As the 2018 MLS season opener looms large this week, have the Union improved enough?

Simply put… Yes. The Philadelphia Union have undergone a roster overhaul of sorts. This overhaul has everyone thinking, have the Union improved enough? The answer is, yes! Let me explain my reasoning before you immediately object.

Roster is younger and quicker

In 2017, the Union featured a few speedsters on their roster but overall as a team they lacked the quickness to really threaten opponents in transition play. A lack of speed combined with players passed their prime like Chris Pontius combined with a flat-out horrible decision at the #10 with Roland Alberg resulted in a lackluster year. This is known.

What quickly became apparent for Union fans and the front office was a simple truth: the team was too old and those aging players received too much money. The total salary hit suffered by the acquisitions of Edu, Pontius, and Alberg in 2017 was roughly $1.5 million. What a massive sum for three players who ultimately contributed nothing noteworthy to speak of.

Other positions on the pitch in addition to spots on the bench were occupied by soccer dinosaurs of sorts. Oguchi Onyewu played extremely well despite his older age, 34 last year. Personally, I thought Onyewu played well enough to earn another season with the team considering his affordable price tag and valuable soccer experience which he could instill onto the three youngest Union players: Auston Trusty, Mark McKenzie, and Matt Real – all still teenagers.

The average age of the squad dropped from 27 to 24.5 (when Borek Dockal is added the average age will be 25). Two years may not seem like a significant drop to some put if we compare the ages of the players leaving vs the players joining the team, the difference in terms of potential speaks for itself.

Additions like Marcus Epps, Adam Najem, and Derrick Jones have been added to the club in recent years to provide midfield depth. All three are in their primes, Jones a little younger. Epps is the newest of the three and he is set to earn a lot of minutes this season due to his ability to quickly close guys out when pressing and offensive skills which make him an auxiliary weapon of sorts for Head Coach Jim Curtin to deploy when needed.

Anthony Fontana, Auston Trusty, Mark McKenzie, and Matt Real have replaced four players in their 30’s. Win-win from an organizational perspective. They decrease salary impact and young players get first team minutes sooner rather than later. Only problem? Maybe too much youth for one unit in particular: the back line.

In terms of speed on the field, the Union have also made giant strides forward.

Fafa Picault aka Flash continuously displayed his incredible pace last year as he darted by his defenders in 1v1 matchups on a dead sprint for the touch-line. Picault utilized his quickness to consistently put defenders on their heels in difficult situations. One aspect of his game which needs some work: passing/finishing in the final third. Picault can get to the final third with ease, but he may lack the composure to create consistent chances going forward. Youth is on his side however.

The other side of the pitch featured a midfielder, who to be frank, may have left his speed in his past or perhaps never had it to begin with. Chris Pontius. Not only did Pontius end up on the sour end of a dreadful scoring drought last season – without seeing the bench I might add – his speed as a winger in a Curtin offensive system just did not work well. Pontius expressed quick burst of pace here and there, but it was nowhere near the sustained rate Picault was putting forth. Neither was his quickness up to par for the winger Curtin likes to feature in his starting XI. Curtin wants pace on the wings to drive a high-pressure system with quick transitions into the attacking half. Pontius turned out to be a poor fit.

So, what did the Union do to improve that area of the pitch? Enter David Accam.

Accam at this point in his MLS tenure, though it is only three years at this point, has become one of the leagues best offensive players. One statistic reported on quite a bit by now is worth repeating yet again. Since Accam’s arrival in 2015 to MLS, only five other players have scored at least 33 goals and 15 assists. Those five players? You may have heard of them: Giovinco, Ignacio Patti, David Villa, Kei Kamara, and Diego Valeri. I like that company. Accam has changed the trajectory of sorts for the club and its history.

Last season, the Union housed many players with a lot of mileage on their bodies. Players like Edu, Pontius, Carroll, Onyewu, and Charlie Davies sat like aging logs on the Union’s salary books and caused headaches for Curtin to inject youth into lineup rotations. Between those five players, all over 30 years old, just two will likely continue their careers. Carroll officially announced his retirement after 15 MLS seasons in October. And the most recent news on Onyewu indicates the 35-year-old will go back to school.

Youth is good, speed is great, but what about the #10?

And of course. The almighty #10 position. The godlike figure for the Curtin 4-2-3-1 formation. The player who sees the highest volume of touches whenever the Union find a groove throughout the 90 minutes of play. Every game the goal is the same, give the ball to the #10 as much as possible. This position has been lacking significantly since the departure of the all-around good guy from Switzerland, Tranquillo Barnetta, as well all know.

What did the team do about that? Shockingly, during the final week and a half of preseason, Jay Sugarman, Earnie Stewart, and Chris Albright put their brain power together to target a 29-year old veteran named Borek Dockal from Czech Republic who left the Chinese Super League kicking and screaming. He wanted out of China so badly, a Czech newspaper published a headline about their countrymen and his saga reading: “Escape from China.”

From China to Chester. Quite the move for the new attacking center midfielder. But Dockal is no stranger to transitioning from team to team and country to country. The Czech has been out on loan a total of three different times and transferred three times – his move to Philadelphia Union seems more and more like a late preseason loan transaction. So chalk up a fourth loan for Dockal’s career.

His biggest weakness? From sources close to his former Czech team, the squad he played very well on prior to his erroneous decision to move to HN Jianye in China, Dockal at times may exhibit some unsavory body language. But that’s really not so much a negative in my book. Hell, the most well liked figure in Philadelphia Union history was known to flash around a few evil eyes, hand waves, and distraught struts following broken down plays many times. I speak of Seba. Yes, Le Toux. But his body language was never seen as negative because of his endless work rate. That man never took a minute off throughout his Union career.

Problem with Dockal’s alleged poor body language? Well, the other weakness he exudes is a potential for shoddy defensive play at times. However, how many attacking midfielders can you think of that do not carry around this potential risk. They are attacking, creative, playmakers. Perhaps Dockal and other attacking mids do not possess that same passion for recovery sprints as the next player.

So what? It all comes down to how Dockal expresses his frustration while accepting his duties on the defensive side of things. Keep an eye on Dockal’s interactions with his new teammates. He clearly is no stranger to switching teams, I only hope his reported negative body language never contributed to his team hopping in the past.

Blake saves all

After not playing due to personal reasons having to do with his green card, Andre Blake finally saw some action in the preseason. And he still looks great. Better dare I say than ever before. Last season, Blake set a new career-low in goals against average finishing the year at just 1.31 GAA. That number ranked just third in franchise history. In addition to his impressive GAA, Blake finished with a save percentage of 70%, the new franchise record.

Why is it important? With a young back line like the Union are rolling with, a tremendous keeper is clearly the greatest possible weapon to have heading into 2018. Which is why the contract extension was such a major milestone for the club. Some naysayers wished he would be sold for profit, but I always thought of that idea as completely irrational. Why force a sale on a young goalkeeper who plays in a league that does not boast the greatest quality internationally? The MLS has constantly been viewed with skepticism by foreign clubs making it more difficult to shop young talent. Better to have Blake peppering away the many shots a young back line could potentially allow.

Throughout the entire defensive grouping the ages vary from 32 to just 18. Fabinho, the elder statesmen of the grouping is basically playing on borrowed time at the left back spot as his retirement from the game is all but certain following this season. Ray Gaddis and Keegan Rosenberry set to embark on yet another season in which the both compete for a spot. Both have enjoyed extended sequences as the starter, but each has failed to maintain their standing. If the cycle continues like it has between the two, Rosenberry is set to steal that starting spot from the fan favorite Gaddis. (Fan favorite because of his professional and charming demeanor – not necessarily for his exploits on the pitch).

But at center back, a whole other story is being written. A 25-year with a work ethic in question battles with an unproven 23-year old who came into the league as a Generation Adidas signing but has since failed to perform at high levels consistently. Perhaps one thing is certain with the center backs though. Jack Elliot is cemented into one of those central defense positions. Elliot played extremely well last alongside Onyewu. My only fear is that Elliot suffers a drop in performance simply due to Onyewu and his always steady presence now being nothing but a ghost for the young Englishman in 2018. After all, Trusty expressed on multiple occasions the gratitude he felt having a veteran like Onyewu on the club to speak with and learn from and mentioned it again when I spoke to him a few weeks back at the Union’s open training session.

2018 Predictions

All that being said – the Union are set up well for a winning season – an occurrence that has evaded this city and its soccer team for seven years now. It may seem bold but given the new addition of a play-maker in central midfield and speed on both wings, the Union have quietly built a solid front six in Accam, Alejandro Bedoya, CJ Sapong, Dockal, Haris Medunjanin, and Picault. With an inexperienced back-line, I am leaving myself vulnerable to the possibility of yet another series of results in which the Union fall to secure a draw or a win due to poor defending late in games. All Union fans would agree, those lost points in the standings are killer. But perhaps the youth in the back-line is the spark needed to propel a talented team forward. Who knows.

If I remember correctly, a Union team has never featured this much speed on the wings in combination with a creative midfielder and two solid anchoring mids who also possess vision and creativity when needed. A Union team has also never featured as much youth on the back line as they are this year either. On thing is for sure, the combination of Accam, Dockal, and Picault behind the always goal hungry Sapong should prove for some exciting soccer.

By season’s end, I predict a finish in 5th place. Realistically, a finish in the 6th seed would be ideal for this club considering their past shortcomings. A playoff appearance would do wonders for the youth on the squad and a winning season would give all Philadelphia soccer fans a taste of the future as the youth movement get its first real test in 2018.

Last year, Medunjanin and Bedoya combined for a little over 20% of the offense. Two crucial and effective offensive weapons have been added. I expect a positive goal differential this year. If Accam’s addition does not result in more goals, then something will have gone sadly wrong.

Blake can do no wrong in my book. I expect another outstanding year for the Jamaican keeper. He can compete with his franchise records and career bests in 2018 on his way to another Goalkeeper of the Year finalist appearance.

Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

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