This past Union season can only be described as a taking a step backwards. Having made the playoffs in 2016, Union fans were watching for the club take another step forward, but that did not happen.
Change is needed. Something must be done to turn the team’s fortunes around. Everyone agrees that the most important task for Sporting Director Earnie Stewart is to find a serious playmaker for the number 10 role. But who will be the right people to surround our future attacking midfielder? Who should stay and who should go?
We already have an idea on the direction the Union will be going for the 2018 season. Several players are still in the midst of their contracts, and those with club options have already found out if they will be in the Union’s plans for next year. And in their end-of-season press conference, Stewart announced that Head Coach Jim Curtin would retain his position. The two also used the press conference discuss the “system-based approach” they will take to in their attempt to improve the club.
“System-based.” That term was used by Stewart over and over again. That’s a fancy way of saying that they are taking the value route, and we shouldn’t expect them to pursue flashy big-name (and expensive) players. The team is going to build as much as they can from the inside. This is not what a lot of Union fans want to hear, but this what we have for now.
The club picked the options for all three goalkeepers on their roster. Of course, the most important one is Andre Blake. Rumors came out during the summer that there was some interest in Blake from clubs in England, but thanks to Jamaica’s FIFA ranking, he couldn’t get a work permit. That doesn’t necessarily stop clubs from other European leagues from making an offer. But Stewart denies that there were any actual offers, and for now Blake is still our number one GK. And that makes me happy. Without Blake, the Union end the season even farther down the table.
But we also need that number 10, and the transfer fee that the Union could get for Blake could go a long way toward signing one. This is the final option on Blake’s contract, so if the Union don’t re-sign him before next season, Blake could walk away without the Union getting anything for him. Re-signing Blake would probably take some big bucks, so it might be best for the Union to take the money and run. I dread the day Blake is no longer in a Union kit, but John McCarthy has shown that he is a legitimate MLS goalkeeper.
There is a big hole at left back right now. Fabinho is at the end of his contract, and the club turned down the option on Dutch import Giliano Wijnaldum, who didn’t show the consistency that Stewart and Curtin were looking for. They could yet re-sign Fabinho, whose family has settled down here. No matter what, this is a position where something is going to have to be done. I would be happy if they just started from scratch with this position.
At right back, the club picked up the options for both Keegan Rosenberry and Raymon Gaddis. The hope here is that Rosenberry’s struggles this season were just a sophomore slump and next season we’ll see the player who was in the running for rookie-of-the-year in 2016. Gaddis isn’t a guy I want as part of my regular starting XI, but he does make for a nice depth option.
Jack Elliott has cemented his spot at centerback, but we do not know who will be his partner in the back. The team did not pick up Oguchi Onyewu’s option, but Richie Marquez, Joshua Yaro, and Auston Trusty are all still on the roster. Even though Onyewu performed far above expectations for a guy who hadn’t played in a couple of years, Stewart felt that the depth and youth at this position made him expendable. Even so, Yaro made some critical mistakes this season, Marquez was inconsistent, and Trusty is only 19 years old. It’s probably too soon for the U to give up on Yaro, who was their number one pick in the 2016 SuperDraft. I’ve kind of soured on Yaro, but if Marquez can get back to the form he showed a couple of years ago, the back line should be able to hold their own. I expect Stewart will stay the course at centerback, hoping that one of these players will pick it up in 2018.
The Union are set in the number 6 and 8 positions with Haris Medujanin and Alejandro Bedoya. Derrick Jones and Warren Creavalle are going to have to settle for depth roles. Perhaps one of them could be trade fodder. As expected, Maurice Edu was let go, which free up over $700,000 that can be used to purchase an impact player at another position.
We’ll see some changes on the attacking midfield line. Fafa Picault will be back at left wing, but right wing is a question as the club did not pick up the options of Fabian Herbers, Roland Alberg, and Ilsinho, and Chris Pontius is now a free agent. Like his fellow Brazilian Fabinho, Ilsinho has reportedly settled into the area, and may be willing to return at a cheaper salary. I won’t care if Ilsinho doesn’t return; he might be a good ball handler, but wasn’t effective at anything else. I was surprised to read that they were letting Herbers walk (which according to Stewart was a money-based decision as Herbers has lost his Generation Adidas status), but I’m OK with that as right wing is a position that I’d like to see Stewart revamp with new players. Marcus Epps has shown that he has a future in MLS, but is he ready to take over as the regular right winger? I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that.
The team hasn’t had a true number 10 since Tranquillo Barnetta decided to go back to his home in Switzerland. Stewart is up front saying that the Union won’t be a big spender, but the Bedoya signing shows that they will fork out the cash if a unique opportunity presents itself. If the Union are going to return to the playoffs next year, Stewart can’t afford to screw this one up. In his press conference, he said some good things about how Ilsinho performed there. Re-signing Ilsinho to be the number 10 would be a big mistake in my opinion, and I hope Stewart takes this position a little more seriously than he indicated in his press conference.
At striker, C.J. Sapong has shown that he deserves a starting position. Charlie Davies is gone, but the Union are stuck with the half-million-dollar man on their roster, Jay Simpson. I would like to see better depth at this position, and another striker should be another priority for Stewart.
We are going into the third year of Stewart’s process. When he was first hired, a lot of Union fans were saying, “In Earnie we trust.” But they are not saying that as much anymore. We need to start seeing some evidence that his “system-based approach” is going to work in MLS.