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Philadelphia Union Season Preview: What to expect when you’re not expecting much

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Don’t follow the Union closely in the off-season? Follow another team? Here’s a primer on what to expect from the boys in blue this season.

MLS: D.C. United vs. Philadelphia Union Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

After a cold and somewhat quiet Major League Soccer off-season for the Philadelphia Union, the blue and gold are back with a home game against the New England Revolution on Saturday at 7 p.m.

So what’s different?

This offseason, the Union trimmed in excess of $2 million from the roster by letting go Maurice Edu, Chris Pontius, Roland Alberg, Giliano Wijnaldum plus a few others.

Oh and in case you missed it, after a multiple month social media campaign, the Union also retooled their jerseys.

So what’s new?

The Union have a 10! On Wednesday, Bořek Dočkal finally and officially joined the team on loan from HN Jianye in the Chinese Super League.

In addition to Dočkal, the Union acquired explosive winger David Accam from Chicago in exchange for $1.2 million in Targeted Allocation Money on a day other MLS teams were selecting squad players in the SuperDraft. In 30 games last season, the Ghanian International netted 14 goals and added eight assists.

In addition to Accam and Dockal, youngsters Matt Real, Anthony Fontana, and Auston Trusty round out the squad as well as will likely play a large role for the Union this season.

Philadelphia Union vs Sporting Kansas City Photo Gallery Trey Madara / Brotherly Game

So what’s the same?

The cast from this year’s team has many familiar faces.

Despite the yearly speculation of whether Andre Blake is leaving to go to Europe, the 2016 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year signed a multi-year contract extension to stay in the Blue and Gold for the foreseeable future.

Union striker CJ Sapong returns after he silenced all of his critics with an explosive career year of 16 goals and five assists. The speedy and skilled Accam will likely be paired with Fafa Picault on the flanks to round out what should be a quick, potent offensive attack.

Captain Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin return to the double pivot after cultivating chemistry during last season’s campaign. With Dočkal, Bedoya and Medunjanin in the middle of the field, the foundation should look much more cohesive.

On the bench, Fabian Herbers, Ilsinho and Marcus Epps are back to provide spot starts and crucial late minutes. However, it is unclear where the the trio will fit into a squad with plentiful wingers. Herbers, who spent most of 2017 injured, played very solid on the wing when given the opportunity. Epps too played well in his brief runout towards the end of the season.

MLS: D.C. United vs. Philadelphia Union Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The theme for this year’s season will be....

Veterans versus Youth.

As soon as he is match fit, it is assumed Dočkal will be the number 10 of the team. However, behind him is Fontana, who was announced as the starter for Saturday’s home opener. Fontana, an 18-year-old homegrown player from Newark, Delaware who doesn’t graduate high school at YSC Academy until June, will be involved in some capacity throughout the season, but Dočkal is clearly the starter once he is ready. This does not even take into account Ilsinho, who played the 10 for the squad a handful of times last season or Adam Najem, who was a regular at the position as a rookie with Bethlehem Steel FC last season.

On defense, at least one of the four positions is still up in the air for Saturday’s home opener while conceivably all four positions are up for grabs on a weekly basis.

At left back, familiar face Fabinho is back and will likely have to deal with a positional challenge from 18-year-old homegrown Matt Real at some point season.

At centerback, 19-year-old homegrown Auston Trusty has impressed this off-season and will get the chance to prove himself very early on for this team. In addition to Trusty, Josh Yaro, Richie Marquez and Jack Elliott return to the stable of young center backs. Elliott was a revelation last season, so it is unlikely he does not retain his starting position to start the season.

Finally, at right back, Union veteran Ray Gaddis ended the season as the starter while 2016 MLS All-Star Keegan Rosenberry had a rough 2017 campaign overall. Gaddis is a Curtin glue player that is reliably defensively, but gives little going forward. However, with two offensive minded wingers, Curtin may opt for the sure thing in the back with Gaddis to sure up the defense. Rosenberry is the better overall player, but really fell off in the beginning of 2017, eventually lost the job to Gaddis and ended up suspended for the 2017 season finale. The right back battle may be settled week-to-week depending on match-ups until one player rises above.

One young player who has flown under the radar so far has been Derrick Jones. However, his journey to the starting lineup is very much blocked by two of the Union’s most high profile players, Bedoya and Medunjanin. If there’s a battle indicative of the present versus the future, it’s this one. Jones played very well last season when given the chance in the beginning of the season until he only played two minutes past July 6th.

Medunjanin will be 33 next week and, while he has not looked a step slow, he is not getting younger. His contract is up at the end of the season, with an option for 2019. On the other side, Alejandro Bedoya will be 31 at the end of April. According to Transfermarkt, the captain has a contract running until the end of the season too. If the Union have any intention of really playing through their academy, it would make sense to give Jones some minutes in the double pivot before deciding to re-sign either or both of them.

Philadelphia Union

The Best Case Scenario is....

Dočkal joins the starting 11 early in the season and meshes well with Accam, Picault and Sapong. With another year of chemistry, the double pivot provides support to a growing back line. Auston Trusty plays as advertised and is a rock alongside Elliott in front of perennial top goalkeeper Andre Blake. The Union don’t back their way into the postseason and finish fourth to bring a home game to Chester for the Philly faithful.

The Worst Case Scenario is...

Dočkal is not the impact player the Union need as Curtin is forced to put Ilsinho back at the 10 as the starter. Without a good 10, Sapong and Accam are not as productive. Even with the improved offensive side of the ball, the Union defensive efforts led by an extremely young back line concede way too much without enough help from the double pivot and wingers. The Union improve on last season’s total of 50 goals scored, but concede 60 goals as they finish in 8th.

So what is a reasonable scenario?

Obviously the Union are going to win MLS Cup.

The youth grow some on the job and prove to be productive throughout the season. Trusty is in the conversation of top rookies in the league (though he won’t qualify for the award because it’s not his first season as a pro) and leads the defense to a respectful campaign that could have been better.

Sapong and Accam produce 25 goals combined with Dočkal struggling early on with chemistry with the offense, but eventually finding a decent rhythm toward the end of the season.

The Union end up scoring 55 goals but concede about the same to finish with about 46 points, good for about seventh in the East, just outside the playoffs, again.