After months of waiting, the Philadelphia Union have finally signed a No. 10 and thus the 2018 Major League Soccer season is ready to get underway.
The Union will launch their MLS season tonight, when conference rivals the New England Revolution come to town.
Though the Union’s offseason got off to a slow start, things have heated up recently and there is no scarcity of headlines leading up to tonight’s opener.
The S.S. Borek has docked in Chester, but it may not yet be ready to set sail
The Union finally completed their years-long search for a No. 10 earlier this week, when Bořek Dočkal joined the club on loan from Chinese Super League club Henan Jianye. Though he has trained with the club this week and toward the end of preseason, Dočkal’s presence in tonight’s lineup is unlikely. He spent Wednesday in Toronto finalizing visa documents, and according to head coach Jim Curtin, he has a bit of an ankle injury to boot.
Ilsinho, who settled into the advanced playmaker role late in the season, is also unlikely to appear tonight due to an injury that he suffered in a scrimmage against Orlando City SC.
Following Ilsinho’s injury, 18-year-old Anthony Fontana lined up alongside the starters in the Union’s remaining preseason friendlies. If Curtin judges Dočkal not ready to start, Fontana would become the fifth Philadelphia Union Homegrown Player to make his MLS debut (Auston Trusty is likely to do the same tonight).
Shuffle on the wings
The Union made a significant upgrade on the wings this offseason, letting Chris Pontius walk and spending a whole mess of Garber bucks on David Accam. While Accam is in line for his Union debut tonight, Fafa Picault, who has shifted to the right wing following Accam’s arrival, has been suspended for three games for offensive language used during that scrimmage with Orlando City.
With a plethora of able wingers at his disposal, it should not be hard for Jim Curtin to find a replacement, but Picault’s suspension will give us an early idea of the pecking order on the wings.
Fabian Herbers looks to be the favorite for Picault’s spot. Herbers showed well on the wing in the back half of the 2016 season, putting up three goals and seven assists in just 1290 minutes, but his 2017 campaign was derailed by injury.
If Herbers gets off to a hot start, Picault’s March could get even worse. The German brings an endless motor and good chance creation to the right wing, and if those two things are on display throughout these next few weeks, Picault might not have a direct path back to the starting lineup
The back line just got a whole lot younger
Following the departure of Oguchi Onyewu, Ken Tribbett, and Giliano Wijnaldum, the Union reached down the pipeline to bolster their defensive ranks. Mark McKenzie and Matt Real became the club’s seventh and eighth Homegrown Player signings this winter. Neither are in line to start for the first team right away, as McKenzie seems to be behind both Richie Marquez and Josh Yaro, the backup center-back tandem. Real is one of only two natural left backs on the roster, and though he hasn’t usurped Fabinho yet, he’ll likely take a good number of minutes off the soon-to-be-33-year-old.
Though the two youngest defenders will see more playing time in Bethlehem than in Chester, the third of the Union’s three teen defenders is poised to start. 19-year-old Auston Trusty has been starting alongside 2017 standout Jack Elliott all preseason, and it appears that the partnership will be allowed to flourish into the regular season.
With the Union lacking an experienced center back like Onyewu (Marquez, 25, is the club’s oldest CB), the opportunity is there for Trusty to assert himself in the first team like no Union Homegrown ever has. He’ll hope to get his MLS career off and running against a New England attack that finds itself without its key player.
Life without Lee
The Revs’ offseason has been dominated by Lee Nguyen and New England’s front office’s extended standoff. Nguyen, one of the most prolific playmakers in MLS since he entered the league in 2012, initially refused to report to preseason after the Revs failed to honor his request for a trade. Nguyen showed up to training a little less than a month ago, but first-year head coach Brad Friedel is not very eager to work the holdout into his starting lineup.
New England has long had a wealth of attacking options, and they’ve added a few more, in wingers Krisztián Németh and Cristian Penilla, since the start of last season. Kelyn Rowe and Diego Fagundez are two long-time Revs who can help fill the void left by Nguyen, though both will be hard-pressed to match his production.
Whatever team New England throws out tonight, it will be without the club’s most talented and influential player of this decade.
New England Revolution (from The Bent Musket): Cody Cropper; Andrew Farrell, Antonio Delamea, Claude Dielna, Gabriel Somi; Scott Caldwell, Wilfried Zahibo; Cristian Penilla, Kelyn Rowe, Krisztian Nemeth; Juan Agudelo
Philadelphia Union: Andre Blake; Keegan Rosenberry, Jack Elliott, Auston Trusty, Fabinho; Alejandro Bedoya, Haris Medunjanin; Fabian Herbers, Anthony Fontana, David Accam; CJ Sapong.
How to Watch
Where: Talen Energy Stadium, Chester, Pa.
When: 7 p.m. EST, Saturday, March 4th, 2018
TV: PHL17, myTV38 (Boston), DAZN (Canada)
Streaming: MLS Live
Radio: 98.5 The Sports Hub (Boston)