- Philadelphia Union
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A new direction. Greater clarity. A better vision.
When Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin or any of the team's players are asked about what first-year sporting director Earnie Stewart has brought to to the fold, these are some of the terms that invariably pop up.
And it's certainly true that Stewart – lauded as a visionary front-office executive who got the most out of his players amidst budget restraints over the last decade in the Netherlands – has improved the overall mentality in Philly, especially after a tumultuous few years under the reign of embattled former CEO Nick Sakiewicz and a rotating cast of coaches and players.
Of course, it remains to be seen if the former US national team star has built a team competitive enough to make the playoffs for just the second time in seven years of existence.
The Union certainly did make some big changes, cutting ties with a slew of players from last year's disappointing 10-17-7 team, among them top assist man Cristian Maidana. But they didn't make any huge, big-dollar splashes to fill those voids – which, of course, has never been the style of Stewart or the Union.
Instead, they appear keen on building around promising first-round draft picks (defenders Josh Yaro and Keegan Rosenberry and striker Fabian Herbers), undervalued or overlooked assets (Brazilians Anderson Conceicao and Ilsinho, Dutch midfielder Roland Alberg, former USL star Ken Tribbett, and ex-NASL winger Walter Restrepo) and at least one player who's already shown he can be an MLS standout when healthy (Chris Pontius).
When you combine those new players with key returners like Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueira, Tranquillo Barnetta in the midfield, Sebastien Le Toux on the wing, C.J. Sapong up top and talented youngster Andre Blake in goal, the Union believe they have a deeper team than in years past – especially on defense – and the makings of a winner.
Hey, at least things probably can't get much worse, right?
Armchair Analyst's Take
Just about every year in MLS there is a potential-laden forward for whom everything comes together. Usually it’s a mid-career guy who’s scuffled along with a few bursts of productivity before catching fire and going from an 8-or-9-goal scorer to something approaching or exceeding 20.
The hope in Philly is that Sapong is about to have that kind of year. The 27-year-old equaled his career best with nine league goals last season, and more importantly, he wrestled the starting spot away from a Designated Player (since-departed Fernando Aristeguieta) and then kept it by consistently meeting the demands of the position and acting as a fulcrum around which the rest of the attack could function.
I still question whether he gets his shots off quick enough to be that elite goal-scorer, but he’s smarter and more committed than he was a year ago, and his movement in preseason has been promising.
While “can they put their chances away?” remains a big question, “who will create those chances?” is arguably bigger. Maidana’s departure probably makes the Union a better team overall, and the new arrivals are promising, but it’s still not clear who the brains behind the attack will be.
Key Offseason Transactions
KEY PLAYERS IN:
KEY PLAYERS OUT:
Roland Alberg<br> Ilsinho<br> Joshua Yaro<br><a class="small" href="//www.mlssoccer.com/topic/transactions">All transactions</a>
Fernando Aristguieta<br> Cristian Maidana<br> Andrew Wenger
Player to Watch: Andre Blake
There's a reason the Union traded up to get him with the No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick in 2014 and his Jamaican national team coach compares him to Oliver Kahn.
Projected Lineup (4-2-3-1):
Blake -- Gaddis, Yaro, Tribbett, Fabinho -- Edu, Nogueira -- Ilsinho, Alberg, Barnetta -- Sapong
Philadelphia are one of several teams that have undergone significant offseason changes and they will start the year without the likes of leading assist man Cristian Maidana (traded to Houston Dynamo). CJ Sapong ($8.0m) is still a safe bet if you are looking for a playmaker/scorer, but you may also find a value keeper option if Andre Blake ($5.0m) keeps his spot.
- Anderson Conceicao
- Chris Pontius
- Roland Alberg