For much of the Philadelphia Union’s existence, the preseason has been as dramatic as any game-winning golazo.
There was figuring out who everyone was before the 2010 expansion season (while they trained out of a public gym). There was Michael Orozco Fiscal arriving at camp in 2011 before soon leaving over a contract dispute. There was losing club icon Sebastien Le Toux (to a bizarre trade) and then-captain Faryd Mondragon (he requested an untimely release) at the start of camp the following year. There was Freddy Adu getting his contract terminated in 2013 and Carlos Valdes getting loaned away just after awkwardly reporting to camp the year after that. There was head coach Jim Curtin going through his first preseason in 2015 and sporting director Earnie Stewart putting his own stamp on things after arriving last year.
But things have been much calmer at the start of 2017. No contract disputes. No unexpected comings or goings. No coaching or front-office shakeups. One very good player left very graciously (Tranquillo Barnetta) and a few other players came in, none big enough to send shockwaves through the league. There doesn’t seem to be any locker-room drama. Curtin and Stewart are growing into their jobs and ready to build something.
I guess the best way to describe the 2017 preseason is that it’s been, well, boring. But for a franchise that’s gone through such tumult in the past, that’s a good thing. The big question now is whether this kind of stability can lead to success on the field when the season opens Sunday night in Vancouver.
Perhaps it will. But it may largely depend on these five things:
1. So can this British dude play?
Stewart is known for making unique moves, to try to pluck players from obscurity into stardom, to find good values where others don’t know where to look. Meet Jay Simpson, perhaps one of the Union sporting director’s most ambitious projects yet.
Before signing with the Union in the offseason, Simpson was playing for a fourth-division team in England and now looks poised to be Philly’s opening-day starter at striker. There is another prominent example of an Englishman from lower-tier leagues coming over to MLS and dominating — and Simpson would like to emulate him — but it’s hard to know at this point if the new Union forward can carry the goal-scoring load. In Earnie we trust?
2. Is Gooch still Gooch?
First, he was just training with the team just to stay fit. Then, he had a chance to sign. Then, he was a veteran backup. Now, he’s getting ready to start at center back, on turf, following a six-hour flight, in his first pro game in two years. What could go wrong?
A lot of people are rightfully skeptical that 34-year-old center back Oguchi Onyewu can be an effective player in MLS and stay healthy after some recent injury issues effectively kept him out of pro soccer for two years. But for those of us who grew into soccer fans watching him, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley come up through the US national team together, it will still be fun to see a former star player suit up in MLS for the first time. Maybe he’s still got it?
3. Will Maurice Edu ever be healthy again?
Looks like Union writers may have another few weeks (or months?) of asking Curtin the same question about Edu’s recovery from injury and Curtin giving the same kind of hopeful but sometimes frustrated answer.
I’ll go on the record as saying Edu will return to game action in the first couple of months of the season but, after missing the entire 2016 season, one more setback could spell the end of the 30-year-old midfielder’s time with the Union. And it would be a shame if we never get to see a midfield triangle of Edu, Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya — all guys who have played in a World Cup.
4. Sophomore slumps — is that gonna be a thing?
The play of Keegan Rosenberry and Fabian Herbers was one of the best storylines of the 2016 season with both emerging as top rookies in MLS. They’ll be counted on for even more in 2017 but can they keep it up or improve? The same question can even be asked of Andre Blake and Richie Marquez, two other young players coming off their first full seasons as starters? And then there’s Joshua Yaro, the third member of last year’s vaunted rookie class along with Herbers and Rosenberry, who’s recovering from shoulder surgery.
It’s a talented young core, to be sure. But Union fans have seen enough promising young players fail to grow into stars or even stick with the team (McInerney, Amobi, Sheanon, Farfan, etc., etc.) to measure their excitement with a dose of caution.
5. Can they take the next step?
This is a vague question but soccer can be hard to quantify too, with teams often dominating games but still finding ways to lose. Too often in the past, the Union have been burned by rough calls, unlucky bounces, late lapses, or injury problems that have forced them to field weaker-than-expected lineups.
This year’s team has the kind of depth where it should be able to overcome having key guys out to take more points in tough spots. But do they have the mental fortitude to win games when they don’t play well? Or escape with road draws when things don’t go their way?
In other words: Can the 2017 Philadelphia Union join the league’s elite echelon of teams — or are they destined to remain in the middle of the pack?