Philadelphia Union: Will they improve in 2016?

To say last season was a disappointment for Philadelphia Union fans is an understatement. They finished 10-17-7 on the year and suffered an agonizing defeat in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup final to Sporting Kansas City 7-6 on penalties. But, will 2016 be a year of improvement for the Philadelphia Union?

The Philadelphia Union were bad last season, really bad. They didn’t even register a win until their sixth game of the season. The biggest issues were with cohesiveness in the midfield and having a back-line that moved together. CJ Sapong also lacked service from other teammates and there were times that Jim Curtin’s 4-5-1 would become a very stale formation. 2016 has brought major improvements to the squad which will be broken down.

Improvements:

There’s no way to start with the additions to the Philadelphia Union without beginning at the top with Earnie Stewart,  the team’s new sporting director. Stewart joins the Union from AZ Alkmaar, where he was technical director for three years. Over his time at AZ, Stewart has improved the team on a “Moneyball” budget. Stewart took a middling Eredivisie team and has built a consistent European threat with AZ qualifying for Europa League last year and looking likely to qualify again- on the back of a core laid by Stewart. The hope is that through his “ghost list” of players and managers Stewart can improve the Philadelphia Union through under the radar signings.

Stewart has already brought the  Dutch attacking 4-3-3 formation to help the Union develop better ball movement and with some of the signings so far show a clear direction that Stewart would like to move the team in. There are now center back’s that are comfortable with the ball at their feet to help control possession, tricky wingers who are good at getting into space and can also float in crosses to feed Sapong and midfielders that can control the pace of the game.

So far this offseason, there has been three signings that stick out like typical Stewart signings, two especially because they were brought in as trialists that eventually were extended contracts by the team.

Roland Alberg – Brought in from ADO Den Haag for an undisclosed transfer fee (thanks, MLS) the 24-year-old center attacking midfielder is expected to add a creative presence to the Philadelphia Union midfield. So far this preseason, Alberg has shown why Jim Curtin sees him as a number ten in the midfield. While in the Eredivisie, Alberg showed a creative eye and in the 2014-15 season, he scored 10 goals and added 8 assists. With the loss of Chaco Maidana (and his 15 assists) look for Alberg to pick up some of the creative load for the Philadelphia Union.

Ken Tribbett– Drexel grad Ken Tribbett started off with the Harrisburg City Islanders in the USL. Tribbett was initially brought into the Philadelphia Union’s camp to earn a spot with Bethlehem Steel FC, the Union’s USL team but ended up impressing the coaches so much that he signed a contract with the Union and may feature in the starting XI against FC Dallas on Sunday, March 6th in Dallas. With the struggles that the Philadelphia Union are looking to fix at the back Tribbet could be a very important key. Tribbett has solid positioning and has looked strong in the back during the preseason. He is exactly what you look for in potential Bethlehem Steel FC signings because you want them to help the Union as soon as possible.

Ilsinho

Philadelphia Union midfielder Ilsinho

Feb 17, 2016; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Philadelphia Union midfielder Ilsinho (24) dribbles the ball against the D.C. United during the second half at Al Lang Stadium. Philadelphia Union and D.C. United ended in a 1-1 tie. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Signed on a free transfer from Shakhtar Donetsk Ilsinho brings a wealth of experience to the Union. He has played in the Champions League, Europa League, and the Olympics so Ilsinho is no stranger to big games. Ilsinho is a creative midfielder that can also play on the wing if needed (and he will probably play there). Ilsinho can provide service to CJ Sapong as well as chipping in as a goal scoring threat himself. A key to this signing is that along with Alberg, Ilsinho joined the Union as a discovery signing which further shows the scouting impact of Earnie Stewart and what types of players that should be expected to join the Philadelphia Union under his watch.

Predictions:

Currently, the state of the Philadelphia Union fanbase getting ready for 2016 is either skeptical or cautiously optimistic. After how mediocre the Union have been in the past few years, this is to be expected, but this will be a year of progress for the Union.

The Philadelphia Union should not be expected to make the playoffs this season but they should be expected to hover around .500 and be in the playoff hunt throughout the year. The Union also won’t get their first trophy this season (no third straight appearance in the US Open Cup final) but they will make a deep run in the Cup.

The Philadelphia Union will also have the MLS rookie of the year on their roster in, Keegan Rosenberry. The right back from Georgetown has looked good during the preseason as well as his familiarity with the Union’s system, Rosenberry is expected to challenge Ray Gaddis for a starting role. Due to Gaddis’ inconsistencies, Rosenberry will probably win that role and get enough playing time as the starter to win the award.

Philadelphia Union rookie Keegan Rosenberry

Feb 11, 2016; Clearwater, FL, USA; Philadelphia Union defender Keegan Rosenberry (12) passes the ball against the Chicago Fire during the first half at Joe Dimaggio Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Sebastian Le Toux will not end the season as a starter. By midseason, the Union’s all-time leader in every major offensive category, Le Toux, will become a role player for the team. Optimally, that would happen now but it’s best to ease the new players into the lineup while a stalwart like Le Toux is there.

Jim Curtin won’t end the season as the head coach of the Philadelphia Union. While the Union will make progress in 2016 it won’t be enough to save the job of Curtin in what is a make or break season for him. If the Union aren’t firmly in the playoff hunt at midseason expect Curtin to be on the hot seat so that Earnie Stewart can finish putting his authoritative stamp on the team by bringing in a new coach.

Projected Lineup:

This is the lineup that I expect the Union to use the most this upcoming season. Not the expected lineup against Dallas on Sunday.

Final Words:

The Philadelphia Union will improve in 2016 just don’t expect it to be a massive step forward. This rebuild will take at least two years to complete, so the playoffs may be a goal for 2017.

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