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Five questions for the Philadelphia Union as they open preseason

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The Union had their best season yet in 2019. How can they top that in 2020?

Photo by Matt Ralph

Preseason training kicks off for the Philadelphia Union today in Wimington, Delaware ahead of the team’s first trip to sunny southern Florida.

The offseason has been a productive one in terms of player acquisitions and moves with Jamiro Monteiro’s return being the biggest and most pleasant surprise. Auston Trusty is off to Colorado, Haris Medunjanin to Cincinnati and Fafa Picault to Frisco, Texas. Marco Fabian, Fabinho and RJ Allen are gone and Cory Burke is in Austria on loan until May but the rest of the group is back, assuming super sub Ilsinho accepted the offer to return (it hasn’t been announced).

Homegrowns Jack de Vries and Cole Turner are officially on the first team now while José Andrés Martínez and Matej Oravec will be the new faces in the locker room at the 76ers Fieldhouse. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s 24 players (counting Ilsinho and Oravec) on the roster with room for six more and a seventh player if he’s loaned down to Union II for the full season.

That’s what we know, but here are five questions that come to mind with the 2020 season on the horizon.

Are there enough goals up top?

Kacper Przybylko was a revelation in 2019. After starting the season in USL and missing a few games with a broken toe, he came on strong to lead the Union front line and would have had a shot to tie or break CJ Sapong’s record for most goals in a season had he not gotten hurt before the season finale. His absence was especially felt in the loss against Atlanta United. It will be interesting to see how many goals he can score in a full season if he stays healthy but teams will also be a little more prepared for him this season. The other two main forwards on the roster have intriguing questions of their own. Sergio Santos struggled with injuries and inconsistency last season but showed signs that he could be poised for breakout second season in MLS while Andrew Wooten fell well short of expectations. Michee Ngalina and Jack de Vries, two players who are perhaps better suited to playing as wingers in a 4-2-3-1, will be left to fight over what minutes are left.

Without Marco Fabian, who was second in goals last season despite having a disappointing year, and Fafa Picault, who hit double digits in goals in 2018 but struggled in front of goal last year, the Union are going to need to find goals from Brenden Aaronson and others. More goals off corner kicks and set pieces sure wouldn’t hurt either.

How much will Haris Medunjanin be missed?

While Sporting Director Ernst Tanner’s reasons for not bringing veteran midfielder Haris Medunjanin back make sense — his age, fit in the system and a desire to develop younger players at the position — Haris will still be a big loss for the club on the field and in the locker room. He was especially helpful to Aaronson in his rookie season and wore the captain’s armband when Alejandro Bedoya was injured last season. While he was somewhat of a liability at times defensively, his skill on the ball and ability to start attacks with his passing range was key to the Union’s attack in 2019.

Heading into preseason, it’s not clear who his successor will be. Martinez is 25 and the team paid a transfer fee for him but Tanner has called him a project and said he expects it to take some time for him to adjust to the team. Oravec has mostly played as a defensive midfielder in Slovakia but it’s not clear yet how he’ll fit in with the team. Cole Turner will also be available on the roster along with veteran Warren Creavalle, who can be a spot starter when needed and is also good as a late sub for defense.

Is Ray Gaddis still the every day right back?

Ray Gaddis wasn’t expected to be the full-time right back in 2019, but Union fans really shouldn’t be that surprised anymore to see the veteran seeing so much of the field. He’s not ideal for a system that demands skills on the offensive end Gaddis has never been known to possess but he’s still a steady and reliable player head coach Jim Curtin knows and likes having on the field, especially with a back line that is still learning on the job. Injuries kept Olivier Mbaizo from seriously challenging Gaddis in 2019 and barring some change in his status as an international player it will be harder to justify having him on the roster for a third straight year without playing. There are other players on the roster who Curtin could experiment with at right back and there’s a good unsigned right back in Nathan Harriel in the system but for now it’s still Gaddis’s position to lose.

How many goals will Brenden Aaronson score?

From his early teenage years playing in the academy system, one of the question marks about Brenden has always been his goal scoring so it wasn’t too surprising to see it become a talking point in his rookie season (even after scoring in his MLS debut) but time in USMNT camps in the offseason and countless hours he’s spent in the gym and training on his own should have him poised for an even better second season in MLS. As the only true No. 10 on the roster — Jamiro Monteiro, Anthony Fontana and Ilsinho can also play there — he’ll be counted on to produce more goals and assists while solidifying his starting role.

How much will the defense improve?

Regardless of where fault lies — it’s not always all on the back line — the Union conceded way too many goals last season, a point Tanner emphasized at the start of the offseason and has focused on with his roster moves. While Tanner isn’t done yet — he’s mentioned that he has another center back on the shopping list — locking down Mark McKenzie with a contract extension was a really good move that promises both he and Elliott won’t have to worry about any distractions over contract talks during the season. Andre Blake needs to rebound from a down year by his high standards and whoever gets the bulk of minutes at the No. 6 needs to prove his worth limiting chances in Zone 14.