It may not feel warm enough yet (is it ever?), but another MLS season kicks off this Saturday in Chester with the Philadelphia Union getting first kick honors against Toronto FC at 1 p.m. The team’s 10th season will start very similar to many of the past ones with question marks about the head coach, the offseason acquisitions and whether or not this is the year the team finally gets an (Open Cup) trophy and wins a playoff game.
How did the Union finish in 2018?
The Union had their highest point total (50) in franchise history, but had to settle for the final playoff spot in the East and were knocked out of the first round of the playoffs at Yankee Stadium.
What’s new in 2019?/Biggest change from last year?
The biggest change occurred before the end of last season when Ernst Tanner was hired to take over as sporting director. Tanner is determined to make the team younger — hence the decision to trade the team’s draft picks away to FC Cincinnati for allocation money — and has head coach Jim Curtin now playing a 4-4-2 diamond that utilizes wing backs to attack the flanks instead of wingers Curtin deployed in his traditional 4-2-3-1 approach.
Marco Fabián overshadowed every other deal this offseason, but the Union also did well to beat Liga MX club Nexaca to 24-year-old Brazilian striker Sergio Santos’s signature and paid $500,000 for his buy-out clause to bring him to the U.S. They also signed veteran center back Aurelien Collin, backup goalkeeper Carlos Miguel Coronel on loan, brought in German left back Kai Wagner and added homegrowns Brenden Aaronson and third-string keeper Matthew Freese to the roster.
Keegan Rosenberry was traded to Colorado Rapids for up to $400,000 in allocation money, CJ Sapong to the Chicago Fire for up to $450,000 in allocation money, backup goalkeepers John McCarthy and Jake McGuire went to Tampa Bay Rowdies and to Sweden. Reserve center backs Josh Yaro and Richie Marquez also departed. Yaro signed with San Antonio FC in the USL Championship but there hasn’t been any word on Marquez finding a club home. Fabian Herbers was traded to the Chicago Fire, Marcus Epps signed with New York Red Bulls after being picked up on waivers and Adam Najem signed on with new USL Championship team Memphis 1901 FC. Jay Simpson returned home to London and signed with former club Leyton Orient while assistant coach BJ Callaghan also departed, taking an assistant job on Gregg Berhalter’s staff with the U.S. men’s national team.
What does the new jersey look like?
The new jersey is white and has received pretty divided opinions from fans. One unique feature is that fans and players have a choice between 10 different bag tag designs that were created by local celebrities and voted on by fans. An LGBTQ+ pride flag is one of the options.
What’s the projected starting XI for Saturday?
The biggest questions in the starting lineup are the outside backs. You could easily switch Kai Wagner with Matthew Real and Olivier Mbaizo with Ray Gaddis and still have a good shot at guessing Curtin’s lineup for Saturday.
Three of the four midfielders are locks to start but the fourth midfield position could be a bit of a wild card with Ilsinho, Brenden Aaronson and Anthony Fontana in the mix. Aaronson still hasn’t graduated from high school but he’s played well enough in preseason to at least get a chance to make his first team MLS debut off the bench.
Up top, Curtin could decide to go with Fafa Picault and Sergio Santos or Picault and Cory Burke with David Accam and Kacper Przybylko both candidates to come off the bench.
Expectations for 2019?
Somewhere between a third to fifth place finish and a playoff win. Perhaps another shot at an Open Cup trophy and a Champions League berth.
What did we learn last season about this team?
They weren’t as bad as we thought they were, but not as good as the front office wanted us to believe.
What was the big rumor(s) this offseason?
Mario Balotelli’s name was whispered as a possible target and after nearly breaking Union Twitter Ernst Tanner crushed it by saying there wasn’t any truth at all to it. The other big rumor started as speculation and a couple months later ended with the Union making their biggest signing in franchise history in El Tri midfielder Marco Fabián.
Who is THE player to watch on your team, and why?
Marco Fabián because he’s the highest paid player to ever suit up for the Union and brings with him an international pedigree that hasn’t been seen on the home team in Chester through the Union’s first nine years as a club.
What’s the biggest concern for this season?
The defense. Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie both had solid seasons in 2018, but there’s still a learning curve there and with a new system and question marks about the outside backs (there isn’t yet a clear cut starter at either position) there’s uncertainty about the back line as a whole. The good news though is Andre Blake is still back there.
How much will this roster change after the season starts?
Michee Ngalina is likely to join the first team at some point from Bethlehem Steel and Ben Ofeimu could also play his way onto the first team if Curtin ends up using a 3-5-2 at any point and needs more than just one backup center back. Another midfielder from the international market is also a possibility depending on the status of international roster spots.
Will this team care about CCL/U.S. Open Cup?
As Jim Curtin always says, there’s only two domestic trophies you can win as a pro team in the United States and since the U.S. Open Cup is one of those he’s going to continue to take it as seriously as any other head coach in the league.
Who’s the player fans are going to love to hate? Who’s the player fans will learn to love?
The answer to both of these questions is Aurelien Collin, who Union fans (and likely some players on the team as well) have already hated for years.