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Union preview: New additions may pay off

Posted by Eric Fisher On March 3

Writing the Union season preview induces feelings of déjà vu. Every year the Union seems to add a midfielder, a forward to improve their speed and scoring, and a defender. Every year the speculation is whether the additions will mesh with the remaining pieces, and whether that will produce a playoff berth and, possibly, the franchise’s first postseason victory.

The 2018 season isn’t an exception.

The Union officially added midfielder Borek Dockal to their roster on Wednesday. In January, the Union acquired speedy winger David Accam in a trade with Chicago. The newcomer on defense is Auston Trusty, a 19-year-old homegrown player from Media.

Will the new additions help the Union achieve their second playoff berth since 2011? Will the Union finally win a playoff game?

Let’s take a look at the roster.

GOALIE

Andrew Blake is one of the top goalkeepers in Major League Soccer. He registered nine shutouts in 2017, including four in a row, while compiling  a 9-10-7 record. He won goalkeeper of the year in 2016 and was a finalist for the award in 2017. As long as Blake stays healthy, the Union’s goalie situation is in good hands. John McCarthy has demonstrated that he is a capable backup.

DEFENSE

The fact that Blake was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in 2016 and was a finalist for the award last season despite not having a winning record in either season should tell you something about the Union’s struggles on defense.

The Union are counting on young players to improve their defense. Trusty is expected to start at center back. He may be joined at center back in the starting lineup by either Jack Elliott or Josh Yaro. Elliott is a second-year defender who played a surprisingly large role last season after being selected in the fourth round of the MLS SuperDraft. Yaro was the second overall pick in the 2016 draft, but his star has faded during the past two seasons.

Keegan Rosenberry, selected one pick after Yaro in the 2016 draft, hasn’t slipped as far as Yaro, but his sophomore campaign did not live up to his rookie season, when he was runner-up for the rookie of the year award. Rosenberry is the likely starter at right back, with veteran Fabinho, 32, the likely starter at left back while 18-year-old Matt Real is groomed to be the starter for the future. Veterans Raymon Gaddis and Richie Marquez are available to provide reliability, although they don’t have the upside of some of the younger players.

The Union are counting on their youth to carry them on the back line. But young players usually endure growing pains, and inexperience can lead to costly mistakes. It’s likely that Blake will have to bail out his young defense on a regular basis. But how often can Blake save the Union while young players are enduring growing pains?

MIDFIELD

Have the Union finally put together an elite midfield? The Union have trotted out Tranquillo Barnetta, Vincent Nogueira and Maurice Edu in recent years as midfield stars who could elevate the midfield, so skepticism that Dockal can achieve that is warranted. However, the Union already have Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin in place, so not as much pressure rests on Dockal’s shoulders.

Bedoya, the team captain, serves as the Union’s leader. In many ways, he is the glue in the center of the field that holds the team together. Medunjanin led the Union last season with 12 assists, twice as many as the next-closest player. Derrick Jones, 21, is ready to step in if one of the starters is injured, but expect to contribute off the bench.

Accam and Fafa Picault, who scored seven goals last season, are expected to provide the speed up the wings. Picault will miss the first three games of the season for using “offensive” language during an incident in a preseason game.

From a talent standpoint, the Union finally have a terrific midfield. Dockal may not play in the season opener, but combining his play-making abilities with the steady and versatile Bedoya and the nifty passing of Medunjanin should produce plenty of scoring opportunities for Accam, Picault and the Union’s forwards. One concern is that Bedoya and Medunjanin are both in their thirties, so injuries could be a factor.

FORWARD

C.J. Sapong scored a career-high 16 goals last season, more than doubling his 2016 total. On the other hand, Jay Simpson scored just one goal after being touted as a high-profile acquisition. A wild card could be Cory Burke, who has played for Bethlehem Steel, the Union’s minor-league affiliate in the USFL.

OUTLOOK

The additions of Dockal and Accam should pump new life into the Union’s offense. The midfield appears to be talented and experienced across the board. The question is how well head coach Jim Curtin can fit the pieces together so the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The improved midfield should lead to more scoring opportunities for the forwards, so Sapong will be expected to match or exceed last year’s goal total.

The biggest question mark is on defense. The Union are relying on young players to anchor their defense. As mentioned earlier, young players – even talented ones – make mistakes. If too many of those mistakes end up in the back of the Union’s net, it could cost them a playoff berth.

Prediction: Barring long-term injuries to their midfielders, this could be the year the Union return to the playoffs. It might even be the year in which they pick up the franchise’s first playoff victory, but I’m going to stick to achieving the more modest goal of making the playoffs.

 

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