The Union will embark on their 2016 season on Sunday against FC Dallas as fans prepare for yet another season of similar aspirations. With new Sporting Director Earnie Stewart leading the charge, will the Union finally make it back to the postseason? Here are 10 questions facing the Union for the upcoming season.
1. Who will lead the team in scoring?
Forward C.J. Sapong narrowly led the team in scoring with nine goals in 2015 to Sebastien Le Toux’s eight. He’ll get strong competition for the goals lead in 2016 from rookie Fabian Herbers, the sixth pick of the MLS SuperDraft. Herbers had a knack at finding the back of the net with Creighton last season where he scored 15 goals in 21 starts.
2. Do the Union have a shot to make the playoffs?
With the Union finishing with the second-worst record (10-17-7) in the Eastern Conference last season and a lot of moving parts in the offseason, expectations are low for a playoff run in 2016, but not completely out of the question. In 2014, the Montreal Impact finished with the worst record in the East, only to jump to the third best team in the East by the end of last season. Bottom line, anything is possible.
3. What new faces should I be paying attention to?
The Union have three strong first-round picks making their MLS debut on Sunday for the Union. Herbers and defenders Joshua Yaro (2nd pick) and Keegan Rosenberry (3rd pick) look to make an immediate impact on the team on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. Chris Pontius, Ilsinho and Roland Alberg are all offseason acquisitions to keep an eye on as well on the offensive side of the ball.
4. What does Sebastien Le Toux have left in the tank?
Not very much and it’s going to be a tough pill to swallow for both Union fans and Le Toux as a player as the 2016 season progresses this year. To his credit, the franchise’s all-time leading goal-scorer also logged the second most minutes (2,379) on the team last season to go with eight goals and six assists.
The 32-year-old French winger will tell you that his ‘legs are fine’, but he’d be lying to himself to say that he’s not on the decline of his career at this point. Expect him to lose starts to some of the newly added offensive pieces on the wing, but he’ll be used as a super sub when the team is in need of offense late in games this season.
5. Who is Earnie Stewart?
Stewart is the newly acquired Sporting Director of the Union, in charge of all roster decisions with the team. He appeared in 101 matches for the United States Men’s National Team from 1990-2004 as a midfielder. He was named the U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year in 2001.
6. Can Maurice Edu stay healthy?
Maurice Edu is a central piece of the Union’s core and philosophy. Without him, the Union are missing out on one of their most experienced leaders on the field. Playing at either midfield or center back, Edu has proven to be a versatile player during his tenure with the club. A groin injury forced him to miss 10 games last season, which required offseason surgery. He’s already slated to miss the season opener and the Union are going to play it extremely safe with the man they extended to a multi-year contract at the start of last season. Expect him to be used sparingly to start the year until he’s back to full strength.
7. Has Andre Blake secured his spot in net for the team?
Goalie Andre Blake, selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, is finally going to get a full-time look as a starter in net for the Union. In six starts last season for the Union, Blake registered 26 saves and a 1.5 goals against average, tops on the team. Look for Blake to have a breakout year in 2016 with a revamped defense and more experience. At 6-foot-4 inches with a huge wingspan, other teams are going to have trouble getting the ball past the talented Jamaican on a consistent basis.
8. Will Jim Curtin be replaced?
All signs indicate that manager Jim Curtin has a great relationship with the owners, players and fans, but that doesn’t mean Curtin’s job is safe whatsoever. Just as John Hackworth was relieved of his duties as team manager in 2014, Curtin could find himself on thin ice if the team doesn’t show signs of development this season. Stewart will surely be observing him closely.
9. Where should I watch the first match?
The Union supporters group, the Sons of Ben, are having three viewing parties for the Union’s first match, which takes place at 3 p.m. Sunday on the Comcast Network. Neshaminy Creek Brewing Co. in Croydon, PA, Mott’s Lower Level Bar in Kenhorst, PA and Trenton Social in Trenton, NJ all will play host to the Union’s season opener against FC Dallas with match specials for all.
10. What is the best way to see a home Union match?
We recommend registering for the Philadelphia Union VIP bus from Brauhaus Schmitz on South St. Simply buy a ticket to the match you want to go to through the Union and register for the VIP bus on brauhausschmitz.com for the match you chose. For just $25, you’ll get a seat on the bus filled with beer to the match and back with some of the craziest Union fans in the area.