One Major League Soccer playoff appearance in their six season existence has left Philadelphia Union fans hungry for more, much more. Despite two consecutive runner-up performances in the US Open Cup, the Union have underachieved mightily since their first MLS game in 2010. From shaky goalkeepers to allegedly abusive managers, and even a stint from former US wunderkind-come-bust Freddy Adu, the Union have seen a lot in their short time.
However, 2016 is shaping up to be different. Jim Curtin is in his second full season in charge of the team. The former defender has posted a win percentage of 36% while in charge of the Union, and despite being a novice head coach, is quickly gaining his feet as another former MLS player turned manager. In spite of leading the team to back-to-back runners-up performances in the US Open Cup, Curtin still has a lot to prove in the City of Brotherly Love.
“In terms of Curtin turning the team around, the jury remains out on that,” Dan Walsh, founder of Philly Soccer Page, explained to World Soccer Talk.
“New Sporting Director Earnie Stewart has certainly increased the level of talent being brought in, but Curtin still has to prove he can do something with it.
“In the past, you could say he didn’t have sufficient talent, but that is no longer the case. Curtin will be on the hot seat this season, and if this club isn’t in the playoff hunt come mid-season, he will get the axe.”
Stewart has certainly added talent to the club since being appointed to the position last fall. After finishing last season 18th out of 20 MLS sides, Stewart went about blowing up the group, ridding the Union of 15 players from last season’s squad. Twelve players have been brought in, according to MLS’s official website, leaving expectations raised for 2016.
“The 2016 team will be a very different club than the ones that reached the US Open Cup finals [2014, 2015], with as many as seven or eight new starters and a lot more depth,” Walsh clarified.
One new signing that will be familiar to Union fans, is former DC United player Chris Pontius. Capable of playing as a second striker or on either wing, Pontius brings creativity and pace to a side that scored the fewest goals in MLS’s Eastern Conference in 2015.
The 28-year-old will most likely slot into the left wing position, a place formerly filled by midfielder Andrew Wenger, who was traded to Houston Dynamo. Pontius may have had a poor season by his standards in 2015, but a hip injury saw the attacker miss 13 matches. Injuries have played their part in each of the last few seasons for Pontius. However, if the Union can keep him fit, a return to his 2012, form which saw him tally 12 goals, is realistic.
“The Union added so much midfield talent this off-season that Pontius could go to the bench very quickly, if he doesn’t produce,” Walsh stated.
“Injuries have really dogged him the past few years, and he basically has one year in the shop window for the Union, who probably won’t renew him at a high salary if he doesn’t have a productive, injury-free season.”
Philadelphia’s wealth of midfielders should continue to influence Curtin to play a 4-2-3-1 formation. According to Whoscored.com, the Union deployed this formation 32 times last season. Curtin will most likely set out his side with C.J. Sapong as the lone striker, supported by Swiss international Tranquillo Barnetta, an astute signing last summer. Meanwhile, Pontius and club legend Sebastien Le Toux will play down the flanks.
The attack will depend on whether or not Le Toux, Pontius or Sapong can stay fit. Regardless, the intent from Philadelphia is there. Add in new signing Brazilian Ilsinho, and the Union look far more impressive on paper than in any of their previous seasons. The midfielder brings a wealth of experience to the side, and will add another dimension to the team’s attack.
A difficult set of road games welcome Philadelphia into the new season. The Union’s attack will be put to the test early as they look to improve on last season anaemic goal scoring output. However, 2016 should be an improved year for the club and their second foray into the MLS Playoffs.
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