Next up in the preseason position previews are the midfielders, who have a healthy dose of fresh faces to pair with the veterans. The midfielders are broken up into wingers, attacking mids and holding middles. Today are the wingers.
Chris Pontius returns to the Union for his second season with the team, fresh off the heels of his first and second international appearances. Pontius earned his first cap ever when he suited up against Serbia, and earned his first international start when the United States Men’s National Team played a friendly against Jamaica. Pontius is also looking to build off a career year in 2016. Pontius set new highs in games played (33), games started (32), minutes (2,571), goals (12, the most on the Union), assists (six), and shots on goal (35), receiving the 2016 MLS Comeback Player of the Year for his stellar season. Head Coach Jim Curtin said he noticed an extra gear in Pontius’ play, and is excited to see him translate that USMNT January camp into another strong start to the season.
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Last season, Fabian Herbers started out for the Bethlehem Steel in the USL, scoring in his first appearance. After six games with Steel FC, he received the call up to play with the first team. Herbers appeared in 19 games for the Union, starting three and scoring three goals while adding seven assists. Those seven assists were the most for an MLS rookie since Michael Stephen’s eight in 2010 for the LA Galaxy. Herbers seized his opportunity to start after injuries last season, and will be a vital piece of the Union’s attack.
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Erik Ayuk returns for his third season with the Union, but finds himself a little far down in the depth chart. Ayuk served as a reserve for most of 2016, appearing in just one game. In 2015, however, Ayuk saw ample playing time, appearing in 29 games and starting 14. He notched two goals and added two assists. Ayuk plays an important role with the Union, pushing those above him to continue to perform, serving as a valuable role player with the team.
The Union selected Marcus Epps with the 25th overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft. At the University of South Florida, Epps made 75 appearances, scoring eight goals and adding nine assists in his career. Where he excelled at USF was his passing and knack for creating offense, although he didn’t always receive the rewards for doing so. Epps is expected to see time both with the Union and Bethlehem Steel FC this season.
Ilson Jr., also known as Ilsinho, played his first season with the Union in 2016 and made an immediate impact on the club. In 25 games, Ilson Jr., started 14, playing 1286 while finding net twice and assisting on two more goals. The 31-year-old brought stellar play and also incredible experience, previously appearing in UEFA Champions League games, Europe League games and even the Olympics. Ilson Jr. is primed to continue his success in the MLS and the Union will reap the benefits.
Fafa Picault arrived in Philadelphia as a Discovery Signing in February, and while has had just a short time with the Union, has acclimated himself well to the team. He appeared in 22 games for FC St. Pauli of 2. Bundesliga, where he scored four goals. His speed will add an extra element to the Union attack, and while he has a small frame at just 5-foot-8, he manages to find his way to the ball and make smart plays. Picault may not be a starter right away, but when he comes off the bench, the Union won’t lose a step.