Earnie Stewart and Chris Albright spent the last month giving the Union a fresh look.
Despite entering the season with 21 players from last year’s group, the sporting and technical director shook the foundation of the Union by adding Haris Medunjanin, Fafa Picault, Oguchi Onyewu and Jay Harris.
“It was an exciting window for us,” Union manager Jim Curtin said from training camp in Clearwater, Florida. “Great moves by Earnie and Chris Albright, who did a great job.
“We’re getting quality players, experienced guys that fill needs.”
The most impactful of the newcomers could be Medunjanin. In the mold of Vincent Nogueira, who left the Union midway through 2016, 6-foot-2 Medunjanin is a possession midfielder and adept playmaker. He’s expected to start right away at either defensive midfield or in more of a box-to-box role.
“Haris is a guy who can get on the ball, with pressure, with a guy on his back, he can slow the game down,” Curtin said about the Bosnia and Herzegovina national. “Has really good feet but also his ability to connect the back four to the attackers is incredible. These 40-yard balls on the balls that he plays between the lines are important and something that we think that we needed.”
Medunjanin’s skillset is exactly what the Union were looking for in their midfield. The plan is for the veteran to play alongside Alejandro Bedoya and one of Brian Carroll, Warren Creavalle or Maurice Edu. Where Medunjanin fits is something the club will test throughout the preseason.
The club plays its first official preseason game on Feb. 18 against the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
“You can see Haris has played in the 4-2-3-1 system, he knows the role and responsibilities of the six (defensive midfielder) and eight (box-to-box midfielder), he can do both,” Curtin said. “He’s comfortable doing both.”
The Union attack has also been bolstered with the likes of Simpson and Picault. Simpson, a veteran, who popped in 33 goals over 87 matches for League Two side, Leyton Orient, will give the Union forward group some much-needed depth as he competes at the position with C.J. Sapong and Charlie Davies.
Meanwhile, 25-year-old Picault, out of St. Pauli in Germany’s second division, adds a dynamic element of speed and goal-scoring ability to the Union’s left-wing offense behind Chris Pontius.
“He has that ability to cut in on the right foot, use the defender as a screen and shoot from his right foot, curling the ball to the back post,” Curtin said. “Speed-wise, he gets to the end line whenever he wants, he is fast. He has a different level of speed that we haven’t had before.”
On the defensive end, where the Union struggled most last season, the club added a veteran center back in Onyewu. Though he hasn’t played significant minutes in two years, the former U.S. Men’s National Team player has opened eyes in Union camp.
“His soccer’s been excellent,” Curtin said. “He’s been playing center back at a very high level in the short time that we’ve been going. So he’s been above and beyond what I anticipated, I must say, and I’m happy with where he’s at right now.”
More importantly, Onyewu is fitting well with the club. Part of the 34-year-old’s responsibility is mentoring a young Union back line that features second-year players Josh Yaro, Ken Tribbett and 24-year-old Richie Marquez.
“The way Gooch is interacting with the group, how he puts his arm around our academy kids and how at every meal he sits with a different group. He’s fitting in with everybody," Curtin said. "He's been doing a ton for us in sharing that knowledge. He’s holding guys accountable in training, he’s getting on guys the right way with the right tone and getting a good response out of them. That part’s been good.”
But while the Union’s four high-profile additions are a welcome sight for the refreshed team, they won’t come without a few sleepless nights for Curtin. But that's not a bad thing for the fourth-year manager.
“We’ve got a lot of tough decisions,” he said. “It might look a little different when we’re at home and when we’re away in terms of personnel to choose from, but again, these are good problems to have.”