I am the staff geezer and the staff curmudgeon. These two facts, I believe, allow me to claim the title of staff realist but there would be a few ruffled feathers if I squawked that too loudly. Perhaps my colder approach was caused by decades of blind hope that I've carried into countless sports seasons. The results usually range from moderately satisfying to downright excruciating. Big wins, and joy, are rare. I finish counting the championship trophies my teams have lofted before I can say "and this little piggy had roast beef." So it's understandable that I might look more closely for some reasons why things won't work out. After all, the odds are with me.
All that is to say that the concepts we're about to experience together run against my nature. I want all of these things to happen for the Union in 2017 but I can't let my mind accept them, let alone my heart. My sports heart is so fragile. Dare we let the Union in? Let's open that door a creak.
(We see stairs)
What will a great Union season look like? It starts with Jim Curtin. The head man is seen as a young coach on the rise, a thoughtful coach, with great passion to succeed. All clearly true. But there is one question outstanding: Is his ceiling high enough? This season Curtin begins to answer those questions. We begin to see the tactical awareness that perhaps has slid by in the past - adjustments and substitutions that fit the situation and the opponent. It's too much to suggest that the Union will diverge significantly from the 4-2-3-1 system in place but within that system the team is able to adapt more readily. This subtle shift builds a confidence in the team so that every step taken is on a sure foot, and the Union can take the game to the opponent consistently, whatever the style.
Time to look at the defense, a 55-goal sieve last season despite a sensational goalkeeper. Yet this year Andre Blake takes another step to being "the next big thing for Europe." His control of the box improves. His shot stopping ability solidifies his jaw-dropper-on-twitter status and he's in the mix for save of the week, every week.
The individual defenders on the back line improve as well. Richie Marquez takes the next step and his highlight reel tackles and lock down of big forwards puts him in the conversation of best center backs in MLS. Oguchi Onyewu fills in admirably for the injured Josh Yaro and even quietly instills veteran confidence in the back line. When Josh Yaro returns, he also takes a step forward, perhaps not as far as Marquez, but to the middle of the pack. His passing from the back also becomes a notable asset to the attack.
Keegan Rosenberry continues to develop as one of MLS's best right backs. He has a stronger impact on offense and develops his one-on-one defensive skills as well.
At 32 we can't expect Fabinho to take a step forward but he maintains his swashbuckling approach without giving up the big play and Curtin also deftly uses the younger Giliano Wijnaldum to optimize the output on the left side. In fact, Wijnaldum plays so well at times that its clear the Union have their left back of the future.
And then there is Maurice Edu, who is targeted to sit on top of the defense and protect the back line. He is still recovering from a full season of injuries so we can't expect him to impact the game right away. But eventually he gains full fitness and builds what would be a very athletic trio in the center of the defense. Early on Haris Medunjanin, Warren Creavalle, and Brian Carroll hold down the fort but it's the re-emergence of Edu that ultimately improves this defense from the midfield.
Last year the Union instituted a consistent pressing scheme and this year the practice begins to pay off. A successful pressing midfield takes some stress off the back line and they are able to accomplish their roles more consistently.
All in all, the defense reduces their goals allowed from 55 down to 45, denoting an average MLS defense.
The attacking midfield
The midfield is the core of the Union, there is no question. But exactly how the myriad pieces fit together is the unknown. While Pontius is established as the starter on the left wing, the box-to-box role, CAM, and right wing could be put together a number of ways. For our purposes this trio works its magic. Whether Haris Medunjanin is the 6 or the 8 he makes the Union faithful finally dry their eyes over Vincent Nogueira. Whether Alejandro Bedoya is the 8 or the 10, or even the 11 to allow Roland Alberg some time on the pitch, this group is a pressing, scoring machine. Ilson Jr, last year named Ilshino, is indeed reborn and begins to make his quick wit pay.
Bedoya becomes the Union's version of Jermaine Jones, literally willing his team to victory and playing wherever he needs to in order win games. Pontius continues to sport career highs in scoring goals for what becomes one of the most talked about midfields in the league.
The Union forward position now goes legitimately four deep with CJ Sapong, Jay Simpson, Fafa Picault, and Charlie Davies. Last year the forward position was ultimately a weakness but this year they hold their own. The thunder and lightning combination of Sapong and Simpson up the goal tally to fifteen for this group which will balance the strong midfield.
The Union increase their goals scored from 53 to 55 which makes them one of the best offenses in the league. For an optimistic take that might seem like a modest improvement but with Alberg's minutes limited this year, his nine goals need to be covered by his replacement. That's a lot to overcome.
A goal differential of +10 is enough to put the Union in the Supporter's Shield conversation but they don't quite get there, and finish second in the East. Why you ask? After all we are dreaming, right? Let's not get too greedy with the regular season. Hang with me.
The New York Red Bulls, despite the puzzling jettison of Dax McCarty win the East for the third straight season. The Union rest during their bye and then take on the 5th seed Atlanta United. They are star studded, but the Union are a fully functioning cohesive unit. After a 1-1 draw in Atlanta, the home game is deadlocked until the 73rd minute when Alejandro Bedoya slots home a Maurice Edu pass for the winner. The Union win their first playoff game in dramatic fashion.
Now faced with an Eastern Conference Championship against their heated rivals, the Union don't blink and dismantle the Red Bulls in aggregate 4-1. To say the stands are in a state of euphoria is an understatement. The Union will represent the East in the MLS Cup. They are officially on the map in Philadelphia. Local artists submit bids for the right to create the Earnie Stewart statue.
Do the Union win the MLS Cup? I will leave that to you. It's already been a great season and I have achieved what I set out to accomplish.
Does this seem far-fetched? Too many things go right? Where did I fall off the tracks of reality? That I will also leave to you, and of course our beloved Union. Enjoy the season.