The Union took a big step last season by making the playoffs for the first time since 2011. However, the Union are still seeking the first playoff victory in franchise history. Will this be the year?
There always seems to be substantial turnover during the offseason for the Union, and this offseason fit that pattern. The Union brought in a new striker, a new starting midfielder and a new starting center back.
The Union appear to have plenty of depth, but you can’t put all of the players on the field at the same time. It’s up to manager Jim Curtin to make smart decisions regarding playing time and make the parts fit together.
Will the Union be better than the sum of its parts or will the parts fail to mesh? Let’s examine the 2017 Union.
This is the position of stability. Andre Blake was named the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year last season. Barring an injury to Blake, keeper should be a position of strength this season.
The Union’s young defense received a jolt of experience with the addition of 34-year-old Oguchi Onyewu at center back. The question is whether Onyewu can remain healthy through the long season. Richie Marquez returns for his third season as a starter.
Keegan Rosenberry, who played every minute of every game last season, did not disappoint after being selected third overall in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft. The runner-up for rookie of the year, Rosenberry returns as a starter this season. However, Josh Yaro, who was selected second overall in the last year’s draft, is expected to miss several months due to a dislocated shoulder. Fabinho, who made 29 starts last season, or Ken Tribett, who started 19 games last season as a rookie, could play important roles.
If Onyewu provides stability on the back line and young players such as Rosenberry and Marquez continue to develop – and if Yaro returns in top form – the Union’s defense could solid this season. If age catches up to Onyewu, though, the defense could unravel, putting more pressure on Blake to keep the score down.
Add Tranquillo Barnetta and Vincent Nogueira to the long list of supposed midfield saviors for the Union. Barnetta returned to Switzerland after the season. Nogueira left in the middle of the season, and his departure was a major factor in the Union’s decline during the latter part of the season. Maurice Edu was supposed to be another midfield savior, but the 30-year-old starts 2017 on the sidelines, not fully recovered from the injuries that caused him to miss the entire 2016 season.
The Union is counting on Alejandro Bedoya to elevate the midfield this season. He should receive some assistance from Haris Medunjanin. Bedoya, who will turn 30 in April, only produced one goal (and no assists) in 10 games after being added to the roster last season. The Union is hoping that a full training camp will translate to improved production from Bedoya, who will serve as team captain.
Medunjanin, 31, is being counted upon to bring experience and quality to midfield. But, as we’ve seen in recent years, sometimes it’s difficult for a new midfielder to make a smooth transition into a new system for a new team.
Isinho and 20-year-old Derrick Jones could make important contributions, and veteran Brian Carroll always seems to resurface in a key situation every season. The challenge for Curtin is finding playing time for Roland Alberg, who scored nine goals last season despite making just 13 starters. How willing will Curtin be to pull a starter in order to get Alberg on the field to produce a spark?
C.J. Sapong scored seven goal last season, but he may be challenged for playing time at striker by newcomer Jay Simpson, who comes to the Union from England. Chris Pontious led the Union in scoring last season with 12 goals. Fabian Herbers, who registers three goals and seven assists last season despite making just 13 starts, could provide a spark, as could Fafa Picault.
The Union appear to have more scoring potential than it has in recent seasons, but there are major questions at midfield and on defense. The Union are developing young defenders such as Rosenberry, Marquez and the injured Yaro, but there could be growing pains, especially if Onyewu’s health doesn’t hold up. Blake can’t be expected to bail out the defense on a regular basis.
The key to the Union’s season may be the midfield. Will Bedoya be more comfortable than he seemed during the 10 games he played last season? Will Medunjanin make a difference or will he become the latest in the long line of promising midfielders who come through the Union’s revolving door and depart after one or two seasons.
The midfield provides the transition from defense to offense. How well the midfield controls the game and provides that transition could be the crucial element with regard to the Union’s chances of returning to the playoffs and notching the franchise’s first Major League Soccer playoff victory. It would be helpful if the Union jump out to a fast start, as they did last season, while avoiding the late-season slump they endured last season.
Prediction: The Union return to the playoffs for the second straight season, but fail to secure the franchise’s first postseason win.