In the club’s 11th season, Philadelphia Union is hoping to take the noise in Subaru Park up to 11. It’s going to be tough to top last season’s exploits, but it won’t be difficult to find exciting storylines as Jim Curtin’s side looks to scale new heights.
1. Can the Union’s number one goalie rebound?
Andre Blake has the ability to be one of the best in Major League Soccer. We have all seen him make the impossible real on a weekly basis, but last year was an up and down one for Jamaica’s top goalie. Injuries meant a slow start and then the added responsibilities of covering a high line meant he struggled to find his form. A low point came in the first half of the 2019 playoff match against New York Red Bulls. Blake was off his game and the rest of the team had to do what he has done for them so often in the past and save the day. They did it, and now Blake goes into 2020 knowing that if he steps up he could be backstopping a strong, maturing defense.
2. Can Kacper do it twice?
Kacper Przybylko started the year in USL and ended it as one of the top strikers around. He put up numbers that locked him into the second tier of MLS strikers behind league leaders Carlos Vela and Josef Martinez. Usually clubs pay DP-money for that kind of production, but Przybylko came out of nowhere to make it happen after 18 months sidelined by injuries. But can he do it again? This year the big finisher won’t sneak up on anyone. His ability to finish with both feet and his head means there will still be goals, but can he carry the attack the way he did a year ago? If so, he’ll help answer question number three.
3. Will the ghost and the goof become one of the league’s best attacking duos?
Sergio Santos is big, strong, and fast. He’s also about as fun-loving and free-spirited as an adult human can be. Jim Curtin has highlighted Santos’ growing chemistry with Kacper Przybylko this preseason, and if they truly jell the Union have a fearsome combination leading the line. Both players have the short-term memory required of great strikers, though Przybylko gets his from focus while Santos gets his from unrelenting positivity. Single-striker formations have been en vogue for a few years now, but a great, balanced pairing is still one of the most enjoyable things to watch develop on a pitch. That could be what Union fans see in 2020.
4. Making his Mark
Central defenders typically develop later than attackers. If you can beat a man in space, you are often granted time for the rest of your game to develop. For a center back, however, no such time is granted. Mark McKenzie knows this. He was part of the strange series of events that left the Union two men down in Atlanta in 2018. One loose pass and suddenly chaos broke loose. McKenzie overcame that, and he overcame an injury-riddled, confidence-sapping start to 2019, gutting his way back into the US Men’s National Team picture. Still only 21-years old, the homegrown’s game is filling out. Speed and calmness remain, and the range of passing coming off of No. 4’s feet is growing. Everybody knows that McKenzie’s ceiling is sky-high. He has the character, intelligence, and feet to become special, and even without the towering height that often moves defensive prospects to the top of a scout’s list, McKenzie can control his box. The Union need their young star to become a leader in 2020, and he’s ready.
5. The fifth midfielder
Alejandro Bedoya. Jamiro Monteiro. Brenden Aaronson. El Brujo Martinez. In preseason, all four players showed the versatility to grab a spot in the midfield rotation ahead of Warren Creavalle and Matej Oravec, the nominal No. 6s. Martinez can also play that deeper role, but his energy proved useful further up in the diamond.
So what about Anthony Fontana?
Jim Curtin is going to ask the same question this season. With Aaronson and Monteiro as the top two options at the No. 10 position, Fontana has to prove his value there or as a more attack-minded No. 8. He has the ability to do both, so it’s just a question of focus. Once Fontana is on the move, running at defenders and making quick decisions, he’s fine. It’s the slower moments when he has to dictate the pace of the game himself that need improvement. What do you do off the ball? Where are you positioned? How are you anticipating the game? When he’s locked in, Fontana has all the answers, but when isn’t, the lapses that result keep him from earning that regular spot in the rotation that could be his.
This is the year Fontana shows whether he can turn into a midfielder that brings goals and creativity to a team that needs production out of its diamond. He’ll get every chance to show he’s up for it.
6. The No. 6, obviously
The most obvious change in how the Union play in 2020 is the absence of Haris Medunjanin. This isn’t just about the player himself, it’s about the philosophy he embodied. Medunjanin was an outlet for defenders and an axis for attackers. If you’re in trouble during build-up, he was there. If you need to change the point of attack, he was in space. Few players in the league played more progressively from the No. 6 role in 2019, and the Union were able to attack teams in a multitude of ways because of the Bosnian’s ability to control a match.
No longer. Now the philosophy is more direct, and this will put more pressure on Philly’s defenders to start attacks, while potentially simplifying the game and providing more freedom as well. Both possibilities are out there, and neither is a given.
There is nobody on the roster that comes close to filling Medunjanin’s shoes, and that is by design. Ernst Tanner wants this team to play a different brand of soccer, and with one of Warren Creavalle, Matej Oravec, or El Brujo Martinez deep, he’ll get just that. The Union will play direct, get forward in a hurry, and look to create through controlled chaos rather than controlling the chaos with a ball-dominating quarterback.
7. Can a team overcome stars?
Top 7. That’s all it takes to make the playoffs. But with Maimi in the mix, Cincy spending big, Orlando reloading, and New England building on last season’s major outlays, will the Union’s team-first approach have enough to keep them near the top of the east? Tanner and Curtin, Philly is betting their ability to become more than the sum of their parts can make them special. In practice, this means eleven players reacting quicker than the other team during transition moments when the ball pops loose in midfield or in the attacking half. Turning half-chances into chances and turning those seconds when other teams suck wind into the times you own. This is what Tanner’s philosophy is all about. The Union have the natural talent to pull it off, and in Jack de Vries, Michee Ngalina, and Anthony Fontana they also have potential sparks off the bench that can help them keep the energy up late in matches.
Keeping such a high-energy approach up over the long MLS season is not easy, though, and after he proved he can succeed while installing a more flexible system last year Jim Curtin will be asked to do even more to find ways to win in 2020.
8. Ready, set piece, go
Even with Haris Medunjanin’s deliveries, the Union struggled to convert set plays into goals last year. Will that change in 2020? Brenden Aaronson and Jamiro Monteiro will likely both get a shot at taking over dead ball situations in the Bosnian’s absence, and Jakob Glesnes provides another huge target in the box.
Set plays are one of the few times during a soccer match that you have real time to control how play will develop. They have become a huge resource for analytically-driven teams in Denmark, and world-beaters like Liverpool. The Union are among the more data-focused, forward-thinking clubs in the league, so this is one area to expect creativity and improvement in 2020.
9. A 90 minute team
The Union gave up 25 of their 50 goals against in the final 15 minutes of halves last year. That has to change. This is a team that wants to succeed by outworking its opponents, and that means showing they can do it from the first whistle to the last. Another year in MLS should help Mark McKenzie understand the focus it takes to defend for a full 90, and Matt Real certainly has the potential to figure it out as well.
But the energy needed to play Philly’s style will be draining, and players will need to be mentally prepared for what they have to do this season. That — more than anything physical — is the big ask of a young team. Jim Curtin is a great man-manager, though, and he will once again ask players to lean on the energy of the fans to gut it out for the full 90.
10. The buzz
Forget the new clubs. When it’s packed out and bouncing, few stadiums in the league can compete with the Union’s riverside home. The River End ramps up the noise and the rest of the bowl responds. The players feel it and it spurs them on. The final 15 against Atlanta, the heart-thumping second halves against Red Bulls. There is no doubt that a true home field advantage comes from the undying belief of home fans. Players get locked in during a match and caught up in its emotional ups and downs — fans have more distance but just as much emotional investment. They can feel when a team is flagging and needs a lift, and in 2019 the Union faithful provided that boost again and again.
If that same rollicking, boisterous, us-against-the-world attitude permeates Subaru Park this year, it will be a difference-maker few in the league can match.
11. The Captain
There are eleven players on the pitch for the Union, and Ale Bedoya wears No. 11 because he will carry each and every person wearing his badge across the finish line if he has to. After an injury against Columbus last season, Bedoya fought his way through the playoff match against Red Bulls on heart and belief. He came to Philadelphia determined to prove this club could win their own way: By fighting, scrapping, and clawing for every point using every last ounce of energy they had.
He embodies the Union way like few other players ever have, and the fans know it. Once again, Bedoya will be asked to be both the heart and the brains of a team that needs him to show why he’s made a career as one of the smartest, tactically-astute Americans of the last decade. And Jim Curtin will agan ask Bedoya to be a mentor for a team that needs more young players to emerge.
He can do it.
And if you doubt him… feel free to tell him to his face.
Ale Bedoya believes in his team, and after 2019’s run to the Eastern Conference semi-finals, he shouldn’t be the only one.
It’s time for 2020, Union fans.