Roundtable / Union

Roundtable: PSP writers on the season ahead

Photo courtesy Philadelphia Union

With the Union kicking off the twenty-fifth MLS season this weekend down in Dallas, it’s time for one of our favorite semi-annual traditions here at Philly Soccer Page: the roundtable.

We do these roundtables for a number of reasons, not least of which is because they’re a great way for fans who took the off season off to get back up to speed before the seasons returns. But we also do it because it sets the context that the articles we publish all season long comes from. Some of us are feeling bullish on the Union, while others are taking a more measured approach. Regardless, this is the first point of data in a long season, giving you a way to follow the ups and downs of our own enthusiasm, as well as your own.

Which name change is more significant- Talen Energy Stadium to Subaru Park, or Bethlehem Steel FC to Union II?

Jim O’LearyBethlehem Steel. I honestly thought they were still hoping to return to the Lehigh Valley, but at this point it’s pretty clear that isn’t going to happen.

Mike Servedio: I’m not sure either is all that significant in the end. Subaru is a big name and doing business with them seems a positive move. It’s a shame what’s happened with Bethlehem Steel, as it’s an iconic American soccer name, but Union II still serves the main purpose, giving space for developing Union players.

Dan Walsh: Bethlehem Steel. The decision to rebrand and keep the team in Chester will hurt the team in the long run. They must find a satellite market in which to install the team and draw on unique fans. The Lehigh Valley was ideal. They should try again.

Nick FishmanSubaru Park. Pretty sure they cut a nice check.

Tim Jones: Subaru Park. The second team’s rebrand will not have increased revenues. Hopefully, the renaming did above and beyond the new videoboard and the parking lots.

Paul Catrino: Subaru Park signals a huge step in developing a long term identity with partners that have roots to the region and the resources to help grow the Union brand.

Steve Whisler: It’s a serious shame the Bethlehem Steel brand didn’t work out, but joining forces with a company like Subaru could be a major boon for the Union off-field.

Chris Gibbons: Steel to Union II. Most Union fans didn’t watch Steel and won’t watch Union II, but the symbolism of retiring that name and leaving the Lehigh Valley is big.

Andrew Speizman: Changing to Union II wins. As a branding exercise it shows the Union’s commitment to building its pipeline into the MLS and beyond. Seriously, as long as it’s nothing too obnoxious, nobody really cares about the stadium naming (except for those of us who already drive a Subaru and are thinking about those sweet, free parking spots).

If the rumblings are true and there are still more signings coming, where do you think they will be?

Peter Andrews: Well, the Jamiro Monteiro move last March sure worked out, so I wouldn’t rule out another signing. From my perspective, you can never have enough midfielders. If I were Tanner, I would be looking for an MLS veteran type who can provide depth at the 8 and 10 positions while pushing young Brenden Aaronson.

Mike: I’d agree with Peter. Another experienced midfielder to show Aaronson more of the ropes and provide depth would still be nice. I’m still down to upgrade the right back position if the plan is Ray Gaddis again this year.

Dan: Attacking midfield. Monteiro might wear the No. 10, but is that where he belongs? We’ll see. Right back is the second choice, but don’t hold your breath there.

Nick: Is it weird that I don’t have an answer? The Union have depth everywhere. If the first choices aren’t cutting it, I’d rather see what Cole Turner, Michee Ngalina, Jack de Vries, Olivier Mbaizo, and Matt Freese can do.

Tim: Two left backs. One is badly needed, because as of this week there is one healthy, game-ready professional, Matt Real. Union II has none returning from last year.

Paul: The Union have done well to secure depth at numerous positions this offseason. However, if Olivier Mbaizo is not ready to take the first team leap, having someone to challenge Ray Gaddis for minutes would be beneficial in creating a truly flexible roster.

Steve: Striker. I think Sergio Santos is poised for a big year and if Striker Muffin can stay healthy, he can easily bag double digits again. But that’s a big if, and we saw how badly the Union needed him in the playoffs last year. I’m not convinced Andrew Wooten is the answer in that rotation.

Chris: Right back and striker. Cory Burke is gone forever and Ray Gaddis is Benjamin Button, and both could use reinforcements.

Andrew: Right back is obvious. Wouldn’t hurt to add an offensive minded mid to back up at the point. Other than that the team is pretty solid with decent depth – but I would always be open to a DP striker. Also, am I the only one worrying about Wagner? These mystery injuries have a tendency to linger – and as a Philadelphia sports fan I’ve seen this movie before (can you get Thoracic Outlet Syndrome in your calf?).  So, maybe a left back too?

Which new signing do you think will be the most significant this season?

Jim: Jakob Glesnes creates a good problem, but a problem nonetheless. Both Jack Elliott and Mark McKenzie need to play if the Union hope to sell them, but you don’t bring in a TAM player to keep him on the bench.

Peter: Matej Oravec. All signs are that he’s ahead of El Brujo in the defensive depth chart right now. If he can lock down the CDM position, the Union’s ceiling this season gets a huge boost. If he can’t, it could get ugly.

Mike: Glesnes does create a good problem as Jim says. Oravec is a key piece and how he slots into the midfield and how the dynamic works could very well dictate the season. While not coming in during this transfer window, Andrew Wooten could have a role to play in his first full season.

Dan: Oravec or Jose Martinez. They’re filling a huge gap.

Nick: Glesnes. It give Curtin the option to go five at the back, with the wing backs flying forward. It’s the formation that might best fit this group of players.

Tim: I hope it is Glesnes, because he is the sole addition and therefore the only possible beyond incremental upgrade at center back. Oravec and Martinez are both defensive midfielders, so replacing the double pivot with one defensive midfielder has greater depth, flexibility, and potential.

Paul: Oravec has all the traits that could make us quickly forget about the departing Bosnian regista, Haris Medunjanin. An offensively gifted workhorse with a knack for tackling and distribution, he’s already become a fan favorite for his sexy misquote. But his play could easily set the tone for stabilizing the defense and turning the Union into a counterattacking nightmare.

Steve: Gotta be Oravec. If he does his job, he will take so much pressure off the Union’s backline.

Chris: Matej Oravec. He’ll find 6 goals and help the defense concede fewer than 40.

Andrew: The only answer here is Monteiro. It can be a bit anticlimactic having the big off-season  signing be a player already on the roster. But he’s a world class player I expect to improve dramatically and increase his role above last year’s excellent showing.

Which player on the roster — signed before this offseason — do you expect to take the biggest step forward this year?

Jim: Anthony Fontana. We’ve glimpsed promise from him in the past, but never enough to make him a must-have player on the bench, let alone the field. But Alejandro Bedoya and Ilsinho are only getting older, so it could be time for the Delawarean to come into his own.

Tim: Of necessity, Matt Real. He will start at left back until Kai Wagner finishes healing, restores his conditioning, and catches up with his teammates’ tactical precision and coordination. After Real, Michee Ngalina, for MLS-caliber physicality. He threw his larger defender to the ground easily and without fouling in the preseason match versus Dallas before he set up Ilsinho’s first goal.

Paul: This is Brendan Aaronson’s year to prove to everyone that the revolving door of No. 10s in Philadelphia may be closed for quite a while. Sparks of brilliance and a new reputation at the national team level has everyone excited about the young Union homegrown coming into his own and becoming the playmaking threat that can take Philly to the next level.

Steve: Mark McKenzie. He’s rightfully earning USMNT call-ups and looks poised to be next in line behind the current regulars there. I expect him to handle it well and take his game to the next level with the club this season.

Chris: Brendan Aaronson. He’s getting national team reps and international interest, and if he’s going to start 30+ games in Philadelphia, it’ll be because he’s contributing here too.

Andrew: Sergio Santos was a highly touted signing last year, but was mostly ineffective due in part to a series of injuries while trying to overcome an MLS learning curve.The Brazilian had some moments late in the season where he showed his potential with an energetic high press and aggressive offensive style. With a year under his belt and in good fitness, Santos needs to push upfield and help share the scoring burden

What departing player do you think will be the most missed?

Jim: Fafà Picault. He didn’t score enough, but he did score. And as we look at a season with a striker corps riddled with question marks, I’m still afraid that departure will come back to haunt the Union.

Peter: Haris Medunjanin. Yeah, he didn’t play much defense. But he did everything else, on and off the pitch. It will take time for the newcomers to fill his void.

Mike: Medunjanin. He’s been such an important part of the last two seasons, how the team moves on without him will be so important.

Dan: Medunjanin as well. Everything the team did in possession and offensively ran through him, and his departure will force the Union to change the way they play.

Nick: Medunjanin. He was a leader and role model off the field. There’s a reason he was Brenden Aaronson’s roomie last season.

Tim: Right now, they miss Fabinho, badly. If left back gets solved, Medunjanin.

Paul: I truly believe the team will miss Fabinho. A locker room presence like his is not easy to duplicate because he genuinely identified himself as a brother to many of his teammates. A glue of sorts for behind the scenes issues and bridging the gap between veterans and youth, the Brazilian’s effect on the Union roster goes beyond him gearing up every night. It’s a void that can be filled; the question is by who?

Steve: Haris, but I really like Paul’s answer for Fabinho. Godspeed, Sun Rocket.

Chris: Fafa Picault. I know the easy answer here is Haris, but Picault is going to score on the Union in the opener (just like he did in the preseason) and once he’s used more consistently in his preferred spot, has a chance to get back into the national team picture.

Andrew: I’m going to go with Fafa Picault.  While Picault’s production was down last year as the winger found himself out of position due to a tactics shift, his energy and pace will be missed on the field.  He was able to find space on the wings and took his high press responsibilities seriously. Often when the team seemed to be running through mud, his enthusiasm would bring the squad back to life.  So bow your heads and contemplate that winner against Seattle.

Where will the Union finish at the end of the regular season?

Jim: First in the East but no Supporter’s Shield. A bold prediction, but no team has made changes that are obviously better than the Union’s, and the Union were fighting for first last season. There’s no reason to think they couldn’t do it again.

Peter: Fifth in the East. Three things that concern me: (1) how long it might take for the Union to replicate last year’s totally dominant midfield, (2) whether Kacper Przybylko can match last year’s excellent scoring record, (3) whether the Union, now firmly a 4-4-2 team, can succeed without their second-half 4-2-3-1 crutch. The roster is talented, but could be a slow start to the season.

Mike: Third. There are question marks, but it’s certainly within reason to be about where they were last season.

Dan: Fourth. The East is wide open and full of question marks, and the Union are no different. They have no creative fulcrum, which will hurt them, but Jim Curtin has coached them up for two straight years and can now be expected to do so again.

Nick: Sixth. The Union are a good team. They might just be great, but I’m worried about their creativity going forward. I don’t know enough about their new midfielders. Outside of pressing, I have no clue how this team will look…which is why I’m excited for the season to start.

Tim: Fifth. This will be the first season of complete transition into Tanner’s preferred system, so there will be bumps. For example, will Curtin find as effective a role for Ilsinho within the limits of the new shape?

Paul: Fourth in the East.

Steve: Fourth. I don’t see them surpassing Atlanta or NYCFC, and I think Columbus is in for a big rise up the table. The Union just don’t have that elite piece to take them to the next level.

Chris: Fourth in the East. There are too many questions right now about where the goals will come from, or more significantly where the assists will come from.

Andrew: Fourth in the East.

How should Union fans define a successful season in 2020?

Jim: I’m actually going to keep the goal post at the same spot as last season- a playoff win. The Union should go further this season if Tanner and Curtin have done their job in the off season. But failing to do so wouldn’t necessarily be a failure considering the single-elimination nature of the playoffs.

Peter: A season similar to last season would be a success. The roster is now firmly molded in Ernst Tanner’s image. If the Union are still at or near the top of the conference, fans should be confident that Tanner and Curtin have the team well-positioned for a sustainable stretch of seasons as MLS Cup contenders.

Mike: I think it’s okay to ask for more after last season’s success. Another playoff win. A second home playoff game. And another advancement to the Eastern Conference Final or beyond.

Dan: An exciting, fun team that competes for the conference title.

Nick: Continued success. Win another playoff game. Entrench yourself in the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference.

Tim: Winning a match in the Leagues Cup, winning two in the U.S. Open Cup, winning an away playoff game, and giving up ten fewer goals during the regular season.

Paul: A trip to the Eastern Conference Finals could signal a massive shift in the Union’s reputation as an MLS franchise. But for consistency’s sake, making the playoffs, advancing past the knockout round again and perhaps making a run at one of the two North American tournament cups is enough for me to define the 2020 Union season as a success. Stability, growth and a model that’s sustainable for years to come.

Steve: Gotta be a playoff run. A win is nice, but they gotta push to the next level. Would be nice to make some noise in the League’s Cup and US Open Cup too.

Chris: Another home playoff game and win, and a better showing in the second round than last year.

Andrew: The Union are coming off the most successful season in the team’s history – winning their first ever playoff game and  a team high in points and wins. The bar has been raised and big things will be expected. Anything short of a serious run at the MLS Cup will be seen as a disappointment.

11 Comments

  1. John O'Donnell Jr says:

    I think one of the biggest things that might define the Union this season is a substantial rise in attendance. Looking forward at the big picture MLS is growing in size and most of these new teams are building stadiums bigger than the 18,500 this team currently plays in. Miami just built a temporary stadium that will seat 18,000 while they try to iron out the details for a 25,000 seat stadium in Miami. At some point it would be nice to see this team get back to the thought of expanding the stadium as they complete a plan for the surrounding campus. Another season like last is definitely crucial to keep this momentum going.

  2. 1)For the fans (of the Steel), the change to U2. For the Union, Subaru.
    .
    2)Striker and midfield. Ernst may be convinced by Wooten, but I am not. He reeks of Jay Simpson 2.0 and Cory Burke is not coming back. The excuse that Cory needed fitness when the WHOLE team needed fitness and was going into preseason, makes no sense to ship him on loan and not have him with the team. He got his Visa right? Why wouldn’t he be with the team? He gone. Aaronson is not ready to be the #10 game in game out. Another option at the #10 is needed.
    .
    3)Oravec. I think he will play the most and thus have the most impact. Glesnes will play when the eventual CB injuries come along. El brujo will play too, just not as consistently and likely more off the bench.
    .
    4)Fontana. In my eyes he deserved more time last year and didn’t get it. He’ll get it this year.
    .
    5)I don’t think any of the players moved on will be missed as much as some think. Haris hindered the team as much as he helped. Fabi may have been a shoulder to lean in the locker room, but a player that could actually contribute on the field is worth more. Loved Fafa’s heart. He didn’t fit anymore and didn’t score enough goals. If they find another striker or Ngalina contributes, he will soon be forgotten.
    .
    6)This is probably the most difficult for me. Depending how the new players integrate combined with “if” they actually acquire more signings, makes me think they could finish anywhere from 4th to first. I’m going to go with 3rd.
    .
    7)How should fans define a successful season? These answers will be all over the spectrum in my opinion. For me it would be that the team shows more of a proficiency in the 4-4-2 pressing system. I.E. more goals from turnovers higher up the field and less goals conceded. That, combined with a playoff appearance, win or lose, will be a success.

    • Burke can’t get his visa until April(?) which is why Tanner moved him to Austria. He wanted to get him playing in better competition.
      :
      I think Burke still has a role to play with the Union this summer. I see him coming back. Potentially he gets seen in Europe and someone buys him, but my odds are on Burke in a Union jersey again by summer break at the latest (if he finishes out the season there).

    • If I had to bet about the future signings you reference in regards to point #6 of the roundtable, I would expect that roster slots 27 through 31 are being held for possible signings from the Academy.
      .
      There won’t be five from the Academy to the first team directly. But they have to keep more than one against the possibility that some other team comes poaching.
      .
      and at least one other slot will be saved in case of catastrophic season-ending injury that needs a replacement.
      .

  3. Summary Judgement says:

    1) Suburu. $

    2) There had better be. Oravec can play RB, Gaddis “can” fill in inadequately just as well on the left as the right. Here’s what needs to be addressed yesterday: There has been nothing in the past year to suggest Aaronson is ready to take the reins full-time, and it’s pretty clear by now when he is away there are no other viable options up top. Also; 2 broken Germans up front with little else in the way of experienced help is not a recipe for success at any level.

    3)Glesnes. Union have options at the #6-palatable-or not- as they may be. When McKenzie disappears for stretches away you will come to appreciate the difference he makes. He likely won’t be allowed to show you before then.

    4) Santos, has to be. He fails to stay healthy and adjust, and with the financial commitment that was made to him you can pretty much wrap up the year in the absence of Fafa.

    5) Trusty. They will miss his L foot at the back, if nothing else. The rest had to go due to the system changes primarily.

    6) As currently constructed, 5-6th at best. Right now, they have injuries, a lack of established finishers and little ability to connect a pass from the starters North of their RCB. Blake has been a sieve for 2 years. Lower GA? Ha. Why they wait to see what is staring them in the face confuses me-but I will reserve the right to amend IF they bring in the help they need to complete the circuit before the season runs away from them. Clubs are better…….much better.

    7). Advance. Break points record *likely impossible* W record, or Road W record, or finish 2nd or better or make it to the 3rd round of MLS Cup or win something. In short; progress beyond “others receiving votes”.

    Bonus: If Kacper maintains his health and produces in the first half, he will be sold over the summer and replaced by Burke. Because that’s how they roll.

  4. Great read, PSP crew.

    I have a gut feeling that our forward corps is going to take a step forward. I’m expecting Przybylko to be on par and for a breakout from Santos (with the caveat that both stay healthy). I think Wooten is a good player to push for a start and think he deserves our patience.

    I also have a feeling like this team is good for a 4th place finish. MLS is a tough league to predict. And there are always really wacky results, I think the Union is better than last year — more seasoned, stronger, deeper…. I like them. I’m buying. Excited for the season to start.

  5. Vagabond Ben says:

    Bedoya contract extension, just announced.

  6. Want the defense to be better, want the forward crew to at least maintain last season’s form. That said,koolaid glass is half full, rose glasses duct taped in place, Cliff of Despair lease burnt in the stove! Come on the U!!

  7. O captain my captain crunch is gone says:

    If kasper and Sergio combine for 30 plus goals they finish top 4 otherwise they’re in trouble.
    Who takes free kicks this year?
    Why is no one asking about Blake? He’s as much of a liability as Harris was last year. I can think of 5 goals that should have been saved last year. There are probably more. 5 goals could make a
    Massive difference in standings.
    What ev’s…. GO U!!!!!!!!

    • While the presumed-to-be-unmanned, automatic camera almost never shows you the single player taking corners, they seemed mostly to be struck by Aaronson in the streamed preseason matches.

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