One arrived through the most traditional of American sports acquisition mechanisms, the other burst onto the MLS scene by taking one of the more innovative ways teams can find and develop first team players. Both are now surefire starters for their national team.
Andre Blake: Number one overall pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft and the consensus most talented player to come out of college that year.
Cory Burke: A striker with a mammoth skill set that was refined through hard work at the USL level with Brendan Burke and Bethlehem Steel FC.
The Union's Reggae Boyz are two of the clubs most important players, and they are both looking to take another big step forward in 2019.
For Blake, this season will be big on two fronts. First, the Union backstop will seek to continue building his legacy in Philadelphia. Since winning MLS Goalie of the Year in 2016, Blake has remained one of the top keepers in the league. In 2018, however, he faced what could have been a difficult new challenge: Improving his own game while helping to guide two center backs in their first MLS seasons through the long slog of an eight month season. But Mark McKenzie and Auston Trusty excelled, and as LAFC garnered praise for playing without a true holding player the Union did the same with a far less experienced back line. Blake was at the heart of the defense's success, and showed improved box control while communicating well with his young defense.
The second front? A Gold Cup run with Jamaica in the summer. Two years ago, Blake was far and away the best goalie in the tournament, but an injury took him out of the final. With that memory driving him, Blake will once again try to put the team on his shoulders and carry it to a trophy.
Burke? To put it simply: He was a revelation. Here is a complete list of players that scored at least 10 goals while playing fewer than 1500 minutes in 2018: Darren Mattocks, Raul Ruidiaz, Adama Diomande, and Cory Burke. At least ten in fewer than 2000 minutes? You're only adding in David Villa, Wayne Rooney, Romain Alessandrini, and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi.
Only one player on that list fought his way to the top by rising through the USL ranks. Only one guy crashed through defenses in Chicago, split open NYCFC, steamrolled Minnesota's center backs, and celebrated, filled with emotion, in a corner after scoring a disputed goal against New England. Burke's story is a testament to the Pathway to the Pros encompassing a far wider set of roads than just the one that runs from the Union's academy to its first team (that road, incidentally, is mostly I-476).
But now Burke will face the true test of a striker: Consistency. He was a relative unknown in 2018, but now everyone has tape on Cory Burke. The sneaky speed, the early movements to create his own space that so often go overlooked when an attacker's strength is so readily apparent, these will no longer be secrets to Major League Soccer. Burke will lose the element of surprise this year, but he will, at times, gain a partner up top. In 2018 both center backs could track Burke, but now when the Union use a two-striker set it may create new spaces for their big Jamaican striker to exploit. On the other hand, the new tactical ideas Jim Curtin is currently implementing will require a learning curve, and Burke will need to get his pressing assignments right if he wants to retain his spot.
And in the summer, Burke will likely get to take the chance he missed in 2017 and lead the line for the Reggae Boyz. Burke scored for his country in 2016 and 2018, but he was not first choice at the Gold Cup in between. Now he looks primed for a big role, and if history is any indication Burke will do everything in his power to bend the summer tournament to his will.
Blake and Burke took different paths to stardom, but both have earned their time on the pitch. This year, they will get it for both club and country.