2017 Union fearless forecast

2017 Union fearless forecast

A few months after qualifying for the MLS Cup Playoffs for only the second time in franchise history -- which preceded an early postseason exit -- the Philadelphia Union are ready to take the next step in their eighth season of play.

But can the franchise finally win its first-ever playoff game? What can fans expect from the offseason acquisitions? How much better can the team's young core of Andre Blake, Keegan Rosenberry and Fabian Herbers get? Who will be the star? Who will disappoint?

Leading into their season opener vs. Vancouver on Sunday (9:30 p.m., TCN), CSNPhilly.com soccer writers Dave Zeitlin and Ryan Bright break it all down and offer some sure-to-be-wrong predictions for the Union's much-anticipated 2017 campaign.

Team MVP
DZ: Alejandro Bedoya -- Most Union fans probably weren't wowed by Bedoya over the final 10 games of the 2016 season after he was signed. But it's important to remember that midseason acquisitions often struggle to get their footing, especially when coming from Europe. It's also important to remember that Bedoya had a full preseason to mesh with his teammates and get settled in Philly. Oh and one more thing: he's a regular starter with the U.S. national team. If that doesn't translate to MLS success, I'm not sure what does.

RB: Andre Blake -- The reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year has an overall better team in front of him but a shaky-enough backline to give him nightmares. Luckily for the Union, Blake is the fixer. Coming off a good preseason, the Jamaican international will be relied upon to be the team's best player on a nightly basis -- and he'll deliver once again.

Top newcomer
DZ: Oguchi Onyewu -- World Cup veteran Haris Medunjanin is an easy choice here, and you can also make the case for English striker Jay Simpson, US national team player Fafa Picault or even rookie Adam Najem. But something says that 34-year-old center back Onyewu will surprise some of the people that assumed his career was over and recapture a little bit of the magic that made him one of the most feared American soccer players of his generation. (Or he'll get hurt and barely play. I immediately regret this decision.)

RB: Haris Medunjanin -- The Bosnian native won't move the needle when it comes to name recognition, but he could be the Union's most impactful ball-mover. Playing deep in the midfield, Medunjanin will be the primary facilitator that links the attack together. He will be a mainstay for the Union all season.

Biggest surprise
DZ: Derrick Jones -- Union head coach Jim Curtin had a surprise up his sleeve last year when he decided to start unheralded rookie Ken Tribbett in the 2016 opener, and now he appears poised to go with another opening-day surprise starter in 19-year-old midfielder Derrick Jones. It may be tough for Jones to retain his spot in the defensive midfield when Warren Creavalle and Maurice Edu recover from injury. But if Jones -- who Curtin calls the franchise's first true Homegrown signing from their growing youth academy --  is able to deliver some first-team minutes and score a few goals, it would be a very nice surprise for the club's future.

RB: Ilsinho -- Although Ilsinho is a known entity, he will stun the league this season with his goal-scoring prowess. The aging Brazilian has leaned down from his rookie MLS season and has been instructed by Curtin to shoot more, a little-known ability he put on fine display this preseason. Ilsinho will be the goal-scorer the Union didn’t know they had.

Biggest disappointment
DZ: Maurice Edu -- It's not unreasonable to ask, at this point, if Edu will ever be healthy again. After being sidelined for the end of the 2015 campaign and all of the 2016 season, he's set to now miss some time at the start of 2017 with his recovery going slower than expected. He's only 30 years old so it's too soon to start thinking about retirement. But even if he does find his way back onto the field, will the former US national team starter be the same player he once was?

RB: Chris Pontius -- Pontius led the Union with 12 goals last season but will disappoint in 2017. The Union will still rely on his finishing ability and he will be a productive asset, but last year's prowess matched with his recent call-up to the U.S. national team's January camp will elevate expectations that Pontius won't be able to reach.

Biggest controversy
DZ: Roland Alberg's minutes -- When Tranquillo Barnetta decided to leave the Union to finish his career in his native Switzerland, Roland Alberg seemed poised to take that over the starting No. 10 attacking midfield role. But heading into the season, it looks like Bedoya will take that spot as Alberg tries to find some minutes off the bench while maybe competing for time with guys like C.J. Sapong and Ilsinho. After scoring nine goals in only 1,153 minutes last season -- his first in MLS -- how would the talented 26-year-old Dutch midfielder handle an even more limited role this season? Something says he won't like it too much. 

RB: Jay Simpson vs. C.J. Sapong -- The battle between Sapong and Simpson for the top striker spot will be pronounced all season long. But the controversy will truly begin when Curtin rides one of his forwards through a slump. If the club's offensive lights go out for an extended stretch, how Curtin manages the forward group will be a very hot topic.

They'll make the playoffs if … 
DZ: Bedoya and Medunjanin form the potent midfield combo that Curtin hopes, Pontius continues to carry much of the scoring load, and Blake remains the shot-stopping phenom that wins them points in tough spots.

RB: Onyewu, Richie Marquez and Blake form an unbeatable holy trinity of defense. Scoring goals shouldn't be an issue for Curtin's squad, but giving them up might be. If the center back grouping of Marquez and Onyewu can control play, and Blake can put out enough fires, the Union will win enough games to sneak into the playoffs.

They'll miss the playoffs if … 
DZ: Other players join Edu and Joshua Yaro on the injury list, Rosenberry and Herbers endure sophomore slumps, and Simpson and Onyewu prove not to be the right answers at the two trouble spots of striker and center back.

RB: The Eastern Conference is as good as it looks on paper. With impressive looking clubs like Toronto FC, New York City FC, New York Red Bulls, the Montreal Impact and Atlanta United all tightly competing for the postseason, the Union won't have much room for error.

Predicted finish
DZ: Considering their only key loss from last season was Barnetta and they acquired at least four potential starting-caliber MLS players, the Union should improve upon last season's sixth-place result. But it's hard to see them climbing higher than fifth place in the East, and another Knockout Round playoff exit seems like the most likely scenario.

RB: Despite adding talent around a solid core and showing a more consistent form, the Union fail to keep up in the East and miss the playoffs by a hair. It won't be a late-season collapse that does them in but an improved conference that remains one step ahead throughout.

Union 2016 awards: From best goal to most surprising moment

Union 2016 awards: From best goal to most surprising moment

The Union’s 2016 is hard to explain.

There were jaw-dropping ups, headshaking downs and an impressive playoff berth that felt hollow after a late-season collapse. The club had young players, like Keegan Rosenberry, Josh Yaro and Andre Blake, give fans a taste of the future, while old guys like Chris Pontius, Brian Carroll and Fabinho outdid themselves. Maurice Edu broke his leg. Twice. Alejandro Bedoya and Charlie Davies joined the team, and Vincent Nogueira disappeared almost overnight. 

To wrap up this crazy year, here are Ryan Bright and Dave Zeitlin’s 2016 Union awards. 

Most memorable moment
Ryan:
The 2016 MLS SuperDraft 
It’s rare that the MLS draft changes a franchise, but that’s exactly what it did for the Union, who snagged Yaro, Rosenberry and Fabian Herbers with the second, third and sixth overall picks. While Yaro had a promising learning year, Rosenberry became a star, playing every minute of the season and getting U.S. Men’s National Team attention. Herbers led the club with seven assists. 

Dave: Big roster moves
The thing that stands out the most in 2016 might be something that happened off the field. It’s not every year, after all, that the Union sign a U.S. national team World Cup starter. But that’s what they did when they locked up Bedoya to a long-term deal during the summer transfer window, before signing his good friend and former USMNT veteran Davies while trading away franchise legend Sebastien Le Toux. When they stopped to catch their breath, the club’s future suddenly looked a whole lot different. 

Most disappointing moment
Ryan:
Not hosting a playoff game 
After back-to-back wins against the Columbus Crew and Sporting Kansas City in late August, the Union had the opportunity to not only make the playoffs but host a playoff game. That didn’t happen. The club went winless in their final seven games, traveling to BMO Field, where the club lost the first-round playoff match to the eventual Eastern Conference champions, Toronto FC.

Dave: Playoff washout
It wasn’t a surprise that the Union lost their first-round game in the playoffs considering they went on the road to face a superior Toronto FC team that ended up hosting the MLS Cup final. But it still stung to get bounced from their first postseason berth in five years so quickly and finish the season winless in their last eight. Making the playoffs was an accomplishment, but the fact remains the club has never won a playoff game in seven years.

Best game
Ryan:
Union vs. D.C. United, May 20
It wasn’t a goal-scoring fest, but the Eastern Conference win at Talen Energy Stadium sent a message throughout the league that the Union might be for real. Richie Marquez scored his first-ever goal in the 91st minute from Le Toux, and Blake stood tall for the two-save shutout, as the Union’s unbeaten streak ran to five games, which they eventually pushed to eight. It was the club’s fifth win in their first 11 games, marking an unprecedented start for the unsuspecting Union.

Dave: Union vs. Orlando City SC, May 25 
This won’t sit well with the ties-are-terrible crowd but Philly’s 2-2 draw with Orlando on May 25 had a little bit of everything. Among the highlights: Drexel grad Ken Tribbett had his first career goal and first career assist after only coming in because of an injury; Blake saved a penalty kick from the legend Kaka; Orlando scored two controversial goals that had Union head coach Jim Curtin fuming; Philly’s Warren Creavalle was taken down in the box without the ref blowing his whistle, which had Curtin even more upset; Orlando’s David Mateos was shown a straight red card in the final minute; and the Union ran a smoothly designed set piece that should have resulted in a goal. When all the smoke cleared, the Union upped their unbeaten streak to six, which they would extend to eight leading into the Copa America break. 

Best goal
Ryan: Alejandro Bedoya’s chip against Toronto FC 
Just when Bedoya began feeling the criticism for not being as impactful as his new MLS contract warranted, he struck on Sept. 24 against Toronto FC. Accepting a pretty pass from Herbers, Bedoya accepted possession with one turn and lofted a volley that found space between Clint Irwin and the crossbar for his first with the Union.

Dave: Fabian Herbers’ rocket against Columbus Crew
With all due respect to Tranquillo Barnetta’s masterful free-kick goals and Bedoya’s jaw-dropping chip, I’ll go with the fans on this one and say the best one — perhaps because it was the most unlikely — was winger Herbers’ perfectly placed rocket into the top corner vs. Columbus on June 1. The goal not only was the eventual game-winner to push Philly’s unbeaten run to eight with an exciting 3-2 win over the Crew but it was also the first of the rookie’s MLS career. Not a bad way to open your scoring account.

MVP
Ryan: Andre Blake
Selected as the league’s best goalkeeper, Blake was responsible for being the fixer when the Union’s young back line faltered. Though the keeper wasn’t flawless, he was good for at least one game-saving stop per match, earning countless points for the Union throughout the year.

Dave: Chris Pontius
All-Star selections Blake and Rosenberry rightfully won most of the praise for their breakout seasons. Perhaps slightly more overlooked was Chris Pontius, who finished with a team-leading 12 goals and six assists in his first year in Philly while overcoming the injuries that had plagued him with former club D.C. United. Pontius is now back in the U.S. national team conversation, earned MLS Comeback Player of the Year honors, and is my choice for team MVP.

Unsung hero
Ryan: Chris Pontius
Even though he was recognized with MLS Comeback Player of the Year, Pontius was the most consistent attacking force on the Union. In 2016, he had the most productive season of his career, leading the Union with 12 goals, adding six assists in 33 games. On a team with a plethora of up-and-coming talent and budding star power, MLS veteran Pontius was the club’s attacking MVP.

Dave: Richie Marquez
While much was made of Rosenberry being the only MLS player to play every minute of the season, center back Marquez quietly finished third in the league in minutes played, having played all but one game. Philly’s defense wasn’t always great, but Marquez still provided a steadying presence in the back in his first full season starting, and should only improve in 2017 if paired with a more experienced center back. 

The surprise of the season
Ryan: Vincent Nogueira leaving
With the Union rolling midway through June, the worst-case scenario happened -- their most important midfielder abruptly terminated his contract. Nogueira, who had been with the Union for the previous two seasons, cited a medical condition before heading back to France. The move was a stunner and sent the Union into a tailspin they couldn’t recover from, going 5-11-4 the rest of the way.

Dave: Vincent Nogueira leaving
Nogueira leaving in the middle of the season for a personal health reason naturally took a lot of people by surprise. And it was not a good surprise, as the well-liked, talented and underrated playmaker left a big hole in the midfield that the club could not recover from as they sputtered to the finish line.

One word to describe 2016 Union
Ryan: Promising
Dave: Rising

Why 2017 will be better
Ryan: With a year in MLS under his belt, Union sporting director Earnie Stewart knows what he needs and will go out and get it. Hosting a playoff match will be the 2017 end goal and there’s reason to believe Stewart will add to his core and put the right pieces in place to do that.

Dave: Losing an influential midfielder like Barnetta will be difficult, but giving Bedoya a full preseason and possibly getting Edu back from injury could make the midfield even more potent. The fact that players like Rosenberry, Herbers and Blake are coming off such great seasons gives the team a good young core to build around. And Stewart and head coach Curtin seem well aware that finding a big-time striker and experienced defender are holes that need to be filled before preseason begins.

Fearless Forecast for the Union's 2016 season

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Fearless Forecast for the Union's 2016 season

It’s time for another MLS season, which can only one mean thing: It’s also time for some predictions sure to go horribly wrong.

Will the Union, who kick off their seventh season Sunday vs. FC Dallas (3 p.m., The Comcast Network), make the playoffs for the first time since 2011 after undergoing an offseason makeover under first-year sporting director Earnie Stewart? Who will be their star? Who will have a breakout season? Who will disappoint?

Once again, CSNPhilly.com soccer writers Dave Zeitlin and Ryan Bright break it all down and offer predictions for a 2016 season the Union insist will be the beginning of a new chapter:

Team MVP
DZ: C.J. Sapong - Sapong’s talent has always been undeniable, but his opportunities have sometimes been lacking. Not anymore. In the offseason, the Union gave the 27-year-old security with a long-term deal (and, much to the chagrin of some fans, by not signing an expensive striker) and a lot more weapons around him with a vastly improved midfield. And while there’s a lot of competition in other spots, Sapong should be in line to start just about every game as the team’s lone striker. If he can avoid some of the injuries and off-field problems that plagued him last year, he’ll easily be able to build off his nine-goal season and score well into double digits in 2016.

RB: Tranquillo Barnetta - Despite early knee issues, which are likely to keep him out of the opener, Barnetta is the MVP engine that will make the Union offense go this season. As the center attacking midfielder with a half-year of MLS experience and more talent around him, Barnetta will get more quality touches and assists in 2016. Watch out for his growing partnership with midfielder Roland Alberg. That the duo could be potent.

Top newcomer
DZ: Roland Alberg - This is a tough one since nearly half of the roster consists of new players, many of whom haven’t been in the public eye, whether playing in college or overseas. The three biggest offseason acquisitions were probably Chris Pontius, Alberg and Ilsinho, which may very well make up the starting attacking midfield trio behind Sapong on Sunday. Of those three, though, you could argue Alberg has the most upside since he’s only 25 and is coming off a few good seasons in the top-tier league in the Netherlands. His signing was also the first big one made by Stewart, who has a great eye for talent and spent the last decade working in the same Dutch league where Alberg plied his craft.

RB: Ilsinho - The 30-year-old playmaking Brazilian will open eyes in the regular season the same way he opened them in preseason -- with high-end attacking skill. There are some big-money guys who enter MLS with talent but are unable to translate it into production. That won’t be Ilsinho. The trialist-turned-signing was consistently dangerous this preseason and will have a productive season feeding Sapong, Pontius and Alberg.

Biggest surprise
DZ: Ken Tribbett - Tribbett may not only be the biggest surprise on the Union, but also perhaps one of the biggest ones in the league. Just two years ago, he graduated from Drexel with little fanfare and without a place to play professionally. But after an impressive season with the USL’s Harrisburg City Islanders last year, Tribbett was signed by the Union during this preseason and appears poised to now start the season at center back, where he’s drawn rave reviews from the coaching staff. It might be an eye-opening experience for Tribbett, 23, to go up against some of the league’s world-class strikers, but he’ll be up to the challenge.

RB: Fabinho - Most know left back Fabinho as the guy they thought would be let go this offseason during the Union’s great roster evolution. Instead, the club re-signed him without a thought. From all reports, the Brazilian had a fantastic preseason on both sides of the ball, which has Union manager Jim Curtin singling him out as a go-to player in 2016.

Biggest disappointment
DZ: Ray Gaddis - One of the team’s longest-tenured players, Gaddis has been a starter for most of his first four years in MLS. But there are still areas of his game that are lacking, particularly on offense; he’s never scored a goal and only has four assists in over 100 games. And although he’s a strong one-on-one defender, he had some rough patches in that department last season. Don’t be shocked if highly touted rookie Keegan Rosenberry, who had a strong preseason camp, becomes the full-time starter at right back at some point this season, moving Gaddis to the bench, possibly for good.

RB: Richie Marquez - He was a darling last season as a rookie, starting 20 games and playing admirably next to a cycle of veteran center backs. This year, he’s the MLS vet and has the weight of the Union back line on his shoulders. The 6-foot-2, 23-year-old Marquez is the steady hand on a defensive line that could potentially feature MLS rookies Tribbett, Anderson, Joshua Yaro, Taylor Washington and Rosenberry. Five of the Union’s eight total back-line players have no MLS games played and Marquez will be asked - and expected - to do too much.

Biggest controversy
DZ: Distributing minutes in the midfield - Things have changed for the better in Union land. No longer are there obvious problems waiting to blow up now that embattled former goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi and CEO Nick Sakiewicz have been kindly asked to leave. And the Union’s goalkeeper situation for once seems quite stable with the talented Andre Blake the clear No. 1 and the popular John McCarthy a very solid backup. If you had to pick a potential issue down the road, head coach Jim Curtin has already said finding minutes for everyone in the crowded midfield will be difficult but a “good problem” to have. Could it become a bad problem, though, if veterans like Sebastien Le Toux or Pontius get squeezed out of the rotation or Leo Fernandes, Walter Restrepo and Eric Ayuk end up playing more for the Union’s new affiliate in Bethlehem when all are probably deserving of MLS minutes?

RB: Depth at forward - Despite what Curtin says, the Union can’t feel comfortable with Sapong and forward Fabian Herbers as the only true forwards on the roster. Will the team add a designated player this summer? It’s possible. But until then, it’s Sapong or bust for the Union, who are one injury away from being in an undesirable spot.

They’ll make the playoffs if…
DZ: Blake saves some points with his remarkable shot-stopping ability, the young backline gels together, Edu and Barnetta return quickly to help the Union avoid a third straight terrible start to the season, and Sapong scores at least 12 goals.

RB: Chemistry hits them just right. With nearly half the club let go from last season, the new group will need to gel from the start to collect points. If players like Barnetta, Alberg and Ilsinho can develop chemistry with Sapong, watch out.

They’ll miss the playoffs if…
DZ: Sapong misses an extended period of time, the inexperienced center backs can’t handle the league’s top forwards, and the Union once again are not able to solve their perennial problem of giving away late leads.

RB: The back line shows its youth and is as ineffective as it is inexperienced. And, despite an improved roster, if chemistry doesn’t strike the Union right, between the three new attacking starters, it could be another long season.

Where they’ll finish
DZ: This is not an MLS Cup contender but, given the offseason upgrades, this is also not one of the worst teams in the league. The Union will sneak into one of the final Eastern Conference playoff spots with the fifth or sixth seed and end their postseason drought. (This is the same prediction I made last season but one of these years, I’m bound to be right.)

RB: Are the Union a better team? Yes. But they’re also a team with plenty of new faces, inexperience on the back line and veterans already suffering through nagging knee and ankle injuries. I predict this Union team struggles early, gets better late and sneaks into an Eastern Conference playoff spot, only to be ejected immediately. Still, a step in the right direction.