about the roster and the coach. I will not be surprised if he cuts Jim at the first signs of struggle. Not saying he will, but that I won’t be shocked.

    As for the team, it should be a playoff team as constituted given the generous allocation of playoff spots and the competition. And I agree. It should be a playoff team that doesn’t just make a cameo.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      I agree with the Curtin thoughts. I feel like if this team struggles in March – he’s gone. I don’t think he is willing to throw a season away like ES would – for the sake of loyalty or learning or whatever. This is a playoff team, barring injuries of course and anything less is unacceptable. And given the one and done nature of the playoffs now, just getting in, give you a chance.

  2. With the surplus of attackers and Curtin’s history of running players into the ground (good form or bad) I’m most curious to see how he rotates that position. That’s the early metric I’m looking at when it comes to Jimbo’s maturation.

    • Tanner had a great quote about this last week, basically that the team barely plays any matches compared to Germany and that a 24 man roster was more than enough. That seemed to signal that squad rotation will be mandatory, for lack of a better word.

    • This is what I will be watching more than anything this year. Jim is notoriously slow to change players before or during games. Tanner I’m guessing can have some input on lineups but he can’t force Curtin to not sub the same 2 guys and positions at 65 and 80 mins, and never make a third sub. A lot of pressure on him this year, let’s just hope he steps up.

  3. One minor comment. 7 teams will make the playoffs so only 5 will be left out.

  4. It’s going to be another season of the Union improving their squad but barely keeping up with the rest of the league. I really think their midfield is going to hurt them by season’s end unless Curtin actually rotates them. For me they don’t have the right mix if Haris and Bedoya start every match. Their legs will get heavier as the season progresses.
    .
    The defense will again face a learning curve. Fabi won’t and Ray shouldn’t see much, of the field. If Gaddis starts more than half the games it will be an issue for me. I can see using him if Curtin thinks he needs a more defensive presence on a given day or to close out a match. The CB’s will continue to grow, but if Collin starts any significant minutes it means trouble.
    .
    How Curtin manages the strike force will be interesting. Glad C.J. is gone so Curtin won’t be tempted to run him out there every match or put him on the wing where his skills were virtually useless.
    .
    Middle of the table is my expectation for this season. If they make the playoffs I still expect it to be one and done.

  5. John O'Donnell Jr says:

    What to expect from the Union this year?
    Marco Fabián will put fans butts in the seats.

    On a side note, I like to see Santos, Accam and Picault on the field at the same time just to see their speed put pressure on the opposition. (maybe U.S.Open Cup)

  6. I think this will be a pretty good squad, even if they haven’t net improved over last year (which assessment I agree with) because of the new tactics and tactical flexibility. But I really expect them to struggle BIG TIME in March and into April, for 2 reasons.

    On offense, they are just going to need time to gel. Fabián needs time to adjust to the league, neither he nor the strikers know how to play together, and we have no idea who the f*** we’re playing at forward anyway. This is gonna take some time to work out, and it’s not Curtin’s fault.

    On defense, I expect Curtin to try starting Medunjanin at the back point of the diamond, and I expect it to be a disaster. We are not set up to have a non-defense-playing regista in that position, and as long as Jim tries that, we will give up goals in bunches. As soon as he figures out that he needs a real destroyer in that position and starts Derrick Jones, and gives him time to mesh with the young CBs, the D will start to settle down — and then actually may get really good. But I am anticipating Curtin’s love of Haris’ left foot, and his stubbornness, will get the best of him for a while. I hope I’m wrong.

    • A thought in response to your excellent point that we may have seen in the preseason fest against
      DC in the second half.
      .
      Jonesy at the back of the diamond and Haris on the left side.

      • I’m not certain that Haris can play the left side of that diamond, but it’s a possibility that that could work. I only know that putting him at the back point will be disastrous. They need to hand the keys to Jones and let him drive the D. It’s time.

  7. I expect sort of the opposite at left fullback from Christian, it seems. I fully expect Matt Real will start and Kai Wagner will be getting time with Steel. I also expect Mbaizo, not Gaddis, to the starter at right back.
    .
    In my opinion, the biggest factor that will determine the Union’s results this year is Haris Medunjanin. Much like Scottso up above, I expect Curtin will start Haris at the 6, and it’ll be an unmitigated disaster – especially if the 4-4-2 formation is used prominently. I recall in one of the pre-season games, they put Haris out on the left. I’m OK with that experiment as long as Jones (and not Creavalle) is playing the 6 spot.
    .
    I think if Haris is playing the 6 role while in the 4-4-2 “skinny” diamond, they’ll give up a lot of top-quality chances and near-chances, as you’re then effectively asking your two CBs to shut down everything as they’ll have little to no protection in front of them.
    .
    .
    On another note, I’m looking to expand the fan base into France. We have an exchange student staying with us, and she’ll be joining us on Saturday – her first-ever professional soccer match. So, I guess, here’s hoping the Union don’t go out an embarrass themselves…

  8. 56 points.

  9. A key point was made above about tactical flexibility.
    .
    The principle of the four man midfield seems to be to deny the central channel to the opponent.
    .
    You can use a diamond, an isosceles trapezoid, or a base-with a spike aka caltrop(?)(upside down T).
    .
    Marco Fabian is a waste in the trapezoid, of course.
    .
    Two of those three options have the old double pivot from the 4-2-3-1.
    .
    Because in preseason they have not had a real number 10, Bethlehem played the trapezoid, but coach has made it clear there are other options.

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