Union predictions — Biggest controversy; path to playoffs

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Union predictions — Biggest controversy; path to playoffs

Part 2 of our Union season predictions.

Part 1 can be found here.

Biggest controversy

DZ: Right back competition
The top battle in the preseason was between Ray Gaddis and Keegan Rosenberry for the starting right back spot, and as recently as Wednesday, Jim Curtin wasn't tipping his hand about who would get the opening-day start. The longest-tenured player on the squad, Gaddis is solid and well-liked. But Rosenberry has the kind of star potential Union fans crave. If Rosenberry spends much of the season on the bench again, as he did last year after his Rookie of the Year runner-up campaign in 2016, it could spell trouble — both for his development and fans' angst.

RB: Jim Curtin's job security
With the Union utilizing youth on defense and at depth positions, Curtin is going to feel every growing pain his club suffers through. Barring a hot start, the manager, who missed the playoffs last season and stumbled into them in 2016, will be on the hot seat throughout. It might not be fair, but it could be the biggest fan fight of 2018.

They'll make the playoffs if …

DZ: Young center backs Jack Elliott and Auston Trusty can avoid rookie mistakes and lean on the veterans in front of them, Borek Dockal gives them the same kind of value at the No. 10 spot as Tranquillo Barnetta did two years ago, and CJ Sapong remains one of the league's top goal-scoring threats.

RB: Dockal is the team MVP and Trusty can match Oguchi Oneywu's 2017 performance on the back line. If Dockal produces, the Union will be an offensive heavyweight in the conference. But that won't mean a thing if Trusty is overmatched and can't gel with Jack Elliott to form a playoff-caliber defensive line.

They'll miss the playoffs if …

DZ: The young backline implodes early to cause a freefall from which they can't recover, Accam and Dockal struggle to adapt to their new city and new team, and the Union continue to drop points on the road at an alarming rate.

RB: Things play out as you'd expect. Even if Trusty eases into his role and Dockal acclimates to his teammates, the Union are still facing a grueling Eastern Conference field. Surprises aside, the Union are doomed from the start.

Predicted finish

DZ: The Union have a better roster than they did last year and their patient build under Curtin and sporting director Earnie Stewart could soon pay big dividends. The biggest problem is that the Eastern Conference is loaded. Toronto FC, Atlanta and New York City FC arguably have more talent than anyone in the league, and Orlando and even Chicago may not be far behind. I think the Union make the playoffs but sneak in as the No. 5 or No. 6 seed, before losing their knockout-round game and having to wait at least one more year to finally win a postseason contest.

RB: As tough as it may be to watch, the Union season goes nowhere and they finish ninth in the East. But not all is lost. Stewart and Curtin finally rely on the kids, which gives fans hope for the future as well as a finish ahead of the New England Revolution and Montreal Impact in 2018.

Union predictions — Team MVP, surprises and disappointments

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Union predictions — Team MVP, surprises and disappointments

The Union accomplished what they set out to do this offseason.

After years of instability under former leadership, they wanted to remain consistent with their roster, system and decision-making — which they did.

They wanted to bolster the attack with two marquee playmakers, one on the wing and one in the attacking midfield — which they did with their draft-day trade for David Accam and Wednesday's acquisition of Czech playmaker Borek Dockal.

And they wanted to give opportunities to teenagers coming through their burgeoning youth academy — which they did with the signings of homegrown defenders Matt Real and Mark McKenzie followed by the preseason decision to give prominent roles to center back Auston Trusty and midfielder Anthony Fontana.

But is it enough to keep up with the rest of the Eastern Conference and make the MLS playoffs? Or win the first playoff game in the club's nine-year history? Will the newcomers be able to mesh with the returning core? Who will star? Who will disappoint?

Leading into Saturday's season opener vs. the New England Revolution (7 p.m., PHL17), it's prediction time. (Part 2 can be found here.)

Team MVP

DZ: Andre Blake
Try to argue that the Jamaican isn't the most talented goalie in the league. You won't get very far. And while Blake's gifts will likely get him to a top European league at some point, the 27-year-old showed commitment to Philly by signing a new multi-year contract in the offseason. Considering the Union have an inexperienced backline, locking down Blake was a good move — and he'll likely reward them with plenty of show-stopping saves.

RB: C.J. Sapong
With 16 goals in 30 games, Sapong had a career year that was so impressive, it opened opportunities with the U.S. national team. Now that the physical scorer has a legit playmaker feeding him passes, Sapong is set up for an even bigger and better 2018 season. He'll lead the team in goals and be an MLS All-Star. 

Top newcomer

DZ: David Accam
The Union shook up the draft by sending money to the Fire for the speedy winger. Accam was great in Chicago, scoring 33 goals over the last three seasons, but he has the opportunity to be even better in Philly, where head coach Jim Curtin's 4-2-3-1 system is designed to maximize the production of his wingers if they can get behind the defense or beat fullbacks one-on-one. Look for Accam to do both, early and often, and perhaps find the back of the net even more than he did in Chicago.

RB: Borek Dockal
He'll be the quarterback the Union desperately need. The offense will run through Dockal and he'll have no shortage of targets. With Fafa Picault on the right, Sapong in the middle and Accam on the left, Dockal will have every opportunity to get on the score sheet with that powerful trio.

Biggest surprise

DZ: Auston Trusty
Given how much exposure he's gotten this offseason, from starting and scoring goals in the preseason to reading the traffic report on the PHL17 morning news, the 19-year-old center back won't surprise anyone when he makes his MLS debut Saturday. What will surprise people is how well he grows into the role — and how much trust Curtin shows in him by keeping him in his starting spot even when he has a bad game or two. "Trusty the Process" indeed.

RB: Alejandro Bedoya
With expectations low, Bedoya will surprise by shining next to Dockal in the midfield. The Czech playmaker will be a safety valve for the US national team stalwart, who will feel less of a burden in possession and make more advantageous runs into the box. He'll have a good season.

Biggest disappointment

DZ: The strikers
Sapong is enjoying a nice moment in his career, coming off a terrific season and well-deserved appearances with the U.S. national team. But is it fair to think he'll be able to duplicate that production after he never hit double-digits in goals in his first six MLS seasons? If he has to miss any time, the dropoff to Jay Simpson or Cory Burke may be steep.

RB: Haris Medunjanin
With 12 assists last season, the well-traveled veteran helped hold a shaky Union team together with his poise on the ball. But the 32-year-old struggled to gain his footing in the preseason and could be primed for a slump in his second MLS season. While it may not be a bad campaign for Medunjanin, there's some reason to believe he won't match last year's success.

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.