The 2016 MLS season is about to kick off, and that means the return of MLS Fantasy. The rules are a bit different this year: While the budget remains the same, rosters now contain 16 players instead of 18. Additionally, the scoring system was remodeled, increasing the fantasy viability of players who were often overlooked.
Below, I take an (overly long) look at the Philadelphia Union's fantasy prospects.
Andre Blake ($5.0) - After two years of controversy and injury, Andre Blake will finally head into a season as the Union's starting goalkeeper. In 2016, he'll be able to deliver on his massive potential without a Rais M'Bolhi-sized shadow looming over him. Blake is undoubtedly the best of the handful of starting goalkeepers at his price-point, but don't select him without pause. A tough March schedule and an unproven back line might rightly scare you away from Blake early on. Blake's presence in the Jamaican national team, which will compete in both the Copa America Centenario and World Cup Qualifiers during the season, will cause him to miss a few games.
As long as you have another starting goalkeeper to spell him, Blake is a viable fantasy selection. He'll provide great return on investment, and his bargain price will allow you to pair him with another starter without draining your budget.
Matt Jones ($5.0) - Jones brings a wealth of experience with him from Portugal, and he looks to be a reliable backup to Andre Blake. With Blake the certain starter, Jones's upside is limited, but he should see a handful of games while Blake is away with Jamaica. There are a number of other starting goalkeepers available for $5.0, making Jones a poor pick unless long-term playing time opens up for him.
John McCarthy ($4.5) - Unlike last year, there isn't much upward mobility in the goalkeeping pecking order. McCarthy won't unseat either Blake or Jones, and he should be spending a lot of time with Bethlehem Steel.
Anderson Conceição ($7.0) - When the Union acquired Anderson on loan this offseason, it seemed that they had finalized their center back pairing. Sporting Director Earnie Stewart spoke highly of his passing ability from the left side, and his relationship with compatriot Fabinho seemed promising. But Ken Tribbett has impressed alongside Richie Marquez this preseason, so much so that he might earn the start come Sunday. It wouldn't be surprising to see Anderson crack the lineup sooner rather than later, but his situation is very much a wait-and-see.
Ray Gaddis ($7.0) - Gaddis hardly played down in Florida, but that seems due, in part, to an injury. Whether he reclaims his starting spot in the season opener is anyone's guess, but either way, Gaddis is a fantasy no-go. At $7.0, he's among defenders that might not be top scorers, but there are plenty who can produce. Guys like Harrison Afful, Joevin Jones, and Kevin Ellis are all available at this price, and they all offer more by way of bonus-point production and clean sheets. Furthermore, the revamped defensive bonus point system still favors center backs. In order for a full back to be a viable fantasy option, they must produce offensively. In 27 starts last season, Gaddis only completed seven crosses. I'd look elsewhere at this price-point.
Fabinho ($6.5) - On the other side of defense, Fabinho looks to follow up a productive 2015. An interception fiend, he benefits from the new bonus-point system, which now features separate defensive categories. In addition to Fabinho's defensive reliability (a phrase I never thought I'd write), he offers a lot going forward. Jim Curtin has talked a lot about spreading the two center backs wide and pushing the full backs up the field, and we saw that in preseason. Fabinho excelled in that system, combining well with his teammates on the left side. He's a good attacking full back with a very good cross, and if he starts across from the more defensive-minded Gaddis, he'll have plenty of opportunities to showcase it.
Richie Marquez ($6.0) - If preseason lineups are any indication, it seems that Richie Marquez will start in Dallas on Sunday. He wasn't a great fantasy play last year, posting modest defensive numbers and failing to find the net. Despite his mediocre production, he still might be a smart pick. With an expanded defensive bonus-point system and a season's worth of experience, Marquez could produce at a level consistent with higher-priced defenders.
Ken Tribbett ($6.0) - Tribbett saw a lot of first-team minutes in preseason, and it looks like he'll continue to play as the regular seasons kicks off. Like Marquez, most of Tribbett's value lies in his bargain potential. Tribbett, Marquez, Bobby Burling, and (possibly) Tommy Redding and Walker Zimmerman are the only projected starting center backs priced at $6.0 or lower. These players certainly come with risks--that they won't start, that they won't play well, that their team's defense is poor--but they still represent potential steals. Tribbett, too, is a risk, mainly because his starting spot for the season opener is even nailed down. With Anderson and Yaro hot on the Drexel alum's heels, Marquez looks to be the safer pick.
Joshua Yaro ($6.0) - At $6.0, Yaro could also be a steal if he earns first-time playing time, but with Marquez, Anderson, and Tribbett ahead of him, there's no saying when that will come. If you want to pick a Union defender at this price, there might be three better options.
Keegan Rosenberry ($5.5) - Due to Gaddis's injury, Rosenberry got a lot of minutes with the first team in Florida. For a first-year guy, he impressed. Unlike Gaddis, Rosenberry poses a significant attacking threat from the flank. His crossing ability has already surpassed that of his fifth-year counterpart, but his defense is understandably not at that level yet. For that reason, Gaddis is the starter, but Rosenberry will fight for that spot all season. If he manages to wrest it away from Gaddis, he'll be a very attractive pick. Until then, look elsewhere.
Taylor Washington ($4.5) - There's considerably less drama on the left side of defense, where Fabinho appears to have things locked down (another phrase I never thought I'd write). If Fabinho suffers an injury, Gaddis or Anderson could slide over, but neither of them is a natural left back. Add Washington only in the event that Fabinho is out for an extended period of time.
Sebastien Le Toux ($9.0) - For the past few years, Le Toux managed to post point totals that weren't really representative of his actual performance. His numbers from last year imply that he was far-and-away the best player on the team, though that was hardly the case. With the midfield strengthened ad absurdum, this discrepancy won't persist. Ilsinho, Roland Alberg, and Tranquillo Barnetta are the likely starters in the attacking midfield, and Chris Pontius will wait eagerly for his chance. Even if Le Toux were a starter, this valuation would still be ridiculous. Don't waste your money on him. Or do. If you want to, you totally can, but don't.
Ilsinho ($8.5) - Ilsinho has one of the most impressive pedigrees of any Union player ever. The former Shaktar Donetsk midfielder shined in preseason, showing that his days in UEFA Champions League aren't too far behind him. Ilsinho will likely start on the wing in the Union's 4-2-3-1/4-3-3. At $8.5, he's priced well below the proven midfielders in MLS, but the 30-year-old has the quality to perform at their level. Still, Ilsinho hasn't played competitively since last summer, and he just recently joined a midfield that has undergone a lot of change. He's a risky play, as $8.5 is nothing to sneeze at, but he's good enough to justify the price. The refrain has been "wait and see" for many of these guys, and I'd preach similar advice for Ilsinho.
Roland Alberg ($8.5) - Like Ilsinho, Alberg is priced pretty modestly because he's not yet a known quantity in MLS. This uncertainty could work to your advantage, as both players have had success in good European leagues. Alberg will probably start on the wing, like Ilsinho, but Curtin has mentioned that he sees him as more of a No. 10. Frankly, we haven't seen enough of Alberg this preseason to say anything conclusively, and we don't even know for certain if he'll start. For those silly, real-life purposes, a deep midfield is great, but in terms of fantasy, it's tough to navigate. Alberg looks pretty good on the ball, but uncertainty as to where he'll fit, how he'll play, and when he'll play makes it difficult to select him. While he, like Ilsinho, has the quality to perform above his valuation, questions about his role with the team will need to be resolved before you can confidently add him to your team.
Tranquillo Barnetta ($8.0) - Despite Curtin's comments on Alberg, it looks like Barnetta will serve as the club's central attacking midfielder in 2016. He looked comfortable when played there last season, as he showed a commitment to stay central in possession and harass defenders when out of it. There are a ton of good midfielders available for the same price, but you could do worse than Barnetta.
Maurice Edu ($8.0) - The Edu-Nogueira Experiment is back for a third time, and everyone is hopeful that it will be successful this time around. Edu is currently injured, but when he returns, he'll be the club's most defensive-minded midfielder. The separation of defensive bonus-point categories and the addition of bonus points for passing accuracy will make him a more viable option, but it's really hard to justify selecting an injured, out-of-position defensive midfielder at this price.
Vincent Nogueira ($7.5) - Those passing bonus points were created in order to increase the production of central midfielders like Nogueira, who is great for maintaining possession but won't often appear on the scoresheet. He'll definitely benefit from that, but he might be able to grab points in a more traditional way this season. When paired with Brian Carroll, Nogueira ranged incredibly far forward this preseason. An increased presence in the attacking third would bolster his goal, assist, and key pass totals, but it's uncertain if he will be able to contribute to the attack this heavily with Maurice Edu by his side. While he'll likely improve upon his 2015 total, there are just too many "ifs" to justify picking Nogueira.
Chris Pontius ($7.0) - If he gets on the field, Pontius could be a very reasonably priced midfield option, but there's no guarantee that he earns extensive playing time. Midfield depth and the constant threat of another injury should be enough to convince you not to select Pontius.
Brian Carroll ($6.5) - No.
Warren Creavalle ($6.0) - Creavalle amassed recoveries at a crazy rate when he was starting for Houston in 2013, but he won't get enough time to replicate that kind of production.
Leo Fernandes ($6.0) - After spending a year with the New York Cosmos, Fernandes returns a much better player. He's excelled in preseason, especially on the wing. No matter how much progress he's made, it's going to be hard for him to force his way into this lineup.
Eric Ayuk ($5.5) - He should be spending the year in Bethlehem.
Cole Missimo ($4.0) - Same here.
CJ Sapong ($8.0) - He has all the tools to become a 15-goal scorer. Sapong's hold-up play is phenomenal, his runs are smart, and he can match up physically with any center back in the league. With the shiny new midfield and a commitment to pushing the full backs forward, he'll receive better service and have better opportunities to combine with his teammates in and around the box. If you're looking for a modestly priced forward, here's your guy.
Fabian Herbers ($5.0) - Herbers looks to be Sapong's direct backup, though the presence of Le Toux and Pontius on the bench could push the Creighton alum down the depth chart. If he is indeed asked to fill in for Sapong, he'll bring speed and a vicious shot, in addition to a willingness to bring his teammates into the game. If you're looking for a bench filler, Herbers is a bit pricier than the cheapest forward, but he could produce if some minutes come his way.