Roundtable / Union

PSP Pre-Season Roundtable

Photo credit: Paul Rudderow

With two games and an international victory already in the record books for 2021, it feels odd to describe the Union as being in “preseason.” And yet, until the whistle blows this Sunday in Columbus, that’s exactly where they are.

So please join us, the writers of PSP, as we discuss our expectations and thoughts for the Union ahead of the kickoff of their 2021 MLS campaign-

What players will be key to the Union’s success this season?

Chris GibbonsIt feels like the collective breath of Union fans is being held at the health of the team’s striker corps. None is a stand out, but having none is certainly not part of the plan either. Their health might be the difference between success and failure in all competitions.

Jim O’Leary: I’ve been beating this drum for what feels like forever now, so I’m just going to agree with Chris.

Tim Jones: Most likely no one else is coming until the summer transfer window, and that seems to depend on the economic fall-out of the pandemic for clubs in Europe. Tanner is expecting interesting players to be available due to unsustainable contracts. Given the backloaded schedule and the pace of October especially, the rookie homegrowns are going to be forced to play and win: Sullivan, Craig, Aaronson, McGlynn and Harriel.

Ben O’Brien: I’m going to go with both sides of the midfield diamond and say Monteiro and Bedoya.  Without question, Philly needs their homegrowns to step in and perform when called upon, especially during the backend of the schedule as Tim mentioned. But if Philly wants to be a contender for another trophy this year, vets such as Monteiro and Bedoya will have to perform to their fullest capabilities.  Bedoya turns 34 at the end of April.  We’ve seen his fitness decline a bit already, but his ability to shuttle the ball upfield, get on the score sheet at times, and just his overall aggressiveness has remained consistent.  Can he maintain that level of consistency again this year, or is this the year that we start to see a decline?  With Monteiro, it’s not to say that he wasn’t a huge factor in Philly winning the shield last year (he was), but he’s shown at times that he has the talent to be a Best XI star in this league.  With Fontana bringing a much different skill set to the No. 10 slot than the playmaking/chance creating skills that Aaronson possessed, Philly’s going to need Monteiro to be the star that he is to help fuel the Union offensively.

Dan Walsh: Jose Martinez is the Union’s most irreplaceable field player. Ben and Chris make good points about striker and the midfield shuttlers, but the point we’re each making applies to much of the roster: The Union lack proven depth.

Jeremy Lane:  After the Union’s early and somewhat surprising success in the CCL, it seems clear that the Union’s most important player is José Martinez. If he continues to play at the Best XI level that he has set for himself, then the Union can be very, very good, regardless of the personnel changes elsewhere in the team. After that, the question of the strikers and who scores the goals becomes important, but really, the team hinges on El Brujo. He’s the hardest man to replace.

Peter Andrews:  To throw out some names that haven’t been mentioned, I think the team’s success or failure this year could hinge on the CBs — Glesnes, Elliott, and Findlay.  A big part of last year’s success was posting a league-low 20 goals allowed in 23 games.  With Mark McKenzie out of the picture, one of those three will need to emerge as a defensive leader.  (My money is on Glesnes.)

Mike Servedio: Jose Martinez needs to stay healthy and continue to play at the high level he has established for himself. Anthony Fontana will be crucial to the Union’s prowess in the final third. They’ll need more from Kacper Przybylko than they got last season.

Thomas Hill: Flach, Monteiro, and Martinez (with an emphasis on Flach). Honestly I’m surprised I haven’t seen anyone single him out yet. If Leon can continue to facilitate attacking play out of the back like he did in the first CCL tie, it boosts everyone around him, especially Monteiro and Martinez who looked a bit lost going forward at times last year. And of course we can’t ignore the fire that El Brujo can light.

What matchup will be the most challenging in the first half of the season?

Chris: Columbus Crew. As the de facto “Community Shield” match between league and cup winners from last year, the Union are going to find out right away if their young guns are at the level of Columbus’s machine, regardless of what happens in the CCL.

Tim: The first half’s most challenging match-up has already happened. Going away to San Jose, Costa Rica against the late-mid-season form of experienced, traditionally powerhouse side Deportivo Saprissa, using a healthy but still-jelling defense and an injured, and therefore not yet well-conditioned attack it a tough season-opener. It is followed closely ten days later against Columbus in Columbus. Last year also had a tough opening sequence, and the Boys in Blue rose to the occasion. Can the new group do it again?

Ben: I agree with Tim on this.  The CCL legs against Deportivo Saprissa present a massive challenge. As for MLS regular season, I’m looking at May 12th at home against New England.  The Rev’s roster looks great coming into this year and they should be a strong contender for best in the East and possibly Supporters’ Shield.  Including CCL matches the Union will have, at least, 6 matches under their belts at this point; this will be a good early test for the Union to see how they match-up against one of the favorites in the East.

Dan: Everything CCL. That poses new sorts of challenges that, until this year, the Union have never faced. You don’t know CCL until a guy blows up your left back and gets only a yellow card. And then it happens again.

Jeremy:  Having gotten through Saprissa, the hardest game is the next one, as others have said: Columbus. The Crew are the standard against which the Union must measure itself, so a good result against them will be meaningful.

Mike: Anything in or around the Champions League matches. The squad is not that deep, so it will be interesting how well the Union compete in two competitions simultaneously for the first time in their history.

Thomas: Prior to beating Saprissa, I would’ve said Columbus in Columbus. With the win over Saprissa already in the books though, I’m changing that to the away CCL match in Atlanta. After a dominating win to advance, fans believe the squad has a shot at the semis, and so does the team. Atlanta’s never been an easy fixture for the U, and it’s not going to get any easier with an ATL team playing in front of fans at The Benzo.

Jim: I’m actually going to flip things a bit at say the Columbus game in Chester in June. This weekend’s matchup will be important pretext of course, but no one on the rest of the schedule looks particularly intimidating. So that second Union-Crew game, with both teams in midseason form and the table becoming less dynamic by that time of year, could be a major inflection point for the season.

After Wednesday’s performance, how do you feel about the Union’s chances in CONCACAF Champions League?

Chris: My perspective is less about the Union than it is about Saprissa. They’ve been bad for a while now, and their new coach hasn’t made them better. If ever there were a time for the Union to pounce, this might be it.

Tim: The hazards of reporting events from TV broadcasts rather than directly eyeballing them are clear. Sources within the Union have reviewed the records and have discovered that Jamiro Monteiro did not actually receive a yellow card towards the end of the match last night. In consequence he should be eligible for the first match away in Atlanta. Repeat: Monteiro will be eligible play against the five stripes down in Georgia.  The news enhances the Union’s. chances to succeed, noticeably so. Josef Martinez did not look wonderful against Alajeunese at Kennesaw State’s field Tuesday. Monteiro’s eligibility and using the lineup arrangement into which Curtin has been forced by striker injuries makes the Union’s chances of winning away closer to even. And Fortress Subaru on the Schuylkill is much more formidable than old Fort Mifflin ever was.

Ben: Anthony Fontana’s knack for finding the back of the net was on display in the final preseason match against DC United.  If he brings that knack with him down to Costa Rica, he could help the U get a result from this first leg and give themselves a chance to advance.

Dan: After dispatching Saprissa, Atlanta is a nice quarterfinal draw. The Club America wood-chipper likely awaits in the semis though, and the Union don’t have the depth to deal with that.

Peter: As I wrote yesterday, I misunderestimated the Union before Saprissa, and I won’t make that mistake again.  Atlanta and the Union have had their epic clashes in the past few years, and I’m very curious to see how Philly would do against one of the top Mexican sides.  I don’t think they are particularly likely to win the whole thing… but I’m not ready to rule it out either.

Mike: Writing this after the second leg, pretty good! The Union rightfully dispatched a poor Saprissa team with little fuss. The squad seems ready for the competition and should be a tough matchup for Atlanta and whoever else they might see should they advance.

Thomas: The Union dominated a shorthanded and out of form Saprissa, and Atlanta struggled to close out a weakened Alajuelense team, so that bodes well. Like I said earlier, Atlanta has never been an easy out for Philly. The “negadelphian” in me says we go out in embarrassing fashion to a rejuvenated Atlanta, but I wouldn’t be surprised to be wrong. Ask me again after the first leg.

Jim: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the Union are playing with house money as far as CCL is concerned. They’re only the second MLS team to ever beat Saprissa in San Juan, and they took advantage of the weakened form of a legendary challenger at home. They’ve won, end of conversation. If they beat Atlanta, and eventually América? So much the better. But there’s no shame if they don’t and it’s already been a successful campaign.

Jeremy: The Union’s chances versus Atlanta in the CCL feel about even to me. After that, it’s a total wildcard. I wouldn’t put anything past the Union, but until proven otherwise, we have to assume this is Liga MX’s tournament to lose.

Where in the standings will the Union finish this season?

Chris: 4th. I know that’s a copout, but there aren’t any teams that Union should be afraid of. Rather, there are a handful they probably wouldn’t beat more than 3 times out of 10.

Tim:  I do not expect a home playoff game. I hope for a playoff game. I will be disappointed but not entirely surprised if there is only a “play-in” playoff game. Why? The ability to press is not as consistent as it was last year, particularly without any true strikers.  And the schedule is better balanced this year among the teams in the Eastern conference. Fifth would be an excellent year, while tenth would be poor.

Ben: I’ve typed out and subsequently deleted my answer to this question a few times because I think there is such a wide range of outcomes for this team.  To keep it simple and make a definitive prediction, I think they finish 5th in the East with Columbus, New England, Orlando City, and DC United finishing ahead of them. (I think DC United take a big jump this year).

Dan: 4th, behind Columbus, New England, and either Orlando, D.C., or maybe a resurgent Atlanta. Even if the three new starters hit nicely, the Union lack the proven depth for a 34-game season with CCL also in the mix, unless Nathan Harriel and someone from the Teenage Midfield Army make the leap. Given Ernst Tanner’s adept foreign transfer moves, I’d hope for summer imports once pandemic-related visa issues abate, but the Union lack free international roster spots. Absent new green cards or departures, that leaves Tanner to the domestic market that he’s largely ignored. (Unless Frankie Amaya…)

Jeremy: Well, they look like they could win the Costa Rican league, but we don’t know about MLS yet. Ask me again after Sunday? No? Okay, then I think they will be third in the East. I don’t believe there’s any team the Union needs to fear, and while Columbus is loaded, who else has taken a big step forward? New England could be good, as could Atlanta, and Toronto. That’s four teams, and I bet Philly will be more consistent than at least one of them, and probably two. (Crazy, right?)

Peter: Third in the East sounds like a reasonable benchmark.  Columbus could be a juggernaut, and it wouldn’t surprise me if a few East teams are more consistent in a season that is not constantly COVID-interrupted.  (Knock on wood.)  Anything lower than fifth is probably a disappointment, considering where this roster is in its lifecycle.  (Is it too early to predict that both Monteiro and Martinez will be sold outside of MLS before the start of next season?)

Mike: Somewhere between 3-6. They should make the playoffs, but challenging for one of the top spots in the East will be more difficult than it was last season.

Thomas: Ben’s got the right idea. There’s so many possible outcomes for this team, and it all hinges on how the new components come together. I’m gonna lean a bit more on the optimistic side and say we finish 3rd, beneath TFC and Columbus. It’s going to be tight on top of the East this year.

Jim: I’m going to take an uncharacteristically rosy view and say they’ll be in the running for top of the East. Supporters Shield predictions are above my pay grade, but Columbus is the only team on this side of the country to make real roster moves, and the Union have already shown they can be better than everyone else in the conference.

6 Comments

  1. Gruncle Bob says:

    In this salary cap league what club doesn’t have a “thin” roster? On the surface, where there are no injuries and everyone plays as well as their “paper” ratings, our lads are probably 5th behind Columbus / Toronto / New England / Atlanta.

    But that won’t happen. Every team will have to field players from the thin areas of the roster due to injuries, other competitions, guys from other leagues not adjusting well, and whatever else.

    Our team has more continuity than the others. Our 2nd XI guys will step in and know what to do. Our coach improves every year. ET will (I hope/wish) pick up a key player in the next window.

    I say 3rd. It may be a tad hopeful but this is the time for optimism.

  2. Flach looked very good on the left side as did Monteiro in the middle. And Fontana might be better as a striker than as the 10.
    Could be interesting.

  3. Andy Muenz says:

    I think most of you are underestimating the Union’s chances in the East. Everyone’s talking about how great Columbus is because they have the same team that won MLS Cup last year. But if I remember correctly, they did not win a single game on the road last season (including the playoffs). And they didn’t even have to play in Chester at all. So I’m not convinced they will be all that great.
    .
    And everyone is high on New England because they won 3 games in the playoffs. But I think they were helped tremendously by the Union being rusty after a 2.5 week layoff and the generally familiarity they had with the Union after playing them so many times.
    .
    So it would not surprise me in the least if the Union win the East.

    • I find myself mostly agreeing with you. While I am not putting the Union at #1, I do think people are overrating the last couple of games of the season, as Americans usually do when it comes to playoffs.

      I find it strangely funny how because NE scrappily won a few games, and Columbus won a few games with a great draw, all of a sudden they are “ON PAPER” a better team than the Union who were one of the best teams in the league THROUGHOUT the season.

  4. 2 cents on replacing el brujo.

    Leon flach COULD be that guy. Not for 5 months but 2-3 weeks? Maybe.

    • Skwids: My two cents… Could he “fill in” for El Brujo? Sure. So could Jack. But I wouldn’t want to take Flach from the midfield role.
      .
      I actually like Jamiro at the 6, as well.
      .
      But there is really is no one on the current roster who would be a like-for-like replacement. It’s more than skillset mix. It’s his instincts, mindset and passion that is unique and a perfect fit for the role.

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