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Philly Union position battles starting to take shape

Historically, the Union have relied on at least one consistent striker up top and solid goaltending between the pipes from Zac MacMath to propel the team to victory.

With training camp now underway for the 2015 Union squad, there’s a whole different identity which should present itself when preseason begins in late February.

MacMath was loaned to the Colorado Rapids earlier this month and the team added two talented strikers to an already proven group, which is expected to boost the Union’s offensive attack.

Suddenly the Union find themselves in relatively unfamiliar territory, with position battles throughout the roster. Here’s three positions that will be very competitive heading into the preseason.

Forward alignment:

Union forwards Sebastien Le Toux and Conor Casey have combined for 32 goals for the team in the past two seasons. Add in Andrew Wenger, who notched six last season, plus newcomers C.J. Sapong (14 in the past two seasons) and rookie Dzenan Catic (39 last season at Davenport University) and Union manager Jim Curtin suddenly has some tough decisions to make in terms of minutes this season.

Similar to last season, Wenger is expected to start at left wing with Le Toux on the right, but Sapong will likely overtake Casey in the middle. Having a potent goal scorer like Casey as the first man off the bench is a huge upgrade over Danny Cruz last season. Catic will need to prove himself to the coaching staff before given the chance at meaningful minutes. Regardless of how the minute allotment shakes out, the Union should be much more potent offensively compared to a season ago.

Goalie situation:

Rais M’Bolhi is unquestionably the starter this season for the Union, but getting to start in net is based on performance. If he slips up, the Union fanbase is well aware of the team’s No. 1 selection in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, Andre Blake, who sits right behind him in the depth chart.

By no means did M’Bolhi blow anybody away last season with the Union. He went just 1-2-1 in his four starts. He had seven saves on 13 shots in that span. In his one draw, he let up a late equalizer in stoppage time against the Chicago Fire which severely dashed the team’s playoff hopes. Had they won in the late season matchup, they would’ve been tied for fifth in the Eastern Conference with three matches remaining. Instead, they dropped to seventh and never recovered.

In Blake’s only regular season start with the Union, he notched seven saves in a 2-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo. One of the goals was attributed as an own goal however by Union defender Ray Gaddis.

Back line issues:

Since the Union traded defender Amobi Okugo in the offseason to Orlando City SC, the coaches have had some difficult decisions to make about the back line for their remaining squad. After Monday’s training session at YSC Sports, Union technical director Chris Albright hinted about another possible blow to the back line.

“All I can say regarding Carlos [Valdes] is there’s a negotiation ongoing,” Albright said. “Nothing is finalized as of yet. We hope to have further news shortly but in the interest of the negotiation, we’re going to resist commenting any further.”

Valdes, who didn’t practice Monday, started in eight games for the Union at center back after playing for Colombia in the 2014 World Cup. If traded, the team will likely need to add another veteran to the back line in his place. Ray Gaddis (34 starts) and Sheanon Williams (23 starts) are locks in the back, but Fabinho (19 starts) and oft-injured Ethan White (12 starts) still remain in question.

They could move midfielder Maurice Edu to strictly defend, but that limits his impeccable passing and creation ability on offense. Or, maybe they’ll find potential in newly drafted defenders Aaron Simmons and Raymond Lee if things get any worse. At the moment, this is the team’s biggest question mark, and one which they’ll need to figure out immediately.

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