Union

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.

Inside Doop: Lack of star power continues to doom Union

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Inside Doop: Lack of star power continues to doom Union

At long last, the Union’s season is coming to an end. Even better, they no longer have to play any games on the road this year.

In their final away match of a disappointing 2017 campaign, the Union let a lead slip away in a 3-2 loss to the Fire, finishing the year with a dismal 1-10-6 road record.

What went wrong? And what can we expect from next week’s regular-season finale at Talen Energy Stadium? Here’s a look in the final Inside Doop of 2017:

Three thoughts about Sunday’s game
1. The Union were once again reminded what star power can do for a team. On Sunday, the Fire’s Nemanja Nikolic put on a show with three goals — his 22nd, 23rd and 24th of the season — to all but wrap up a Golden Boot crown and put on his back a Fire team that was without fellow star Bastian Schweinsteiger. In Philly’s last road game, Atlanta also overcame the loss of star Miguel Almiron to ride Josef Martinez to a big win. That’s what happens when you spend a lot of money: you have a stable of difference-makers and their presence trickles down to the rest of the club. The Union, simply, don’t have anything close to that — one of the big reasons why they can’t play well for 90 minutes on the road and why they’ll be missing the playoffs for the sixth time in the franchise’s eight-year history.

2. The closest thing the Union do have to a true star, apart from goalie Andre Blake, is the midfield combo of Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. And both overcame their recent heartbreak of missing out on the World Cup (Bedoya with the U.S., Medunjnanin with Bosnia and Herzegovina) to put in strong shifts. Medunjanin’s pass to set up Bedoya’s second goal of the season was a thing of beauty — and marked his 11th assist of the season. Say what you want about the Union, but those two are consummate pros and locker room leaders who will do everything in their power to get this thing turned around in 2018.

3. Sadly for the Union, one of their best stories of the season — Jack Elliott — had a night to forget. The rookie center back, who went from fourth-round draft pick to Rookie of the Year contender, lost track of a long ball on the Fire’s first goal and then committed a penalty to set up Nikolic’s second goal. Elliott will still be an important piece heading into 2018, but it’s important to remember that he’s no sure thing, especially after seeing what happened to Keegan Rosenberry and Josh Yaro in their second seasons. Meanwhile, Richie Marquez continued his late-season revival with one of his better games of the year. Raise your hand if you have any kind of handle on the team’s center back situation right now.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. Home finales are usually special no matter how a season turns out but it’s hard to figure what kind of crowd and reception there will be when the Union take on Orlando next Sunday (4 p.m., 6ABC). This has been a trying season for Union fans who watched their team fail to build on any kind of momentum from last year’s playoff berth while lowly teams like Chicago or expansion teams like Atlanta (for the reasons listed above them) skyrocketed past them. At the same time, the Union have been mostly fun to watch at home, where they’ve set a franchise record with nine wins. The chance to go for a 10th victory and have C.J. Sapong break the single-season scoring record could be a couple reasons that people will flock to the stadium — that, and the realization that there will be no more soccer there until March.

2. Another big reason to come to Talen Energy Stadium is to see Kaka, the Brazilian legend who will play his last game in MLS. Who will play their last game for the Union? It’s hard to say for sure but Roland Alberg, Ilsinho, Chris Pontius and Brian Carroll are decent bets as an offseason potentially filled with turnover looms.

3. How will head coach Jim Curtin construct the lineup? He doesn’t like to switch things too much, but fans may be clamoring for young guys like Derrick Jones and Adam Najem while Curtin may want to give something of a send-off to Carroll or Charlie Davies, well-known veterans who have hardly played this year. And what about Maurice Edu? He hasn’t played in more than two years — but will a player who led the Union to back-to-back U.S. Open Cup finals in 2014 and 2015 get to say goodbye to fans in some way?

Stat of the week
Even after Bedoya’s goal Sunday, the Union’s four highest-paid players — Bedoya, Edu, Ilsinho and Jay Simpson — have combined for only seven goals this season.

Quote of the week
"It was definitely nostalgic to come back and play at Toyota Park. When I was younger in the U-16s and the U-18s, I played a lot here when I was with the academy. It was good to come back on the professional side and be able to play on the same field I play it on when I was younger." — Union rookie Marcus Epps

Player of the week
Bedoya scored a very nice goal, made a couple of perfectly timed tackles and generally looked sharp in his first game back from the USMNT’s World Cup qualifying failure. Maybe he should’ve played in Trinidad, huh?

Union blow another lead, beaten by Fire

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Union blow another lead, beaten by Fire

BOX SCORE

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — Nemanja Nikolic scored two of his three goals in the second half, increasing his league-leading total to 24, and the Chicago Fire rallied for a 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Union on Sunday.

The Fire (16-10-7) moved into third in the Eastern Conference, which would be good for a home game in the playoffs. Nikolic is four goals clear of his pursuers for the Golden Boot with one game to play.

Nikolic opened the scoring in the third minute, getting to a long feed from Brandon Vincent and aided by a bad angle by defender Jack Elliot before beating Andre Blake. Nikolic's penalty kick in the 64th tied it at 2 after David Accam was taken down in the penalty area. Nikolic completed his first career hat trick with an easy finish from the middle of the box on a feed from Brandon Vincent for the game winner in the 78th.

Chicago defender Johnan Kappelhof's own goal put the Union in a 1-1 tie at the six-minute mark and a feed from Haris Medunjanin to Alejandro Bedoya for a chip shot was good for the lead from the 13th minute.

Philadelphia (10-14-9) finished 1-10-6 on the road this season.