A 2014 full of lows and highs (and lows again) leads the Union into their 2015 campaign with some new talent, a new coach, and renewed hope for a return to the playoffs.
2014 in Review:
Last season was an odd year for the Philadelphia Union with many stops and false starts, reboots and refreshes. After what was largely lauded as a fantastic offseason, the team won their home opener March 14 but quickly slid into poor form, failing to win another game for exactly two months (picking up only four points in the nine-game span). The front office traded away fan favorite Jack McInerney in April and finally canned John Hackworth in June. Philly made a strong mid-season run under interim coach Jim Curtin, amassing an MLS record of 6-4-2 (W-D-L) prior to reaching the US Open Cup Final in September. The Union fell to Seattle Sounders FC at home in the team’s first chance at silverware and never really recovered, dropping three of their final five games and slumping to a sixth place finish; just outside of the MLS playoffs.
- F C.J. Sapong (12/8/14 – trade from SKC)
- F Dzenan Catic (1/15/15 – SuperDraft)
- D Steven Vitoria (2/9/15 – loan from Benfica)
- F Fernando Aristeguieta (2/20/15 – loan from FC Nantes)
- GK John McCarthy (2/23/15 – free transfer)
- M Amobi Okugo (12/8/14 – traded to Orlando City)
- F Pedro Ribeiro (12/10/14 – expansion draft to Orlando City)
- GK Zac MacMath (1/6/15 – loaned to Colorado)
- D Carlos Valdes (2/6/15 – loaned to Nacional)
- F Aaron Wheeler (2/14/15 – waived)
The departures of Okugo and Ribeiro will be felt the most on the field as Philadelphia fans watch one of their team’s strongest defenders and one of their better chance-makers leave to find a sole sunnier pasture with a solid Orlando City team. The Union will look to recently-purchased midfielder Maurice Edu to drop back and defend more consistently in Okugo’s place. Whether Edu is able to do so (or is inclined to do so) on a consistent basis will be a key factor in the team’s defensive success this season.
The loan of MacMath may be a blessing in disguise, clearing unnecessary drama from the Philadelphia media and locker room. Once the team drafted keeper Andre Blake and signed Rais M’Bohli to a Designated Player deal, fan favorite MacMath’s days with the team were numbered. And although many criticized the loan of MacMath at the time, M’Bohli’s impressive play during and after Africa’s Cup of Nations has given a better indication as to why the Union signed him to a DP deal in the first place. An embarrassment of riches is still better than a lack of depth, and the Union are not at a loss for quality goalkeeping this year.
The Union also purchased midfielder Maurice Edu’s contract from Stoke City, in a move that may not appear on the “Additions/Departures” list, but must be considered in the grand offseason scheme. Opening their club’s wallet to keep Edu on the roster limited the amount they could spend with Carlos Vades still on the roster. And because it took so long for the front office to find a suitor for a Valdes loan, they had to wait what was, for fans, an agonizingly long time to fill holes in their roster.
That being said, the late offseason additions of Vitoria and Aristeguieta were largely heralded by Union fans. Vitoria will be called upon to replace Carlos Valdes this season, anchoring a Philly defense that will look much different from 2014. His size and strength is a gain for the Union backline, but the back four will be asking for more help from midfielders Edu and Vincent Nogueira this season to be successful. In Aristeguieta, the team gains a dynamic playmaker and constant scoring threat to rotate with an aging Conor Casey, who faded drastically down the stretch in 2014. Fernando has had a strong start for the U, scoring four goals in three preseason games.
Meanwhile, Sapong and Catic add much-needed depth to a front line that struggled to put games away in 2014. Sebastien Le Toux and Casey were both nursing injuries after the US Open Cup final loss, and with limited reserves, the team couldn’t finish the season strongly enough to make the playoffs. Sapong will have ample opportunities to start throughout 2015 while Catic should find playing time with the first team by season’s end.
The Union opened their 2015 campaign with back-to-back losses to NASL sides Jacksonville Armada FC (1-3) and Tampa Bay Rowdies (0-1), prompting a collective groan from the Philadelphia fans. The IMG Suncoast Pro Classic was much kinder to the team following the addition of Aristeguieta to the lineup, with the team collecting victories against the Costa Rica U-23s (3-0) and London United FC (6-0) before finishing atop their group with a win over Columbus Crew SC (1-1, 5-3 PKs). Philly capped off their preseason with a 3-1 win over the New York Red Bulls in the tournament final, as Andrew Wenger netted two goals in the victory. The trophy was Philadelphia’s first and fans are hopeful that this is a positive sign for the future.
Projected Starting XI:
Williams Vitoria White Gaddis
Le Toux Maidana Wenger
Bench: Andre Blake/John McCarthy (GK), Fabinho, Brian Carroll, Danny Cruz, Zach Pfeffer, CJ Sapong, Conor Casey
Keys to success:
Retooled defense – The Union lost their defensive spine this offseason, as Okugo and Valdes will not be with the team in 2015. While adding Vitoria alleviates some of the growing pains that will come from that, he was a late preseason addition and must quickly gel with Ethan White to keep opposing offenses at bay. Additionally, Jim Curtin will look to Sheanon Williams to step up and boost a defense that wasn’t exceptionally strong in 2014.
Next step for Wenger & Chaco – While fans and opposing defenses will pay a lot of attention to Aristeguieta, the truth is that this team needs more players who can create their own chances and take advantage of chances created by others. Le Toux has shown he is quite capable of being the primary star of the club, though with defenses keying in on Fernando, he may be even better this season. But for this club to make the leap from perennial midtable team to legitimate contender, Andrew Wenger and Chaco Maidana must take the next step in their development and become legitimate threats. Wenger netted two goals for the Union in their final preseason game against RBNY, but both could be poised for breakout seasons, playing with better talent up front (including Sapong). And with Conor Casey likely taking a backseat this season, there will be more chances for these two to step up.
Late game lockdown – Jim Curtin has made it very clear that his team failed to secure key points late in games last season. “We want to be bastards in the last 15 minutes of games and do what it takes and close [teams] out,” he told CSNPhilly.com. “It’s something we struggled with as a club for five years, it wasn’t just last season and it’s time for it to stop.” Doing so will add valuable points over the course of the season. But this will require effort in every facet of the game. The defense needs to keep opponents away from the box and win 50/50 chances at midfield. Rais M’Bohli and company has to make key saves and avoid mental mistakes. Fernando, Le Toux, and the offense have to score late goals to secure victory. And Curtin himself must develop strategies on the fly to make sure his team doesn’t falter in the final ten minutes.
Worst Case Scenario:
Fernando’s strong start for the team fades when the bright lights come up. Vitoria and White fail to gel, exposing the Union’s lack of defensive depth. Newcomer John McCarthy can’t carry the load while M’Bohli and Blake are on international duty, dropping vital points during the season. Jim Curtin can’t fix the team’s inability to finish games, as the Union drop to the bottom of the Eastern Conference pack in 2015.
Best Case Scenario:
Fernando, Le Toux, and Casey provide a solid threat up front, helping the Union score early and finish games late. Vitoria is able to replace Valdes in front of the goal as he and Ethan White provide the Union with a strong defensive presence all season. Philadelphia’s trio of goaltenders keep opposing offenses out of the net throughout the year helping the club find their way back to the playoffs in a relatively weak Eastern Conference field. The team avoids injuries and their newfound offensive depth helps them claim a victory (maybe two) in the MLS playoffs. And maybe (just maybe) they finish the job they started last year and nab the US Open Cup trophy….
…by defeating Seattle.
A guy can dream, right?
(Photo courtesy of CBSPhilly.com)