One of Philadelphia’s two playoff teams from 2016 returns to action this weekend. Here are the men who will wear the navy blue kit for the city of Brotherly Love in 2017.
Goalkeepers: Andre Blake, John McCarthy
In Andre Blake, MLS’s reigning Goalkeeper of the Year returns as the last line of defense for a Union side who was at times reliant on him to bail them out. With the back line still coming together, the Jamaican keeper will be called upon to erase a multitude of sins in front of him. Our feeling is he’ll rise to the task once again. (We also feel he’ll be sold within the next year, but shhhh.) Hometown boy John McCarthy should deputize ably when called upon in Blake’s stead. Goalkeeper should be a strength this year for the U.
Defenders: Joshua Yaro, Oguchi Onyewu, Richie Marquez, Ken Tribbett, Fabinho, Keegan Rosenberry, Raymon Gaddis, Giliano Wijnaldum
It didn’t take long for the Union to have a significant injury: Joshua Yaro will be out three to four months with a torn labrum in his shoulder that required surgery, which should mean Richie Marquez and former US international Oguchi Onyewu will pair up to anchor the back line. The ageless Fabinho will start the season on the left side once again, while Keegan Rosenberry will lock down the right side again in this, his sophomore year. Ken Tribbett, Ray Gaddis, and Giliano Wijnaldum should serve as depth while pushing the starters.
There are questions about this group. Will this be the year Fabinho gets old? Can Keegan Rosenberry continue the success of his rookie year? The addition of Onyewu was critical, especially after Yaro’s injury and the fact that it means Ken Tribbett won’t have to play another four months on the MLS level, but what happens if Gooch or Richie go down too? The group has been less than inspiring in the pre-season, but it does take time for a back line to come together. We’ll have to wait and see.
Midfielders: Alejandro Bedoya, Chris Pontius, Ilsinho, Haris Medunjanin, Fabian Herbers, Maurice Edu, Marcus Epps, Derrick Jones, Roland Alberg, Eric Ayuk, Brian Carroll, Warren Creavalle, Adam Najem, Fafa Picault
The midfield is deep and talented, and should be a strength. Gone is free kick-taker and midfield maestro Tranquillo Barnetta, but Bedoya, Ilsinho, and Pontius return and should start, with Bedoya wearing the captain’s armband. Medunjanin is a new addition who offers skill and international experience and should start too, either at the 6 or the 8. Jones and Creavalle will be among the midfielders to fight for time, with ironman veteran Brian Carroll able to step into spot duty. Super sub Herbers should also factor in. The odd man out again appears to be Roland Alberg, who doesn’t have a position of his own still. Maurice Edu is still working through injury to match fitness, as he has been since last year. At this point, anything the Union can get out of Edu has to be considered a bonus. Regardless, the days of the Union having to start the Farfan brothers because there was no other option are over.
Forwards: C.J. Sapong, Jay Simpson, Charlie Davies
The Union were very high on C.J. Sapong and gave him a three-year extension through 2019 last year. The first half of the year he looked good, playing 1237 minutes through June 1st while recording five goals and an assist on thirty-five shots. He injured his ankle in that June 1st match against Columbus missed a month, coming back July 2nd against Houston as a second-half sub. His numbers dropped significantly: despite playing more minutes (1298) than the first half of the year, he scored less goals (2) and generated less shots (25) than previously, and was often subbed out of matches in the second half. The question last year was could he endure the intense physicality his style of play demands for a whole season, and so far, the answer is no.
When supporters asked for a foreign striker, Jay Simpson wasn’t the first person they had in mind. A recently-acquired Arsenal system product who never saw the pitch for Arsenal, he and Sapong will try to hammer out who belongs up top. Charlie Davies returns as well and will most likely be an offensive sub. Can C.J. stay healthy and have a ten goal season? Can Jay Simpson be the striker the Union need? Questions abound at the top of the formation; a summer transfer window signing could be in the offing if they aren’t answered to Earnie Stewart’s satisfaction.
Overall: the Union are a solid team led by their goalkeeper and talented midfield. If manager Jim Curtin can figure out the magic combination in the midfield, the back line isn’t terrible, and one of Sapong or Simpson step up, the Union could easily see their way into the playoffs again.