Low expectations, high upside. In the early stages of the 2016 MLS off-season, the Philadelphia Union faithful had these words already picked out. After the firing of former general manager Nick Sakiewicz last October, the scramble to find a new path began. The team hadn’t made the playoffs since 2011 and needed a new identity. The pathway was soon found when former U.S men’s international Earnie Stewart was named Sporting Director of the club.
Philadelphia Union 2016 Season Review
Coming from AZ Alkmaar, Stewart has a track record for playing soccer’s version of “moneyball.” In that limited money being used is towards cheaper players with redeemable skill sets. Rather than using larger amounts of money on a big named player. With this mindset now ingrained into the club, it was time to put it into action.
In the offseason, multiple trades and signings were made that shaped the future of the club. Let’s start with the MLS draft. Having already earning the third selection in the 2016 MLS Superdraft, the team made two trades in the off-season to gain the second and sixth slot in the draft. In the process, trading away Cristian Maidana to the Houston Dynamo.
With the first draft pick of the night, the Union drafted centerback Joshua Yaro from Georgetown. Yaro was touted as one of the best prospects in the draft combine and in the NCAA in general. What came next shocked the MLS. Defender Brandon Vincent was sought after and when the trade was made for the second spot, fans assumed the team would go Yaro/Vincent. Instead, the Union used that pick on Keegan Rosenberry. Another defender and again from Georgetown. Most fans were shocked and confused. How could the Union pass on a player who was in the U.S national team camp that same month? Only time would tell to see if that decision was worth it. With the sixth pick, the Union selected forward Fabian Herbers from Creighton. Herbers was the highest rated forward in the draft and was the last piece of the draft puzzle for the Union.
Outside of the draft, key additions were made that helped build the club for the future. To start off, the Union made a trade with D.C United to acquire Chris Pontius. Pontius had been ravaged with leg injuries in the 2014 and 2015 seasons and D.C needed to let him go. Next in the acquisitions list was Roland Alberg. Earnie Stewart kept his eye on the Eredivisie and bought Alberg from Ado Den Haag in January. Alberg, a midfielder, was another piece of the puzzle for the seemingly stacked midfield core. Ilsinho came next as a free agent signing. The Brazilian midfielder had gotten out of his contract from Ukrainian powerhouse Shakhtar Donetsk and was searching for a new club
Mid season the team made the biggest signing in club history when they bought U.S national team player Alejandro Bedoya from FC Nantes. This signing was needed due in part to the departure of French midfielder Vincent Nogueira. A loss that was more impactful than what was first thought. Bedoya joined the club and slid into Nogueira’s old role in the number eight spot. A deadline trade for Charlie Davies from New England Revolution boosted the striker position.
It really was a tale of two halves for the regular season. The team started the season off in Dallas against F.C Dallas. A 2-0 loss was already enough and fans started to panic. The very next week, a brace from Chris Pontius earned the Union a 2-1 win in Columbus against the Columbus Crew. The very next week, a 3-0 win in the home opener against the New England Revolution meant something was clicking within the club. The club got to June in an unfamiliar position. The Union were first place in the Eastern Conference. They were first in goals scored and among the league best in goals allowed.
And then the Copa America break happened. And then the departure of Vincent Nogueira happened. And that’s when things took a dive. The team, especially the defense, could not regain their form from before the break and it showed. In the last 18 games of the season, the team allowed 35 goals, or just under two goals per game. The team did not win any of their last seven games. The last win occurring at home against Sporting K.C. They went from first place in conference, to barely making the playoffs by goal differential in sixth place. A playoff birth is a playoff birth though and the Union were in the playoffs for only the second time in their history.
Earlier in the season, Toronto F.C and the Union faced each other twice. The first meeting was a 3-1 win for Toronto in Chester, PA. The second time was a 1-1 draw in Toronto. The game would be held in Toronto. Prior to the game, memories of defender Ken Tribbett committing major mistakes were still fresh. And with Josh Yaro out, the team had to play Tribbett. The Union had not won in seven games and to go into Toronto looking for a win looked like a tall task. The task became to much as Toronto handled the Union 3-1. The first goal came from Sebastian Giovinco off a Ken Tribbett and Andre Blake mistake. The second goal from Toronto came from Jonathan Osorio after he went unmarked in the box. The Union lone goal came from Alejandro Bedoya from a corner kick. Toronto’s last goal came from a mishandle in the box by you guessed it, Ken Tribbett. The Union would crash out of the playoffs, but the fact they even made they playoffs shocked the MLS and went above expectations.
Despite the lackluster end of the season, three Philadelphia Union players earned league wide recognition. To start off, Keegan Rosenberry won the individual MLS Fair Play award. Having played every single minute of the regular season and not acquire a single card even as a defender is quite remarkable and was one of the leading factors in being awarded. Chris Pontius won the Comeback Player of the Year award. After earning career highs in minutes played and assists and tying a career high of 12 goals, his career reignited with the club and seem to be the most likely to win the award. Goalkeeper Andre Blake won MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award. Blake was stellar all season and was a huge reason for why the Union had such success early on.