By Coleman Larned (@thesoccerswell)
The 2015 MLS season was Philadelphia Union's worst points haul in their existence, both in league and conference totals. In Jim Curtin's first full season as head coach, recently having the 'interim' title stripped, the Union were ponderous, soft and lacked a dangerous cutting edge and consistent goal scorer.
DDLLLWDLLLL. By starting the season 1-3-7, the Union dug themselves a hole they never recovered from. Besides brief puffs of scoring spurts from C.J. Sapong, the only consistencies the Union could grasp onto were indications of identity and the inability to impose their will.
Floundering, season-long poor Elo totals, a bottom of the league possession% (46.3) and Fouls (11) per game, a bottom-five in the league shots per game (11.2) all pointed towards the previously offered adjectives.
A year that the club will quickly try to forget was signified near the end of the season with the continued restructuring in the back office and on the field. After Curtin was given the reins in his first coaching job, the end of 2015 saw CEO Nick Sakiewicz and ex-USMNT player and AZ Alkmaar's 'Director of Football Affairs' Ernie Stewart named 'Sporting Director' in Philadelphia.
Stewart's tendencies in his previous roles indicate a long-term vision, although that's almost a must-say regurgitation from any professional coach trying to keep his job. It's attractive for clubs that don't wish to spend absorbent amounts of money in the transfer market, but would rather invest in innovative infrastructure.
Looking to 2016, an updated philosophy brought on by new executive, managerial and playing minds will benefit the club. They began by trimming some recent Union stalwarts such as Cristian Maidana and Andrew Wenger, which were the right moves if the club is to be more financially lean and tactically progressive.
Zach Pfeffer, the club's first home-grown player, and the most recent foreign 'talent' in Steven Vitoria and Fernando Aristeguieta didn't work out as hoped. As a result, the new decision-makers in the front office seem to have gutted the Union – and the team has improved.
The back four will have the opportunity to introduce some new faces, especially if releasing Maurice Edu from his central defender purgatory continues to be a coveted scenario in Philadelphia. I believe Edu can still be an elite holding midfielder in MLS and is undoubtedly the communicative leader of the team. If they can advance him further up the field, the advantages of physically progressing his leadership qualities would be underestimated.
The Union selected two defenders in the SuperDraft off of the same Georgetown Hoyas team that developed into one of the best collegiate defenses in the country in 2015 and one of them, Josh Yaro, might be able to play from day one.
Pushing Edu into probably a holding, #6 role in the midfield means either Brian Carroll or Vincent Noguiera will give way. Losing Maidana as a #10 leaves a hole to be filled behind Sapong offensively, and a hole beside him defensively if they continue with their shape off of the ball.
Maidana had been the best player on a couple of bad Union teams and his contribution was probably inflated because of their overall quality. Can Tranquillo Barnetta stay healthy to find consistency as an attacking midfielder? Will one of the new additions slot into the #10 vacancy and keep it? It will be interesting to see what Curtin whips up and what kind of freedom he's willing or able to express himself with.
There's no question who will be the starting central forward for the 2016 Phiadelphia Union: C.J. Sapong. His newly extended contract of indicates that Curtin and the Union believe C.J. when he says, “I feel like 20 goals is something that I can reach.” Do I believe him? Call me elitist but I don't think he has the pedigree to be a lone forward that scores 20 goals, but his frame and physical traits suggests he might have the kind of ceiling.
So, what does 2016 have in store for the Philadelphia Union? They relied heavily on the draft to solve defensive issues, they are missing a solidified #10 (unless Barnetta slots in) and they're betting the house on C.J. Sapong (at least for the short term). Although it will undoubtedly be an improvement, I'm bearish on how drastic the improvement will actually be.
The teams in and around them (NYCFC, Orlando SC, Toronto FC) have either gotten better through personnel transition or are expected to be better through expected evolution. The Union will likely struggle to get out of the bottom three of the Eastern Conference and will probably hover in and around 7th-9th for most of the season.
I really see no chance of playoffs, but I don't think that's the realistic target this year for Stewart, Curtin or any significant thinker at the club. Stewart hopes to replace on-field complacency with grit and to inject the backroom culture with sustainable and progressive methods of recruitment and vision – this is a ground-up project and 2016 might be one level above the bottom floor.