Andre Blake, a 2014 draft pick, has become a Union stalwart.
By Sarah Berkowitz
Earnie Stewart spent his first year as the Union’s big boss rebuilding.
Now comes the reloading part!
The Union have a clear direction moving forward, with Stewart and head coach Jim Curtin steering the ship. The club has made plenty of upgrades across the roster in order to contend on all fronts, like it did with less depth in previous seasons.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Curtin said. “It pushes things in training each and every day. In some spots, we have three quality players so I think our depth is the strongest its ever been in the club’s history. We’re happy from that standpoint.
“Getting into our 18 this year will be a very big challenge,” Curtin said. “The mentality of the guys has to be if you’re not in the 18 or the starting 11, you still have to keep the mindset that we’re all in this together. When you are called upon, you have to be ready to go.”
Improving the club’s depth was always one of Stewart’s top priorities, and now the Union have a squad with quality that is two deep at every position. In addition to bringing in plenty of affordable players to fill in spots on the depth chart, the Union have filled a primary need that ended up hurting them at the end of the season: a replacement for Vincent Nogueira.
The signing of Bosnia and Herzegovina midfielder Haris Medunjanin should fix the issues the Union had in 2016 in finding a defensive-minded midfielder that could be a link between the back four and the front four. Brian Carroll and Warren Creavalle did yeoman’s work in defensive midfield last season, but neither possess the ball-control quality of Medunjanin.
“We want to be a team that has the ball and tries to dictate possession, that’s not always the case, but as a team philosophically we want to be the team that has the ball more,” Curtin said. “Haris is a guy who fits that. We have a great ball winners in Creavalle and Edu and Carroll, but Haris is a guy who brings a little different skill set to the group and one I think will complement the team very well.”
Medunjanin headlines a group of newcomers that also includes Giliano Wijnaldum, Jay Simpson, Oguchi Onyewu, Fafa Picault and Adam Najem. The Union also have plenty of strength in their returning core, led by Alejandro Bedoya and Chris Pontius, both of whom saw time with the U.S. Men’s National Team in its recent friendlies. Second-year defender Keegan Rosenberry, who was cut from the January camp before the friendlies with Serbia and Jamaica, is a part of a young core along with Fabian Herbers and Andre Blake that will look to turn heads once again in 2017.
Here’s a closer look at the 2017 Union:
2016 Finish: 11-14-9 (6th in Eastern Conference)
Key Acquisitions: Giliano Wijnaldum, Oguchi Onyewu, Jay Simpson, Haris Medunjanin, Fafa Picault, Adam Najem
Key Losses: Tranquillo Barnetta, Matt Jones, Leo Fernandes, Walter Restrepo
Newcomer to Watch: Haris Medunjanin. Medunjanin has the potential to be one of the best acquisitions across MLS. The 31-year-old Bosnian is a solid distributor of the ball, and he can control the game from his position in the defensive midfield of Curtin’s 4-2-3-1 formation. The Union struggled to replace the impact of Nogueira in the second half of 2016, and they are hoping Medunjanin is the controlling midfielder Stewart and Curtin want to dictate the pace of play and connect all facets of the lineup.
Pressure Is On: C.J. Sapong. Sapong had a solid start to the 2016 season, but as time went on, his production dried up and the Union suffered from it. The American striker scored twice after May last season, a production level that if replicated will be unacceptable for a team looking to take the next step ahead in challenging for the Eastern Conference title. With Bedoya, Pontius, Herbers, Picault and others playing around him, Sapong should receive plenty of scoring opportunities, but if struggles again, he could be replace by Herbers or Jay Simpson as the Union search for a consistent scoring threat.
Outlook : There’s no doubt the Union have improved on paper, but they will have to go out and answer a few questions early in the season. With Joshua Yaro out at least three months, the club has to find a solid partner for Richie Marquez in the middle of defense. Oguchi Onyewu and Ken Tribbett both have concerns circulating around their potential as a starter in MLS. If one or both of the center backs fills in admirably for Yaro, the Union will be in good shape.
The Union are deep in every midfield position, and the depth chart will only become more backloaded when Maurice Edu returns from his injury bout. When he is healthy, Edu is one of the first names on the team sheet, and he will have a little more freedom on the field with Medunjanin playing next to him. If the Union need extra help in defensive midfield, they have it in Creavalle and Carroll. In an emergency situation, Edu could drop back to center back.
Pontius was one of the great stories of the 2016 season and he should only get better with more talent combining with him in the attacking midfield trio of the 4-2-3-1. Now that he’s had a full MLS offseason under his belt, Bedoya should make a bigger impact on the Union midfield, most likely from the No. 10 position when Edu is healthy. The other wing position could go to either Fabian Herbers or Fafa Picault. Curtin noted Herbers fitness in the early stages of postseason, but he is also high on the speed of Picault.
Herbers could also become a valuable option at the forward position late in games, which is why he may end up being a better option off the bench in relief of Sapong. Unlike last year, the Union have a goal scorer at the ready on the bench in Simpson to provide support or relief for the team’s top striker.
On paper, the Union look like a lock to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, but that will be a harder task than it seems with the addition of Atlanta United and the strengthened squads of teams that finished below the red line, like the Chicago Fire.
Winning the East isn’t impossible for the Union, but that’s a year or two away in all reality. A playoff berth is the expected goal, and that should be accomplished. Look for the Union to finish anywhere between third and sixth and contend to win a playoff series.