We are halfway through the 2016 MLS campaign and Philadelphia fans have plenty to be happy about. After years of suffering through mediocrity (or worse), the Union have arrived. So far. Let’s take a look at how we got to this point and analyze what the rest of this season has in store.
The Philadelphia Union are in first place in the East. That’s not a typo. They are the top of the table with 26 points and a healthy 1.53 points per game average. The boys in blue are 7-5-5 in MLS play, including an impressive 6-1-2 at home.
That’s a long cry from last year, when the Union were 4-10-3 at the halfway point and sitting at the bottom of the table.
Enter Earnie Stewart. Last October, Earnie Stewart took over as the Union’s sporting director and from there, the Union put together arguably the best offseason of any Philadelphia sports team in recent memory.
The Union made a plethora of roster changes, most notably acquiring Chris Pontius, Roland Alberg, Ilsinho, and Ken Tribbett. They released or traded several Union mainstays including Maidana, Wenger, and Casey. The team picked up options on some critical players including Richie Marquez and Sebastien Le Toux, and locked in CJ Sapong for the next 3 years.
In the MLS Superdraft, the Union selected Josh Yaro, Keegan Rosenberry, Fabian Herbers, and Taylor Washington in the first 2 rounds. Their contributions as rookies to this team couldn’t be overstated. Some outlets have even named Rosenberry the consensus Rookie of the Year to this point.
The club also added USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel, a very valuable partnership and asset for the team moving forward.
Less impactful, but also of note, the team added new training facilities, renamed the stadium, and even partnered with Uber, among other fan-experience enhancements.
The Union did everything right this offseason, and it has paid dividends on the pitch thus far. I’m not one for hypotheticals and what ifs, but it’s not crazy to think this team is even better than the standings show.
Take a quick glance through their ties and losses so far this season and it’s not hard to find points that were within reach and really should’ve been earned.
- The Union were the (much) better team in their 1-0 loss to Chicago, in what appeared to be category 5 hurricane weather. Not to mention they were playing down a man due to Creavalle’s straight red.
- A 2-1 loss at Seattle isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it was another game where the Union appeared superior, even playing down a man after Alberg earned a second yellow.
- Up a goal and up a man against San Jose, the Union should have come away victorious. Instead they allowed a weak goal in the 83rd minute for a tie that felt much more like a loss.
- The Union’s 2-2 draw at Orlando City was marred by terrible officiating and felt like 2 points were stolen from us.
- The loss to NYCFC shouldn’t count because their field is clearly illegal. I’m just bitter about that one though.
The Union could easily have 8 more points and be sitting in pole position for the Supporters Shield as we speak!
Alas, we can’t rewrite history. We can, however, be thrilled with where we are currently, and there is plenty to be optimistic about looking ahead to the second half of the season.
The Union have 17 games remaining, a potential 51 points up for grabs. Earning just half of those points would give the Union at least 51 points for the season, a mark that would have been good enough for 3rd in the East just 1 year ago. It would also be the most points a Union squad has earned in their 7 year tenure as a club.
As great as that sounds, I actually think that’s a conservative estimate. This team is poised to make a serious run in the second half of the season and there are a few reasons why.
Firstly, this team has yet to be at full strength. Maurice Edu has been a mainstay on the injury report and will be a welcome addition if/when he returns. CJ Sapong, who has missed the past few matches and is currently listed as questionable, should return to the starting lineup soon. Roland Alberg and Ilsinho both battled fitness questions early on as they transitioned to MLS play, but are reaching peak form now.
Secondly, some argued that the Union’s hot start was more of a nod to an easy schedule than an indication of a new and improved squad. I’d actually argue that the schedule looks friendlier in the second half. For one, the combined win percentage of Philly’s opponents in the first half was 0.498. The combined win percentage of opponents for the second half of the season is currently 0.470. Granted it’s not a huge difference, but it’s safe to say the schedule isn’t getting any worse. What’s more significant, is our out-of-conference schedule. It’s no secret that the Union have struggled against Western Conference opponents to the tune of an 0-3-3 record. Fortunately, the second half of the season only features 4 Western Conference opponents (2 home, 2 away), beginning with bottom dwellers Houston Dynamo on Saturday, July 2nd.
Additionally, the MLS Secondary Transfer Window opens up Monday, July 4th. There is no telling what might happen during the transfer window, but what we do know is the Union have money and they’ll be looking to spend some. The Union are in a good position to be buyers this year and will be looking for help to finish the season even stronger than they started. If Earnie’s success in the transfer window is anything like he had in his first offseason with the club, fans have reason to be excited. In Earnie, we trust!
Trusting that this is a whole new Union and ignoring the past, leaves me with no reason not to be optimistic about the team’s immediate future. Union fans should be excited. Hell, all of Philadelphia should be excited – we have a team in first place right now Philly!
Here’s to hoping they stay in first place, this team belongs there.
Photo: Jake Tischler