This is not an April Fools' Joke; the Union really are tied for first.

This is not an April Fools' Joke; the Union really are tied for first.

Your first-place Philadelphia Union!

As fans, we expected very little from the Union this year. The most we dared to hope for was maybe to sneak into the playoffs as the sixth seed. Realistically, the most we were probably going to get was some marked improvement the team could take into 2017 and build off of.

Then March happened.

The Union absorbed a 2-0 loss in Dallas in which they looked scared and timid, but then went into Columbus (a place they hadn’t won at since Fabinho was a boy) and won 2-1, and then they came home and spanked the New England Revolution 3-0 in a burgeoning ice storm.

What do we know about the Union so far?

  • They got six points with their two wins in March. Last year, it took them seven matches to get to six points, and twelve matches to get their second win of the year.
  • The Union are tied for first in the Eastern Conference.
  • A lot is different this year. It’s in how they train (twice a day now instead of once a day), how they eat (sports science and nutrition is being used), how the roster is constructed (two players for every position to foster depth and healthy competition). It’s in how each person knows their role (“clarity” is the word being tossed around). This is all the doing of Earnie Stewart, who’s been here three whole months as Sporting Director, but who’s already made great strides in repairing the damage done by Nick Sakiewicz.
  • They have become a professional team. Professional doesn’t just mean to get paid to play in this case. It means they act like professionals, dress like professionals (all players have suits to wear now), and work like professionals. If you listen to the quotes that continually come out of various players and Jim Curtin and how effusive they are in their praise about how everything is now, you can piece together how rudderless and disorganized the club had to have been last year. They hired the right man in Stewart, and the club now has direction, and that direction includes how to be a professional soccer player.

What don’t we know about the Union yet?

  • Can they sustain this kind of success? Probably not, but here’s the key: they don’t have to. Wins in March, April, and May count the same as wins in August, September, and October. The Union have ten games in April and May total. If they can surprise some clubs who are still getting fit and putting it all together and rattle off wins in, say, five of them, that puts them on a minimum of 21 points with seven wins. The benchmark we set for them at the start of the season for wins to make the playoffs was 14. That puts them halfway to 14 wins with 21 matches left, a very doable remaining pace of a win every three contests. Even if they come up a little short, it sets them on the right track.
  • Can Andre Blake keep the magic show going? He’s wildly talented, but he’s also injury-prone and will be called out for international duty. The volume of shots he’s facing makes one think they’re going to start going in despite his best efforts; it’s just a matter of probablity. The Union need to cut down the number of good shots he sees.
  • Can the inexperienced back line hold up? Can they improve and learn on the fly to limit the threats to Blake? They’ll have to if they want to keep this success going. Richie Marquez and Ken Tribbett have been good and Keegan Rosenberry has been very good as long as he doesn’t have someone running at him. Can Fabinho keep up his form of the last two games? Will we see Josh Yaro (who looked good for Bethlehem Steel in their inaugural game) at some point?
  • Can they stay healthy enough to keep it going? Maurice Edu, Tranquillo Barnetta, and Vincent Nogueira have all missed time already. The Union went from having too many quality midfielders to starting Brian Carroll and Warren Creavalle at the 6 and 8. That’s not how it was drawn up to start, but that’s how it is currently, and until Barnetta and Nogueira are selected, that’s how it will remain.
  • Will Maurice Edu contribute at all this year after breaking his leg? The season is long, but so is a four-month recovery time. Is he worth the money they’re paying him, or will they decide to part ways with him following this year?
  • Can Jim Curtin find the right combination when people are healthy? What to do with Leo Fernandes? With Ilsinho and Keegan Rosenberry showing dazzling chemistry on the right side, does Curtin disrupt that in favor of Fernandes on the right wing? If he puts Fernandes at the 10, who out of Barnetta or Alberg sits? These are tough decisions for a man paid to make them.

It’s been a fun March. We’ll get more answers to our questions as we see what April holds.