Game: Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. Philadelphia Union
Date: Saturday, February 18th
Time: 7:30 PM Eastern, 4:30 PM Pacific (12:30 AM UTC)
Venue: Al Lang Stadium (Saint Petersburg, Fla.)
Streaming: Tampa Bay Rowdies YouTube Channel
The offseason is over, and the preseason is about to begin in earnest as the Philadelphia Union are set to play in an actual friendly match tonight, and it feels so good to say that. The random scrimmages that have been played before were ok, but this will be a real test in a real game setting. The Union will be able to get a good look at themselves and focus on playing their brand of soccer for 90 minutes. It may be messy and chaotic at times, but they’ll be forced to think on their feet against a live opponent.
The Union should line up in their normal 4-2-3-1, with much of the expected opening day lineup available. Andre Blake should be back in time from a friendly on Thursday night in Houston with the Jamaica National Team to finally get some reps in goal with his new back line in front of him. Look for Giliano Wijnaldum to start on the left next to Richie Marquez. This will be the first good look at Wijnaldum that the Union fans will get, so it will be interesting to see how he not only meshes with Blake and Marquez but with the midfield as well. Oguchi Onyewu should get the nod at right center back for the injured Josh Yaro. With Ken Tribbett in the rotation, one has to imagine this job is Gooch’s to lose. Finally at right back should be Keegan Rosenberry, who Union fans first got a look at around this time last year when Ray Gaddis went down with an injury in preseason.
The midfield will also be interesting to watch, as head coach Jim Curtin said in the press conference on Thursday that he would look to play Alejandro Bedoya in the 8 with Bosnian midfielder Haris Medunjanin in the 6. How these two are able to play off one another will be critical to the Union’s success this season. If these two can mesh early to snuff out opposing threats as well as create offensive opportunities, then the Union will be well on their way.
Look for United States National Team debutante Chris Pontius to start on the left wing with Roland Alberg taking the 10 from Tranquillo Barnetta and much fitter Ilson Jr. on the right wing. The dynamics in play between these three - Pontius slashing and cutting from the left, Alberg looking for daylight to rip a shot or send a through ball, and Ilson Jr.’s technical mastery and ability to put you on the wrong end of a highlight reel - provide the Union a multitude of options.
Perhaps the biggest question mark for Union fans though will be the man up top Jay Simpson. The fans just don’t know much about him, not having many opportunities to see him at Leyton Orient in England and only one preseason scrimmage to go on. What we’ve seen so far has been comforting, however it wouldn’t be the first time that a Union player has looked like a world-beater in the preseason then shrunk during the regular season. That said, the match against Tampa should provide the Union fans more of a benchmark for Simpson and help us set our expectations as to how he’ll perform this season.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies are about to enter the unknown as well. This will be their first season in USL after being in NASL since the club was re-started in 2008 as FC Tampa Bay. Most MLS fans however will recognize a lot of the names on the roster. Goalkeeper Matt Pickens backstopped the Colorado Rapids to their MLS Cup win in 2010. Left back Luke Boden was one of the few guys that made the transition from USL to MLS with Orlando City in 2014. Reading United alum and ex-Seattle Sounders defender Damion Lowe has played with Andre Blake for the Jamaica National Team. Midfielder Joe Cole played in the English Premier League for the better part of two decades with West Ham United, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Aston Villa as well as being capped by England 56 times. Leo Fernandes was with the Union for the past three seasons. Forward Georgi Hristov trialed with the Union in 2013 before signing with Tampa. The list of guys with MLS experience is long, and it would be foolhardy to think these guys aren’t going out there with something to prove and to get noticed by a club. They’ll make life difficult for the Union for sure.
That being said, don’t look at the final score in these matches. Much like watching the Eagles in preseason or the Phillies in spring training, the final scores are just about meaningless. Instead look for fitness levels. Are guys sucking wind after 20 minutes? Is there someone who looks good enough to go for 70-90 minutes? Look for timing as the match goes on. Are passes going to where no one is? Are people getting on the end of crosses? These are the sorts of things to focus on.
It’s good to be back.