So, what can we expect from Jim Curtin and the Philadelphia Union this season? That is the ultimate question. The quick, short answer is that no one knows for sure, not even the team. Fans are restless because the club has admitted they don’t have the money to compete financially with teams such as Los Angeles, Seattle and Toronto. Curtin and Union technical director Chris Albright have promised signings this offseason but so far all they have done was complete the permanent transfer of Maurice Edu from Stoke City and sign Canadian-Portuguese defender Steven Vitoria on loan from Portuguese power SL Benfica. The club swung and missed on several players earlier in the offseason, including two defensive midfielders and a striker. The club is still trying to sign a striker before the season starts on March 7th.
The Union ended last season on a disappointing note after failing to make the playoffs again. A coaching change in June brought improved results and a run to the Open Cup final, the team’s first ever final. They lost in extra time to Seattle but there was a buzz about this team. However, all that buzz did was to cover the flaws of the team. The biggest weakness this team has is one that has bugged the team since its inception. The Union missed out on the playoffs because they once again could not figure out how to close out games late in the season, especially key games against Columbus and Chicago.
So, what can we expect from this team in 2015? Jim Curtin has promised they will fight hard and play a more defensive, counterattacking style. The club had a goalkeeper conundrum last season with three excellent players that each are good enough to start. That issue has been solved for this season by loaning Zac MacMath to Colorado, leaving Algerian international Rasi M’Bolhi as the starter and Jamaican international Andre Blake as the backup. The club is reportedly signing John McCarthy, a LaSalle graduate, as the third goalkeeper. McCarthy was named the USL Goalkeeper of the Year and Rookie of the Year last season while playing for Rochester. The team traded Amobi Okugo to expansion club Orlando City. Conventional wisdom suggested that would mean Edu slides back into the defensive midfield spot after splitting time between there and center back. However, Curtin said he preferred Edu at center back and the team pursued defensive midfielders in Europe, but ending up missing out on two reported targets. With Edu in the midfield we would be looking at a probable Ethan White-Carlos Valdes center back pairing. But that plan fell apart when Valdes decided he wanted another loan to a South American club so that he could play against better competition and stay in the Colombian national team picture. Another round of Valdes drama went on for what seemed like forever and in the end he was loaned to Nacional of Uruguay.
Vitoria was brought in to replace Valdes, so it looks like Edu will almost definitely be starting in defensive midfield alongside Vincent Nogueira. The Union are also still searching for a striker in Europe and reports are that a signing is close to happening. Fans are getting frustrated because Curtin promised signings but then nothing was happening and he said that the Valdes saga was holding up these moves. The Vitoria deal did happen fairly quickly after the Valdes loan was official but the striker signing is not done yet. As of now C.J. Sapong will be the starter.
So what happens if the team struggles? I think Jim Curtin gets a full season to implement his vision of the team and find his players. I think fans understand his situation and their frustration is not directed at him but at an ownership group that lacks ambition and the money to build a proper team. With six teams getting into the playoffs in each conference and with two expansion clubs the Union have as good a chance as anyone to make the playoffs. Many question if this team is good enough considering that most of the players from last year’s non-playoff team returned for this season. The team may not be good enough once again but if you look at a team such as Real Salt Lake, they kept a core group of players together over several seasons while making smart buys with limited finances and have become one of the better teams in the league. That is a model the Union appear to be using. Will it work? No one knows but they do have a good group of key players they just need to find a few more parts and then let it come together over time. I do think this team is good enough to make the playoffs because so many things can happen during the season. I am fully aware that on paper they probably are not good enough. That is why games are played, so that we can see who really is playoff-worthy. Jim Curtin does have his work cut out for him but he seems ready for the task. Let’s see how far he can take them.