The Union lived up to expectations in 2015 – that they’d miss the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year as an Eastern Conference also-ran.
If one theme has dominated in Philly since the Union started as an MLS team back in 2010, it’s instability. That trait rarely does MLS clubs much good. Turnover at the head coaching position and a penny-pinching attitude to roster-building has doomed the Union to a reputation as a poorly run, chronically underachieving outfit.
Fortunately, the committed Union fanbase enters 2016 with reason to hope. After original club president Nick Sakiewicz was ousted by owner Jay Sugarman in October, the team searched for, and found, a quality soccer man to take the reins. Former U.S. international Earnie Stewart, who last ran AZ Alkmaar in Holland, moves back to the United States to help turn the Union around.
The Big Question
Will Earnie’s overhaul bear fruit? The arrival of Stewart has done wonders for the feeling around the Union. Where once was a looming dread that everything would eventually go wrong, a sense that the club is headed in a positive direction now pervades.
That doesn’t mean that the transition from Eastern Conference lesser light to playoff contender will be simple, but at least there’s reason for fans to hope that when the team hits the field in 2016, a semblance of a plan and style will be evident.
Stewart is only just beginning to bring his connections to bear on the Union, and it may take more than one season before his full scheming has the desired effect. Roland Alberg is the only name added to the roster so far that seems to clearly be a Stewart player – otherwise, the club has added talent mostly through the draft and MLS trades.
Identifying a Union newcomer as the key man might seem a little odd, but the play of Chris Pontius will go a long way towards determining the type of steps the team will take this season.
Pontius is a talented player who suffered mightily from injury problems during his time with D.C. United; before a broken leg ended his season in 2011, the Californian was on a path to MLS stardom. If he can regain something of his former form in a new locale, Philadelphia will have themselves quite the steal. The Union shipped an undisclosed amount of allocation money to United for Pontius, though it’s unlikely it cost them much.
Head coach Jim Curtin will be counting on Pontius to use his speed and vision to deliver service to Philadelphia’s strikers. C.J. Sapong, recently signed to a new contract, will be asked to carry the load as the side’s main scoring threat. His success will depend largely on the play of the providers around him. Pontius is the highest-profile addition to that group. In a team likely to play more proactively than they last year, he could shine.
From The Dugout
Jim Curtin is viewed by many to be on the hot seat, but early on he says things are going well with new sporting director Earnie Stewart. “I would say our relationship is very good. The one word I keep going to is that he has provided us with clarity,” Curtin said.
“Clarity of roles, clarity of everyone’s responsibility as a club. There's no gray areas anymore. He made it very clear that the players that I saw as Philadelphia Union players, we would keep here and build around, and the ones that I didn’t we would move on from. There is a clear set of characteristics now that we look for at each position, and how we want to play with our system, the 4-2-3-1 system.”
Curtin hopes that the blend of youth and experience will benefit everyone – not just the Union as a team, but the layers within it. “You can go through every spot and the young guys are pushing the veterans, and the veterans are mentoring the young guys. It’s healthy,” he said. “Sure, at the end of the day, they are competitors and everybody wants to start, be in the XI, but I would say it’s been healthy.”
For example, at striker Curtin has an established No.9 and a promising young back-up. “CJ [Sapong] is a guy who wants to be in Philly. He does everything for the best, he plays for the fans, he plays for the city, and he is a guy that I thought had a very good year last year. If you look at the productivity, if he gets a full 34-game season, he could be a guy that is a double-digit scorer, in that 12-15 [goals] range. I think he is a fix for the team’s No.9 spot. [Fabian] Herbers is a name to mention, he has been excellent in training. He is a guy that I am confident can step into games right now and get goals. So I think we have a good pairing with the two of them.”
From The Locker Room
Midfielder Maurice Edu envisions a brighter future for the Philadelphia Union in 2016. “The door is open for us,” Edu said. “We’ve had enough talent on our team to make the playoffs, but we’ve been a little bit inconsistent. These are all learning experiences.”
After six years in Europe with Rangers, Stoke and Bursaspor, the Californian returned to his homeland with the Union in 2014 and is proud to be a cornerstone for the club. “It’s all about coming about into a situation where you feel wanted,” explained the 29-year-old. “I felt I was going to be a part of something big.”
Pointing to striker Chris Pontius as a welcome reinforcement to the club, Edu emphasized that he wasn’t merely content for his club to improve incrementally. “I’m actually at a point where I feel I just want to win things.”
For Edu, one game in particular last season represented what the Union are really capable of doing. “Against D.C. United in the (Open) Cup, we went down a goal and down a man as well,” Edu said. “The group of guys showed a lot of resilience. It did go a long way; we won and we advanced. If we can show more of that, that’s going to be our key to get in the playoffs.”
This is Home
- TALEN ENERGY STADIUM
- Capacity: 18,500
- Opened: JUNE 27, 2010
- Location: CHESTER, PA
Fan’s Insider Tip
Richard McGovern (@RichardMcGovern): The newly-renamed Talen Energy Stadium sits on the banks of the Delaware River in Chester, Pennsylvania. Let’s get the negatives out of the way; the stadium is at least 30 minutes from downtown Philly, 90 on a weeknight, public transportation options are very limited, and Chester is a struggling community with few bars or restaurants the average fan would frequent.
Making a virtue of necessity, however, is what Philly does, and Union matches offer an experience unlike any other in MLS. Pregaming downtown can be fun, with bars and restaurants running shuttles to the game. One of the best is run by Brauhaus Schmitz, arguably the top German bar on the east coast, where you can catch an early Bundesliga match with a Bavarian breakfast and some US-exclusive beers before heading down to see the Union.
Once you get to Chester, you must hit the Sons of Ben Tailgate. They’re the first supporters’ group to exist before their team set up in their own lot at the southern end of the stadium, and have all the cookout staples, as well as beers from Neshaminy Creek Brewing (JAWN Ale is a way of life) and Dogfishhead. The SOBs also have running cornhole and giant jenga tournaments, and there’s always great music and good kickaround to be found.
Make sure to hit Toyota Plaza on your way into the match for family-friendly fun, with games, giveaways and free samples. Once inside, find a spot on the Dogfishhead River Deck, with a great view of the action on the pitch and in the stands, as the Sons of Ben fill the stadium with energy from The River End.
After the match, hit some local Delaware County places for a late bite and a beer. Pinocchio’s in Media offers some of the best pizza in the area, and if you’re heading south, Two Stones Pub in Wilmington has a great local beer selection.