After years of futility, the Philadelphia Union were able to finally pull it all together in 2016 and became a respectable franchise. A formidable opponent on the field, the club led the Eastern Conference for the first half of the season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2011. The club signed two homegrown players and have several more highly rated prospects in the academy ranks.
The expectations are high, however, and the Union still have significant questions going into this season. Can Oguchi Onyewu and Giliano Wijnaldum help shore up a defense that gave up a staggering 55 goals in 2016? Can Jay Simpson help lighten the load for the rest of the offense by actually scoring goals? Who will get minutes in a crowded midfield, and how will these personnel decisions affect the way the club performs? The Union may be respectable now, but it’s unclear if they’re about to become true contenders.
2016 record: 11-14-9, sixth place in the Eastern Conference
2016 playoffs: Lost in knockout round to Toronto FC
Head coach: Jim Curtin
Key additions: Haris Medunjanin, Oguchi Onyewu, Jay Simpson, Giliano Wijnaldum
Key losses: Tranquillo Barnetta
Projected starting XI (4-2-3-1): Andre Blake; Giliano Wijnaldum, Richie Marquez, Oguchi Onyewu, Keegan Rosenberry; Haris Medunjanin, Alejandro Bedoya; Chris Pontius, Roland Alberg, Ilson Jr.; Jay Simpson
Major trophies won, all-time: None
What we think of our team: The Union have seemingly improved on every deficiency from 2016, and barring anything unforeseen we're expecting to go deeper into the playoffs than ever before.
What outsiders think of our team: “On the right path. Earnie Stewart has given the Union a clear goal and direction for where the club wants to be. Wouldn't surprise to see the Union contend in the Eastern Conference this year or the next.”
Philadelphia Union’s biggest rival: For the players it seems to be D.C. United, as those matches are always filled with extracurricular activities. For most fans, it's the New York Red Bulls because they've always been the antagonists next door. But for me (and a growing number of fans), it's New York City FC. I hate them. I hate their players. I hate their fans. I hate everything about them and everything that they stand for. It's a visceral, guttural hatred — as if fire ants were eating my soul.
Best social media follow: Alejandro Bedoya always has something interesting to say and isn’t afraid to speak his mind on any topic.
Our season hinges on … the team being able to perform as good as they appear to be on paper. This is the strongest lineup in the team's history, and if they can put it all together then the sky really is the limit.
Why this year won’t be like last year: Not only is the team improved on every facet, but it's deeper across all positions as well. Part of the Union's problem in 2016 was if certain players were hurt or ineffective, there wasn't anyone who could come in and play at a high level. That's not the case this year, as all positions except goalkeeper and right wing are deeper.
Key player: Simpson. An unknown quantity, he's played at the highest level in England but has also spent much of his career in the lower divisions there. If he can adapt quickly to playing in MLS and recreate the season he had in 2015-16 where he knocked in 25 goals with Leyton Orient in League Two, there's no telling how far the Union will go.
Predicted finish in 2017: Seventh in the Eastern Conference.
Wild prediction: Ilson Jr. has a career year, putting up video game numbers and actually breaking someone's ankles with an elastico during a match.