After major roster overhauls the past two seasons, the Union were, by comparison, quiet this offseason.
They didn’t sit back and do nothing. But they added just a few key players, building around their core rather than replacing it.
The strength of the Union is at midfield. That’s why the Union added pieces up front and on the back line, but left the midfield intact.
But will the midfield be good enough to lift the Union to their first playoff berth since 2011? Another way to phrase the question is: will the front and back lines be good enough to take advantage of the midfielders’ skills?
After so many changes last season, including Jim Curtin replacing John Hackworth as manager after the Union won just three of their first 16 games, the roster remained relatively stable.
The Union, who host Colorado on Saturday (4 p.m.) in their season opener, know they can’t afford another awful start. A promising development is that they won the IMG Suncoast Pro Classic Championship in Florida. By contrast, they were winless during the five-game preseason last year and experienced difficulty scoring goals.
Let’s examine the Union’s strengths and weaknesses as they pursue a playoff berth – and maybe even the first postseason victory in franchise history.
The Union brought in Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueira and Cristian Maidana last season. It may have taken a year, but that trio may start to pay major dividends this season.
Edu spent a portion of last season at center back. Maidana, who led the Union in assists (11) last season, spent time at forward in an attempt to spark the Union’s offense, which was particularly anemic early in the season.
This season, this talented trio is expected to start at midfield. If Edu, Nogueira and Maidana can control the midfield, making it the strength of the team, the Union will have a solid foundation upon which to build success.
Sebastien Le Toux, the Union’s leading scorer (12 goals) last season, returns, but the Union would like to take some of the scoring burden off the 31-year-old veteran. There are two players being counted upon heavily to help with the scoring: Fernando Aristeguieta and Andrew Wenger.
Aristeguieta is a 22-year-old Venezuelan with a scoring touch. But Aristeguieta is going to need room to display his finishing touch, and that’s where Wenger can help. Not only can Wenger feed Aristeguieta the ball, but he’s going to need to draw defenders to create space.
Wenger, the first player picked in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft, scored six goals last season after being acquired from Montreal in a swap for striker Jack McInerney in early April. He needs to produce more consistently, surpassing his four assists from last season as well, to help the Union’s forward line become a dangerous unit.
If Wenger can’t get the job done, C.J. Sapong, acquired from Sporting KC during the offseason, is waiting in the wings.
Perhaps the most suspect area for the Union is the back line. Amobi Okago, who bounced back and forth between midfield and the back line, and veteran Carlos Valdes were both moved during the offseason. Austin Berry, a former MLS rookie of the year, was recently loaned to a South Korean team.
These transactions doesn’t mean there was complete turnover on the back line. The consistent Raymon Gaddis and Sheanon Williams return. Williams looked like a potential star in 2013, but his game didn’t progress last season. In fact, it may have regressed.
Ethan White, acquired before last season in exchange for veteran Jeff Parke, never seemed completely comfortable last season. The Union are counting on White to be more consistent this season.
The big addition to the back line is 6-foot-5 Steven Vitoria. His size should help the Union contend with large opposing forwards and win contested head balls. But it remains to be seen how well he will mesh with the back line.
If the defense doesn’t hold up, it could turn out to be the Union’s weak link.
Many questioned why the Union brought in Rais Mbolhi midway through last season. They already had starter Zac MacMath and Andre Blake, the top pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft. The questions intensified as Mbolhi fumbled away one game and didn’t look like an upgrade over MacMath.
Mbolhi, who excelled for Algeria during the World Cup, needs to be sharp this season because he’s the starter. If the defense struggles through some rough times, it will be crucial that Mbolhi play well. If he doesn’t, Blake must be prepared to fill the void.
With fewer moving parts than last season, the Union have the opportunity to be much better than last season, when they finished 10-12-12 and in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
All three starting midfielders should benefit from a full season together. This is also the second season with the Union for White, Wenger and Mbolhi.
The hope is that the group improves with experience. The concern is that the problems from last season, when the Union seemed to repeatedly squander points late in the season, will continue.
The presence of Curtin from the start of preseason shouldn’t be underestimated. He has an opportunity to instill his system and coaching style from the start of the season rather than try to fix things that were broken, as he did when he replaced Hackworth last season.
If the offense kicks it up a notch, it will take some of the pressure off the back line and Mbolhi. The defense worries me enough that I could see the Union missing the playoffs for a fifth straight season, but I’m going to predict the playoff drought ends with a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference.
If the Union don’t make the playoffs, next season will feature many more roster changes than this past offseason.