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2017 Season Preview: The Union are now a stable franchise ... but will they be any good?

2017 Season Preview: The Union are now a stable franchise ... but will they be any good?

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?

No excuse for how Sixers handled draft night trade of Mikal Bridges

No excuse for how Sixers handled draft night trade of Mikal Bridges

To be perfectly honest, I can’t tell you a whole lot about Mikal Bridges, other than he’s a Villanova product and two-time national champion. I can’t tell you a thing about Zhaire Smith. And an unprotected first-round pick in 2021 is so far away, it could really be anything, or change hands three more times until then.

I don’t know if the Sixers were winners or losers at the NBA draft after trading Bridges to Phoenix for Smith and the Miami pick. Nobody knows that. We all have our opinions, but we don’t know.

The only thing anybody can say for certain is the organization should be embarrassed, no matter how this plays out on a basketball court.

The Sixers should be embarrassed, but not because the front office took a risk or made an unpopular decision. Love it or hate it, the trade was made with a clear vision, and it took courage for Brett Brown the interim general manager to give his OK, realizing it wasn’t necessarily the best move for Brett Brown the head coach in the immediate. Fortune sometimes favors the bold.

No, the Sixers should be embarrassed for pulling a bait-and-switch on Bridges, a 21-year-old kid and Philadelphia hero, while he was on live TV talking about how ecstatic his mom was he would be playing pro basketball in his hometown. Draft night trades are the norm in the NBA, so why would an NBA team put a young man and his family in that position less than 30 minutes after the selection was made?

Especially when, all the while, Brown was still fielding offers for Bridges.

“The phones were active and we knocked back an incredible deal where we would lose him,” Brown said after the conclusion of the first round. “We didn’t rate it to be a godfather type of deal, something that would impact the franchise to the level that it would have to in order to trade Mikal, who we valued very much.

“Then Phoenix came in and offered a 2021 unprotected [first-round pick], plus our 1B in Zhaire, who we valued very highly, and you’re in a position that you’re on the clock and you have a decision to make.”

The Sixers should be embarrassed by the latest in an increasingly long line of public relations blunders. If this were the only example of the organization’s ineptitude, it would be unfortunate, but forgivable. Instead, it was par for the course.

This is the same organization that took its sweet time ousting Bryan Colangelo amid a bizarre social media scandal mere weeks ago; that never convincingly explained the mysterious circumstances that led to Markelle Fultz sitting out most of his rookie season; that has frequently and publicly feuded with Joel Embiid over playing time; that was previously caught hiding major Embiid injury information from fans; that has a medical team constantly under fire for its inability to quickly and accurately diagnose injuries; that just endured years of bad PR for tanking, until it finally reached a point where the league allegedly stepped in and had to force Sam Hinkie out. Did we miss anything? Probably.

No, I don’t think we’re making too much about a press conference. Too often for far too long, the Sixers have come off as dysfunctional in far too many arenas, and it can't be endearing to the likes of LeBron James, other top-tier free agents and available veteran players or even the organization's own stars.

At least one person in the building seemed to understand how sensitive a situation this was.

“I live in this city with you all,” said Brown. “I watch Villanova. I love (Bridges’) mom. I love his college coach. There’s a human side of this that’s really kind of hard to explain.

“The emotion of what we have all been through has been painful, but what’s best for the organization and how do you win a championship? And since I’ve looked at you all, I haven’t pivoted out of that once. So, the torment of trying to do my job in the very limited role in the moment I have as general manager versus the role that I have as head coach of this program, it’s a toggle, and this is where we arrived.”

Too bad Brown apparently didn’t have a chance to convey that to members of the Sixers' staff before they prematurely started the victory parade.

“All of those emotions and all of those facts happened in a 20-, 25-minute window,” Brown said.

A 20-, 25-minute window is all the Sixers need to make an awkward situation worse. Brown, the fans and, most of all, Bridges and his family all deserved better on Thursday night.

More on the Sixers

The Sixers and the Suns trade ... barbs on Twitter

The Sixers and the Suns trade ... barbs on Twitter

Joel Embiid wasn't the only one throwing shade at the Phoenix Suns on Thursday evening.

The Philadelphia 76ers' official Twitter account got in on the action after the Suns tossed some shade in their direction.

It all started with a tweet while Mikal Bridges was still a member of the 76ers' squad. @Sixers posted some highlights of Bridges from his Villanova days. Harmless enough.

Then Bridges got traded to the Suns for Zhaire Smith and an unprotected first round pick in 2021. It appears as if the original highlights tweet was deleted but the @Suns had receipts.

That's when the @Suns tossed a jab.

The Sixers didn't take it lying down.

Who you got in the battle of the hoops nerds behind the team Twitter accounts?

Just remember: don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.

More on the Sixers