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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Curtin at the mic: Looking ahead to San Jose

For being atop the Eastern Conference standings, it’s a relatively sedate week around Talen Energy Stadium, with just a few odds and ends to wrap up from manager Jim Curtin’s weekly press conference Wednesday.

First, let Curtin take you down memory lane with his recollections of Earthquakes striker Chris Wondolowski from their days in the defunct MLS Reserve League.

With Fabinho suspended this week,
Union manager Jim Curtin will likely turn to Ray Gaddis
at left back. (AP)
To no one’s surprise, Curtin likely will turn to Ray Gaddis Saturday against San Jose (4 p.m., 6ABC) to replace Fabinho, who is suspended for yellow-card accumulation. I spoke to Gaddis Tuesday, and much of what he said was echoed by his manager a day later:
“I thought it was good for Ray to get the 45 minutes. I thought he did very well in that. He’s a guy who’s a great professional. He’s been itching to go. A little injury went against him early in the season and Keegan (Rosenberry) was in good form, so as challenging as that is for a pro, I’m very happy with how Ray’s handled it. He has his opportunity now. He’s not a guy that I get too nervous about because I know how good of a competitor he is, how good of a player he is and he’ll be up of the challenge to slot in this week.”
The other injury is Ken Tribbett, who trained fully Wednesday as he recovers from an ankle knock. Curtin has options regardless of Tribbett’s fitness, thanks to the strong play of Josh Yaro:
“Both are playing very well. Ken is, in his own words, not 100 percent yet, but at the same time, he looks pretty darn good in training. Josh is playing good as well. I’ll let Dom (Kinnear) have to think at least what we’re going to do.”
Curtin delved into the decision to lift Fabinho at halftime of last Saturday’s 2-0 win over New York City FC. The Brazilian drew a yellow card in the first half, and twice this season, early yellows have turned red in the first 10 minutes of the second half, putting the Union in a lurch.

Curtin’s staff convinced him of that danger:
“It weighed in the decision. It made it a little easier to make the adjustment with Fabinho getting the yellow card, knowing that he’s going to have to sit the next game, the fact that we’ve given up two red cards in the 50th minute, it all weighs into the decision. There is something to Ray getting that full 45 under his belt so it’s not his first action on the weekend against a really good San Jose team. …
“(The 2-0 lead is) another factor that weighs in. To be honest, I give my staff credit for that, because I was against it. I didn’t want to do it. There was enough voices, my assistants – Oka (Nikolov), Mike (Sorber), BJ (Callaghan) – in talking with all those guys, I thanked them after the game, too, because we’re all in this together.”
Saturday was Curtin’s first chance to interact with NYCFC manager and Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira, who made quite an impression on Curtin:
“I’ve crossed paths with him in the preseason, but the first time I actually met him was before the game, and then after the game as well, we shook hands and had a quick chat. First and foremost, you never know with guys that are literally walking legends of the game, what they’re going to be like. And he was humble, soft-spoken, nice guy. And I did say to him after the game, when I shook his hand, ‘you guys outplayed us today and probably deserved something from the game.’ From that regard, I did see things similar to him.”
Finally, last week we discussed Curtin’s chance to become the Union’s all-time leader in victories in all competitions, which he accomplished Saturday. Any joy over that accolade will wait for another day:
“It doesn’t do anything for me. We’re a team that’s trying to get better. We’re a team that’s trying to get back in the playoffs. I think the regular season is team-based. At the end of the year, we can reflect on individual accolades, whether they be for our staff, for our players when they get rewarded for hopefully some best XI or all-stars or different things like that. But I think the regular season is for team. The postseason, the offseason is for individual recognition or whatever comes along.”

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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Curtin on the verge of Union coaching history

Union manager Jim Curtin, seen coaching in Seattle
last week, would move into the club lead for wins
in all competitions with his next victory. (AP)
Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin has often been blunt this season about his only full campaign in charge. ‘We weren’t good last year,’ has been Curtin’s message about 2015, paraphrased though its many uttered variations.

While no one’s lining up to argue that, the manager in his third season is approaching a piece of significant history: With his next win, Curtin will become the Union’s franchise leader in coaching victories. It’s possible that could come at home, with the Union embarking on a season-long, three-game homestand starting with Saturday’s game with New York City FC.

Curtin has managed 67 competitive matches for the Union (MLS and U.S. Open Cup). He carries a record of 25-26-17 in those games, even on wins with his predecessor, John Hackworth.

Hackworth went 25-32-20 in 77 matches. Peter Nowak, who oversaw a franchise-best 81 games, posted a 23-33-25 record and is already in Curtin's rearview mirror. (Updated: I neglected to include Nowak's two playoff games, both losses to Houston, in his record. Anyone else forget those?)

A major driver is Curtin’s record in the U.S. Open Cup. Over the last two seasons, the Union are 5-1-4 in the competition. (Technically, winning by penalty kicks is regarded as a draw, but it we want to get qualitative, Curtin’s team has advanced in eight of 10 matches.)

Curtin’s next MLS win will be his 21st, tying him with Nowak for second-most all-time and putting him two behind Hackworth.

Nowak, signed before the club’s inception, was in charge for two and a half seasons from the inaugural game in 2010 to June 13, 2012. Hackworth took over then and coached for three days shy of two years, when Curtin took over on an interim basis June 10, 2014 and was made full-time in October of that year.

The obvious difference between the coaches becomes obvious on points per game (in MLS play):

Coach GP W L D Pts PPG
Peter Nowak 75 21 30 23 87 1.16
John Hackworth 73 23 30 20 89 1.22
Jim Curtin 57 20 25 13 73 1.28

Curtin is well ahead of either of his forebears in that all-important ppg category. Barring a drop to last season’s 1.0 ppg levels or unforeseen circumstances, Curtin should top his predecessors this summer. And he has the potential to do it in many fewer games.

To add in the Open Cup component for total wins, Peter Nowak went 2-1-1 in the competition (including the qualification bracket in 2010 and 2011), both of his wins coming in the weeks before his dismissal in 2012. Hackworth won one game in 2012 and one in 2013 for a 2-2-0 record.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Change could be a good thing on long trip to Seattle

The trip to Seattle might present a chance for the Union
to rest midfielder Brian Carroll, left, though manager Jim Curtin
has plenty of options to try. (AP)
Game 6 of the Philadelphia Union’s season presents the fourth road trip, so Jim Curtin isn’t a stranger to the demands of the road with this group.

But the confluence of factors in Seattle – a cross-country flight, a 10 p.m. Eastern start time, the turf at CenturyLink Field on which the Union will also train Friday – makes it unique among the Union’s away dates this year. It’s one of only two trips to the Western time zone in 2016 (Portland being the other).

But the circumstances Saturday mean that the Union’s squad depth will be tested in a way it hasn’t this season. Or, put another way, the Union can flex their tactical depth to change things up.

“We actually have options to juggle things and rest,” Curtin said Wednesday, a statement so simple yet so rare in the Union’s history. And two training sessions from Saturday’s game with the Sounders, the Union’s options are plentiful and obvious.

First, there’s the return of Warren Creavalle from last week’s red-card suspension. Creavalle has impressed in training, and with Brian Carroll earning praise from Curtin and Vincent Nogueira as seemingly the first-choice No. 8, Curtin has decisions to make. Add in the choice between Roland Alberg and Tranquillo Barnetta at the No. 10, and the possibility of one shuttling out to the wing, and you have the “good problems” that Curtin often references.

Here’s Curtin on the situation: Read more »

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Saturday, April 9, 2016

A Danish treat: The inspiration behind the Union’s free kick magic

Under an unfamiliarly euphoric Talen Energy Stadium Friday night, Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin let the media peer behind the wall at the club’s free-kick methodology.

Tranquillo Barnetta provided the visual aid, his stunner of a free kick curling around the wall, past a stupefied Joe Bendik, off the underside of the bar and in to give the Union a 2-1 win over Orlando City. But more intriguing was the approach that may have contributed to the beauty.

Here’s the video. Notice the extra line of players set up by the Union two strides behind Orlando City’s wall at 10 yards:

Barnetta didn’t have much to say on the free-kick strategy:
“Actually I don’t know. I wasn’t at the free kicks (design). You saw the keeper, he had no view to the ball and it was a little bit confusing for them because they saw the wall was like offsides, but they stepped two yards forward when I shoot it. I think that’s a really good idea to take the view off the keeper.”

Here’s Curtin:
“Our entire staff works very hard on restarts. (Assistant coach) BJ Callaghan specifically has been the point man. We have a good catalog of things. We’ve spent a lot more time and have been working on them a lot more. The second wall, if you will, the timing of that gives a little bit of a distraction. It’s something we picked up from another team that was successful with it. It provides a little bit of a different look. We checked with the linesman on the first time they did it when Tranquillo hit it way over, just to make sure the wall wasn’t offsides and there wouldn’t have been an issue. And the second time, they executed it well.”
It’s an unusual tactical design, one I’d never seen before. Sometimes you’ll see walls between the ball and the opposing wall, like this sliding-door approach from English club Brentford or AC Milan’s bulrush technique. Lining your players offsides hampers the goalie’s visibility and depth perception (not that Bendik has done particularly well under normal circumstances in the River End) but takes them out of the play for rebounds, unless they check up to be even with the last defender before the ball is struck so as not to be offsides.

So what’s that mystery team that Curtin got his design from? It looks like Danish club Midtjylland, which has used it plenty. You may remember Midtjylland as the former club of Danny Califf, and it’s a regular fixture in Champions League or Europa League, for devotees of those.

They also get creative with free kicks. A few examples. There's two in the first two minutes of this highlight tape:

Read more »

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Friday, April 8, 2016

Union-Orlando City: Lineups and prematch thoughts

Union (4-2-3-1) 
Carroll-Nogueira Le Toux-Alberg-Pontius 
Bench: Jones, Anderson, Gaddis, Barnetta, Restrepo, Fernandes, Herbers

Orlando City (4-5-1)
Bench: Edwards, Alston, Mateos, Rivas, Barry, Baptista

- The suspension of Warren Creavalle for a red card last week against Chicago makes the reintegration of Vincent Nogueira relatively easy, the Frenchman slotting into the No. 8 role. Ilsinho also misses out with an undisclosed injury, Sebastien Le Toux inserted on the wing. Tranquillo Barnetta remains on the bench behind Roland Alberg starting, but after debuting last week, the Swiss midfielder could be fit for a longer spell.

- I discussed the Brazilian influences running through both teams this week, though that has been minimized sans Ilsinho. Former Real Madrid, Roma and Arsenal forward Julio Baptista makes the bench and could debut, reportedly in some of the best shape of his life. The thought of Ken Tribbett and Richie Marquez defending Kaka and Baptista still seems a touch ridiculous, but that’s the magic of MLS. 

- Brian Carroll today will play in MLS match No. 349 of his lengthy career, sixth in MLS history and two behind Davy Arnaud for fifth. Two of the players ahead of him on the list remain active, including Brad Davis, whom Carroll temporarily passes for third all-time in his 326th start. Kyle Beckerman (382 games) and Steve Ralston (372 starts) are the all-time leaders.

- Orlando City are forced into a raft of changes by injuries (Tommy Redding, Cyle Larin and one to Cristian Higuita late enough that Orlando names a short bench) and Brek Shea’s suspension. Luke Boden and Aurelian Collin step into the defense, providing two areas for the Union to attack with pace, particularly with the overlap of Keegan Rosenberry down Boden’s wing.

- No shock that Kaka starts as the false nine. How the rest of the midfield buzzes about him, with the midfield triangle of Servando Carrasco, Darwin Ceren and Antonio Nocerino, will be interesting to observe.

- Red cards have become anything but unexpected in MLS this season, and these teams seem particularly susceptible. Of the eight games the teams have been involved with, only four have ended without a red card, and last week’s Portland-Orlando game doesn’t really count since Shea was assessed a red retroactively.

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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The trickery of Ilinsho's Brazilian magic

Readers of this blog are likely among the hundreds of thousands who've viewed Ilsinho's tricky bit of skill in last Saturday's game against the Chicago Fire that has made the rounds of the web. If you haven't, here's the elastico in all its glory:

My colleague and I, Dave Zeitlin of MLS, discussed the move with its author Wednesday, and Dave will have a more in-depth look at it. I'll have more on Ilsinho and the samba influence that the Philadelphia Union's game against Orlando City Friday night will have.

One takeaway from Ilsinho's interview, in addition to his admiration for dribbling pioneer Rivelino, was where the move against the Fire ranked for him all time, and two comparisons came to mind. One was against Santos, he said, in 2006 when he was with Sao Paulo. Through the glory of search engines, here's that highlight:

My Portuguese isn't good, but I'm pretty sure I know what "humilha" translates to. And I suspect part of the reason why this was so memorable was against whom it occurred. That's Ze Roberto, who had just wrapped up a successful decade in Germany with Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich and was capped 84 times by Brazil, and Kleber, a left back who played primarily in Brazil but made 20 appearances for the Selecao. At the time, Ilsinho was a 20-year-old hot prospect in the Brazilian set up, making waves as an attack-minded right back.

The other video that's worth putting in here was uncovered by a redditor. And I would hope that the name Roberto Carlos, even though he was 37 at the time and winding up his career in 2010, needs no introduction.

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Friday, March 25, 2016

Clear-eyed Steel ready to debut in Montreal (w/ video)

As Brendan Burke addressed the media two days before Bethlehem Steel FC plays its first USL game, the coach made abundantly clear one fact: In just four months on the job, Burke has managed to establish a more cogent ideology around his team than its seven-year-old parent club has yet uncovered.

Burke’s expectations and methodologies seem clear-cut when Steel FC debuts Friday evening at FC Montreal (7 p.m., live stream below).

Burke’s roster is sparse, comprising just 13 players after the addition of Fred as player/coach Thursday. (That’s even less populous than I surmised last fall.) There may be one or two bodies forthcoming to swell the ranks on a permanent basis. But Burke is assured in Steel’s place within the Union’s hierarchy. Instead of stuffing the roster with players just to meet quotas and artificial expectations, the guiding philosophy has been only adding players with legitimate chances of breaking into the Union’s MLS squad.

“I think we’re in great shape,” Burke said. “We’re a small but focused group. … We’ve had a number of trialists through, but I think what we found is that we’re happy keeping a smaller number of players who we really trust and who we really think have an opportunity to move through to the first team at some stage in their developments.”

Most of Steel’s roster fits that bill. Captain Ryan Richter has MLS and NASL experience. Irish midfielder James Chambers adds a wealthy of European games. Young players like Nigerian-born Bolu Akinyode, Canadian midfielder Josh Heard, Jamaican forwards Amoy Brown and Cory Burke and Liberians Gabe Gisse and Seku Conneh have been identified by Union brass for large upsides. Academy product Derrick Jones is the first Homegrown to land in Bethlehem, and he’ll surely be joined by more in the near future.

The roster includes USL stalwarts like goalie Samir Badr, defender Michael Daly and Ardmore native Nick Bibbs, who’ll mentor younger players and contribute to what Burke hopes is a winning side, though that’s not the primary goal.

More important is that the Union’s affiliate reflects a similar playing style as what has finally emerged from the MLS side, all the better to facilitate promotion of high achievers from USL to MLS.

“I think part of our goal is to tactically mirror what the first team does and to reinforce some of the things that the younger first-team players are being taught and what our players would need to know to step into that environment,” Burke said. “So I think if we get it right, we should look very similar to the first team on the field.”

On the personnel side, this week is unique, the FIFA international window giving the Union a bye. More players than usual will be shuttled to Bethlehem, with the Union sending Eric Ayuk, Leo Fernandes, Fabian Herbers, John McCarthy, Walter Restrepo, Taylor Washington and Josh Yaro. Steel will also use Academy players as opportunities arise, though many of those prospects are away with various U.S. age-group squads this week.

Burke didn’t make any promises on a lineup, but it’s a safe bet that playing loaned Union players is a priority. Guys that have made the Union’s gameday 18 in the first three weeks like Herbers, Fernandes and McCarthy aren’t going to Canada to sit the bench. The same goes for Yaro, who’ll likely pair with Daly in a backline that’ll feature Richter and possibly Washington. Burke heralded Jones’s work this preseason, so he’ll likely start as the holding midfielder.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Despite misses, Curtin retains trust in Union's penalty-kick process

When you’re coming off a 3-0 win at home like the Philadelphia Union Sunday, it’s easy to write off struggles from the penalty spot as easily fixable issues, ones the fortunately did not affect the outcome against New England.

Jim Curtin Wednesday more or less regarded the failures from the spot as an anomaly, and the numbers reinforce that. For one, there’s this stat on Revs goalie Bobby Shuttleworth, which is pretty impressive:

But even more illustrative of Sunday’s oddity is this stat: The Union missed as many PKs against the Revs as they had in their first six-plus seasons of MLS play. Here’s the breakdown by year, including John Hackworth’s infamously lamentable PK-free year of 2013, in which the Union scored on 20 of 22 penalty kicks awarded in MLS play until Sunday:

2010 3/3
2011 4/4
2012 5/6
2013 0/0
2014 7/7
2015 1/2
2016 0/2

The two misses were Michael Farfan against Sporting Kansas City in 2012 and Maurice Edu last year against Seattle, equaling the number of failed conversions proffered by Ilsinho and Sebastien Le Toux Sunday. For the Frenchman, it was his first missed PK in 14 attempts with the Union.
Read more »

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Sunday, March 20, 2016

Union-New England: Lineups and prematch thoughts

Union (4-2-3-1)
Bench: McCarthy, Anderson, Gaddis, Fernandes, Le Toux, Nogueira, Herbers.

New England (4-2-3-1)
Bench: Knighton, Neumann, Hollinger-Janzen, Barnes, Woodberry, Agudelo, Herivaux

- The Union won with this lineup in Columbus last week, so why not go back to the well? The central midfield pairing of Warren Creavalle and Brian Carroll appears a little conservative, but it should give free reign for Creavalle to get forward. He did score plenty of goals in the preseason, and he’s made some smart runs forward, so let’s see if he can shift the numerical balance in attack.

- Roland Alberg gets his first start with the Union, moving Ilsinho to the wing in place of Leo Fernandes. It’s a good chance to see how those two work together and whether that brings the advanced dynamism that Jim Curtin hopes for.

- All is quiet on the defensive front. Ken Tribbett and Richie Marquez reprise their partnership, while Keegan Rosenberry gets a third straight start. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

- The big change for the Revs is enforced by Charlie Davies’ hamstring injury. He misses out, with Teal Bunbury shifted up top and Kelyn Rowe introduced. It’s not a huge change, and Lee Nguyen and Diego Fagundez are still out there to ease any transition. Juan Agudelo is on the bench in case things don’t work and Jay Heaps can make a change.

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Monday, March 7, 2016

Panic in the Frisco! The good and bad of the Union's opener in Dallas

By the doctrine of lowered expectations, the Philadelphia Union’s 2-0 loss to FC Dallas contained positives. I mean, what did you expect from a team that had turned over half its roster, handed MLS debuts to six players (Union debuts to seven) and had just two holdovers from last year’s opening-game starting lineup traveling to the team that finished atop the Western Conference in 2015?

That the Union failed to embarrass itself should ring as hollow consolation. But adding to those hope dampeners the absence of the last two players to wear the captain’s armband, and maybe survival without humiliation is a moral victory of sorts. Put another way, at least the Union can still proudly trumpet that they are not the Chicago Fire.

First the positives, even if most reek of damning with faint praise. Andre Blake’s outing was an unqualified success. He was hung out to dry twice, but it would’ve been a four-goal game had the Union had an average keeper in net. He’s been a very busy man for the Union:

Now the qualifiers. Ken Tribbett didn’t look completely out of place of MLS. Ditto Anderson. Keegan Rosenberry decisively passed the Raymond Lee Rookie Right Back Test (patent pending). Ilsinho looked willing and able to contribute in MLS. You can only be so sanguine watching Fabian Castillo do this:

Even the numbers are better. The Union actually won the possession battle with 50.9 percent of the ball, something that occurred just seven times in MLS last year. (The Union were 2-4-1 in those games, the last occurring July 18 at Toronto FC.) Two shots on target – one a sharp-angle header by Anderson off an overcooked corner – aren’t enough of a payoff, but a passing percentage of 69 is passable if not ideal given the circumstances. Consider that last year’s 2-0 loss to FC Dallas at PPL Park, marred by Zach Pfeffer’s red card, afforded the Union 46 percent possession.

Every part of Sunday’s affair comes with this push and pull, and nowhere is it more profound than in what could broadly be called the Union’s “style.” It may be too much to expect an injury-diminished team to internalize and acclimate to a drastically novel way of playing in game No. 1. But so much of Sunday felt regressive.

The Union still deployed Brian Carroll as a holding midfielder, essentially a deep-lying double pivot with the ghostly Vincent Nogueira. They still turned to Sebastien Le Toux for a late-game spark and their best goalscoring chance. They still “went with the big ball a little too much today, which is not what we did in the preseason,” according to Chris Pontius, too often bypassing midfield to feed an under-pressure and isolated CJ Sapong too high up the pitch.

Some of those concepts will take time to implement. Take Jim Curtin discussing the fullbacks. While Rosenberry showed some glimmers of attacking promise, Fabinho struggled mightily, a product of Dallas’s attacking pressure wearing out the defense and pinning them back.

“(Our outside back) are good on the ball. They’re comfortable. They can make passes. I think it’s important spacing-wise that they’re in an area of the field that’s a little higher up then they receive it, so Castillo or (Michael) Barrios isn’t the one running at them. They’re ahead of that so they can create man-more situations, 2-vs.1. So being as a starting point a little higher. Part of it also is our center back shaving the confidence to hit the little clipped ball over the wingers.”

Those are issues that may take months to acquire fluency in.

At the end of the day, the pressures seem to be in opposition. It’s a results-oriented business, and Curtin needs to get results, particularly if his seat is as hot as many league-wide pundits believe. But let’s be clear: The Union were highly unlikely to get a result in Dallas, much the same way that they’re very unlikely to return from Columbus with points next week.

This early in the season, in such early days of a comprehensive rebuild, the process warrants attention. The Union want to operate differently than the club’s past milquetoast iterations. Curtin reflected that in his selections Sunday – Leo Fernandes over Le Toux, Rosenberry over Ray Gaddis, Anderson over Richie Marquez.

But on the basis of one game – and it is only one game against one of the MLS’s most daunting opponents – not much beyond the customary carousel of names has changed.

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Saturday, March 5, 2016

Peering into the crystal ball for the Union's 2016 season

So numerous are the illustrations of change within the Philadelphia Union that the numbers no longer astound. Yet 365 days from the 2015 season opener, one more stat about the tumult and Earnie Stewart-overseen cleanout seems worth mentioning.

Thanks to a bevy of new arrivals like Fabian Herbers, left,
Vincent Nogueira is one of the few holdovers from last season's
Union lineup. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)
Of last year’s starting XI for the opener against Colorado, six are no longer with the Union. Coupled with Maurice Edu’s injury absence and (depending on who you ask) the tenuousness of certain veterans’ spots, it’s possible that CJ Sapong and Vincent Nogueira are the only two players to start consecutive openers.

Stewart’s rebuild is still in the nascent phases (Josh Yaro is to the Union as Michael Carter-Williams was to the Sixers?), and the club opted for the prudent course of building for the long term instead of spending more on short-term patches.

Those tempered expectations portend another season of playoff-free soccer at The Stadium Formerly Known as PPL Park, even if the elements thereof contain more redeeming and hopeful qualities.

For mocking purposes, here’s my prediction for the Union’s 2016 result:
11-13-10, 43 points, 8th in the East
The Union will improve. They’ll capitalize more often on opportunities afforded by MLS’s schedule, like games when none of LA’s designated players want to fly east or when Toronto has four guys on international duty. They’ll drop fewer points from leading positions, their hallmark. They’ll threaten for the playoffs before fading as other teams get serious and pull away.

But they also lack the firepower to consistently collect wins. Having Sapong as the lone striking option isn’t dire if the midfield responds by creating chances more consistently than last season (or if they splash some cash in the summer, maybe for some guy whose name rhymes with “Blatan”). Andre Blake’s stability in goal will be an unfamiliar yet appreciated boon.

By the end of 2016, the goal should be for the Union to have fewer liabilities within the squad and have identified the path toward remedying them and achieving regular playoff contention.

And now, league-wide predictions:

Eastern Conference

After stumbling in last year's MLS Cup final, Ethan Finlay
and the Crew are poised to be back in the picture again. (AP)
1. Columbus. Kei Kamara is paid and happy. Ethan Finlay is getting his due in the national team picture. The Crew hit their stride last year, and if Wil Trapp features more this year than last, the Crew are Supporters Shield contenders.

2. Toronto. The Big 3 are back, and even if Sebastian Giovinco doesn’t ascend the heights of last year’s MVP campaign, the rebuilt defense should even out the peaks and valleys to help the Reds collect points more consistently.

3. New York Red Bulls. The Red Bulls have won the Supporters Shield twice in three years. Any drop off this season in replacing Matt Miazga promises to be slight within a Jesse Marsch system designed to exceed the sum of the individuals.

4. Montreal. If Didier Drogba replicates what he did late last season over 30 (or because of turf, 26) games, the Impact will compete for MLS Cup. Smart offseason additions mean that the Impact are more than just a one-man team.

5. New England. The injury to DP acquisition Xavier Kouassi puts a damper on their offseason, but the passel of attackers entering their primes jelling for another year should eliminate some of the nagging inconsistency of the past.

6. Orlando City. The Lions threatened for a playoff place in their expansion year. While Cyle Larin may suffer a sophomore slump, less roster upheaval and more time for a young nucleus to coalesce should portend improvement.

7. New York City FC. The defensive issues have been addressed, and the team seems closer to competing. But accommodating Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard in the same midfield hasn’t become any more conducive to winning.

8. UNION. Earnie Stewart has improved the team in his first offseason at the helm. He’s positioned them well for the future. But those gains won’t yet bridge the sizeable gap between the Union and the ever-increasing standard for playoff inclusion.

9. D.C. United. With no replacement for Perry Kitchen, D.C.’s group is another year older and not that much wiser. The Ben Olsen hoodoo on opponents started to wear off last year, and this might be the year all the narrow escapes catch up to D.C.

10. Chicago. Vjelko Paunovic’s rebuilding project is on the order of years. He’s cleared out some lots of dead weight on the Fire roster, and David Accam is a valuable piece who will attract international transfer attention, but there are no expectations of an instant turnaround.

Western Conference

Kekuta Manneh, left, the the Whitecaps
are primed for a stellar season. (AP)
1. Vancouver. The Whitecaps are one of the most daunting trips in the league. They have so many pieces back from a squad that started to flourish last year, and that continuity should yield wins with alarming regularity.

2. FC Dallas. Dallas will contend for MLS Cup. After winning the West last season, their youthful core can still improve. The only reason for pessimism is the possibility of a hiccup if a foreign club woos Mauro Diaz or Fabian Castillo this summer.

3. Seattle. Jordan Morris will have a role instantly with the Sounders, breathing new life into a side that seemed to stagnate last year. The regular season is just an elongated exercise in ramping up, since it’s MLS Cup or bust this year.

4. Portland. The reigning MLS Cup champs could experience a slight hangover. But they struggled early last year, too, and with the bulk of the team back and strategically reinforced, the Timbers will be in the conversation once again.

5. L.A. Galaxy. There’s too much talent for the Galaxy not to make playoffs, even while trying to replace Omar Gonzalez, finding a role for the aged Steven Gerrard and keeping the disciplinary report from being renamed in Nigel De Jong’s honor.

6. San Jose. The Earthquakes finally seemed to hit on something a little too late to salvage last year’s season. Dominic Kinnear knows how to win in MLS, and if they can maintain the same strong spine while finally unlocking Tommy Thompson’s potential, maybe the playoffs are in the offing.

7. Real Salt Lake. The dependence on Jamison Olave, whose knee ligaments are one tackle from oblivion, to anchor central defense is concerning. The return of Yura Movsisyan could be invigorating, but he’s struggled to score in MLS before.

8. Sporting Kansas City. SKC is better in most respects. Their defense is healthy, they have a bevy of MLS effective midfielders. But they didn’t replace the wing scoring of Krizstian Nemeth, which puts an uncomfortably large burden on Dom Dwyer after a lackluster season.

9. Houston. Owen Coyle is accruing pieces. But how they all fit together remains a question that requires time. Will Bruin could have a crazy breakout season to keep them in contention, and while they won’t be easy to play against, that doesn’t a playoff team make.

10. Colorado. Shkelzen Gashi could be one of the big surprises in MLS this year, and the Rapids season is in a holding pattern until the Tim Howard rumors resolve themselves. Stockpiling young talent bodes well, but the rebuild shows no signs of abating, even if Jermaine Jones makes it more interesting.

MLS Cup: FC Dallas over Red Bulls.

Supporters Shield: Columbus.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Two injuries, two questions remain for Union's first starting lineup

The Philadelphia Union are four days from the start of the 2016 season. They also have, according to manager Jim Curtin, “two spots left where there are still discussions about” who starts against Dallas.

Perhaps it’s coincidence that that number equals the amount of practice absences this week – midfielders Maurice Edu and Tranquillo Barnetta. Edu (stress reaction in leg) has yet to train with the club and has been in and out of a walking boot in recent weeks. While Curtin stopped at doubtful in his assessment, it’s almost assured the midfielder won’t play.

Barnetta received an injection in his knee, which was surgically repaired during his stint in Germany, and didn’t train with the team Tuesday or Wednesday. Curtin said that the Union, “(will) monitor that and be smart.” That seems to peg Barnetta as doubtful for the opening week with no need to rush him back.

Without those two, what does a Union lineup look like? Try this one:

Bench: McCarthy, Anderson, Creavalle, Carroll, Ilsinho, Restrepo, Herbers

Curtin’s two battles are likely for the starting center back spot alongside Richie Marquez and the composition of central midfield. He’s said that Vincent Nogueira has played as a No. 6 in preseason, and with Edu’s absence open-ended, Nogueira may see significant time there. Brian Carroll could get the nod if the Union want to go defense-first with Nogueira as the No. 8 bumping Roland Alberg, but omitting Carroll would signal that the Union want to play differently, not reverting to the caution of the past.

As for defense, Anderson has made strides, but Ken Tribbett has been one of the “revelations” of preseason and is further along in familiarity and fitness. Through Tribbett, Curtin can send the message that players who train well will be selected. The same goes for Leo Fernandes, who scored twice in training Wednesday and has impressed in preseason. He’s the logical replacement for Barnetta.

There’s no question about CJ Sapong up top. Fernandes would be an option to supplant Chris Pontius or Sebastien Le Toux on a wing was he not needed centrally, or if either of those two faltered this preseason, which they haven’t. And we don’t even need to talk about goalies, for once.

One understated aspect of the positional debate is the captaincy void. Barnetta and Edu are the last two players to wear the captain’s armband, and while Curtin lauded each for their contributions behind the scenes, someone has to lead the team out in Dallas. The need for veteran presence could shift the Nogueira/Carroll discussion in the latter’s favor. Or if could fall to a new captain – Le Toux or Ray Gaddis, perhaps – to earn that honor.

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