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February 27, 2017

Grading the offseason moves: Are the 2017 Union any better than the 2016 Union?

Soccer Union
022717_unionteam_PSP Daniel Gajdamowicz/Philly Soccer Page

The Union finished with 11 wins, 14 losses, and 9 draws in 2016 but entered the postseason as the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference.

With the signing of draft picks Aaron Jones and Jack Elliott, the Union's 2017 roster is pretty much set.

It's a solid team with a good mix of veterans and younger players. For the first time ever, there appears to be depth at every single position and a healthy balance of international and domestic players.

The question, then, is this: Can this club really take a step forward in 2017?

This is a squad that finished 13th out of 20 teams last year. They got into the playoffs as the sixth and final seed in the eastern conference, which we generally viewed as a positive since it had been five years since the last postseason appearance.

You can look at the 2016 Union as a postseason team, or a bottom-half MLS team but the reality is that they were both of those things due to bogus rules that allow 12 out of 20 teams into the playoffs.

However you choose to look at it, expectations are higher now. We're two years removed from the Nick Sakiewicz era and this is no longer about cleaning up somebody else's mess. This is Earnie Stewart and Jim Curtin's team. The minimum expectation should be a return to the playoffs and a top-five eastern conference finish. I don't think that's unreasonable for a club that took significant steps forward last year, despite hitting the skids in September and October.

Let's take a look at the offseason additions:

Attack: C
In: Jay Simpson
Out: None

The Union went out and signed Leyton Orient's 28-year-old English striker, Jay Simpson.

Simpson is a journeyman Arsenal youth product with experience in the top four levels of English football. He did most of his scoring in the fourth division, so it's really impossible to predict what kind of success he'll have in the United States.

The best case scenario is that he adapts quickly, fits well into the Union system, and scores a few goals in March and April to get the ball rolling. The worst case scenario is that he becomes starved of service and stranded on an island as a lone striker.

Simpson has shown some good moments in the hold-up game this preseason, but he didn't get enough touches in the Suncoast Invitational games and he needs his midfielders to give him the ball in dangerous positions.

Just like last year, my criticism of the Union attack isn't necessarily about Simpson himself, or C.J. Sapong, or Charlie Davies. The reality is that this group just doesn't stack up, on paper, against the forward groups that other teams are rolling out.

When you look down the list of eastern conference strikers, you see names like Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Kei Kamara, Patrick Mullins, Ola Kamara, Michael de Leeuw, Nemanja Nikolic, David Villa, Cyle Larin, and Matteo Mancosu.

Are Simpson, Sapong, and Davies as good as those strikers?

We'll find out when the season starts.

Midfield: A-
In: Haris Medunjanin, Marcus Epps, Fafa Picault, Adam Najem
Out: Tranquillo Barnetta, Cole Missimo, Leo Fernandes, Walter Restrepo

They essentially replaced Tranquillo Barnetta with Alejandro Bedoya last summer. I still think we're looking at Bedoya as a number ten this season, despite the experimentation with him playing as a number eight over these past few games.

Haris Medunjanin, on paper, is the best offseason signing. He's a deep-lying playmaker with excellent passing range who really can build the attack from back to front. The issue, as we've seen in the preseason, is that he isn't a defensive stalwart, and opponents can counter through the center of the park should they win the ball in good positions.

A healthy Maurice Edu would be a very nice complement for Medunjanin, as would Warren Creavalle and even Brian Carroll, who showed veteran positional savvy when playing next to Vincent Nogueira. Curtin's first priority this season is figuring out how to maximize Medunjanin's abilities while also compensating for his defensive shortcomings.

Elsewhere in the midfield, the Adam Najem signing was a clever way to take advantage of a stalemate situation involving a rival club. Najem was a great college player and a projected top-five draft pick. I'd describe it as a prototypical Moneyball move.

As far as Epps and Picault, you could probably throw them in the forward category, but they'll be used as wide midfielders in this system. Picault was unfortunately sidelined with a toe injury for these last two games, but he looks like a perfect second-choice and change of pace at left midfield behind Chris Pontius. Epps, the draft pick, is another pacey wide player with an ability to run at defenders in space.

Defense: B-
In: Oguchi Onyewu, Jack Elliott, Giliano Wijnaldum, Aaron Jones
Out: Anderson Conceicao, Taylor Washington

The Wijnaldum signing sort of ushered in a new era of Union transfer strategy because previous regimes would have never gone out and signed a legitimate left back, let alone one who would have to earn his way into the starting eleven. At 24 years old, the Dutch defender can be the Union's left back of the future, even if he sits behind Fabinho to start the season.

The Onyewu signing is similar to the Simpson signing, isn't it? He could be a quality contributor, or a big liability in the back if those injury issues continue to hamper him. I thought he looked pretty good in the Montreal game but took a step back in the 3-2 loss against D.C. United. I don't know how he's going to hold up in Vancouver, on turf, against speedy players like Kekuta Manneh and Cristian Techera.

The Josh Yaro injury hurts here because his ability to cover ground and put out fires was a nice complement for Richie Marquez at left center back. Onyewu - and Ken Tribbett - are both stout ball-winners and dominate in the air, but they don't move as well as Yaro, which concerns me considering the issues in the defensive midfield.

As far as Elliott and Jones, they are a bit down on the depth chart at this point, assuming that Ray Gaddis is the number two at right back behind Keegan Rosenberry. I think we'll see both log minutes at Bethlehem Steel, along with fellow draft picks Chris Nanco and Santi Moar.

Goalkeeping: N/A
In: None
Out: Matt Jones

The only remaining roster hole is third-choice goalkeeper.

You've got John McCarthy backing up Andre Blake, with Matt Perrella as the only GK under contract with Steel. The Union had Indy Eleven goalkeeper Keith Cardona in preseason camp.

There's a big dropoff from Blake to McCarthy, but that's pretty much obvious since Blake is the reigning MLS goalkeeper of the year.


This is a balanced squad with great depth and a solid mix of youth, veteran presence, and international experience.

Curtin is going to have some excellent bench options this season, which has really been a big Achilles' heel over these past two or three years. Credit to the technical staff for fleshing out this roster and also putting together a stronger Bethlehem Steel squad.

What I don't see on this roster is a superstar. I don't see a game-changer who is going to put the team on his shoulders and score a goal or bag an assist in the 85th minute of play. I don't see somebody who is going to sell shirts and bring the average sports fan down to Talen Energy Stadium.

I don't see a Mauro Diaz, a Diego Valeri, a Sacha Kljestan, or a Nicolas Lodeiro. I do, however, see Union players who can contribute in the same way as a Michael Barrios, Joao Plata, Sebastian Lletget, or Marlon Hairston. This isn't going to be a team of all-stars, but it can be a hard-working, disciplined group of overachievers that plays within the system and trusts each other. Those are the same principles that made the Union successful in the first half of 2016.

The biggest handicap facing this team is ownership. I know Jay Sugarman and the other investors have spent money on the practice fields, training center, and academy, which are all incredibly important pieces that require seven-figure investment. The issue is that only one player on this team is a seven-figure investment, and that's Bedoya, who doesn't even appear to have a best position on the field. Can he be the superstar game-changer that this team really needs?

At some point, that investment needs to carry over to player-personnel. Until then, Union fans will be hoping that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.