2016 MLS season preview: Philadelphia Union

With a new front office and revamped roster, there's a great deal more optimism surrounding the Union as the 2016 season approaches.

2015 regular season: 9th Eastern Conference (18th overall)

MLS Cup odds: 75/1

Players in: Chris Pontius (D.C. United, trade), Walter Restrepo (New York Cosmos, undisclosed), Anderson Conceicao (Tombense, loan), Joshua Yaro (SuperDraft), Keegan Rosenberry (SuperDraft), Fabian Herbers (SuperDraft), Roland Alberg (ADO Den Haag, undisclosed), Matt Jones (Belenenses, loan), Taylor Washington (SuperDraft), Cole Missimo (SuperDraft), Ken Tribbett (Bethlehem Steel), Ilsinho (free)

Players out: Cristian Maidana (Houston Dynamo, trade), Andrew Wenger (Houston Dynamo, trade), Fernando Aristeguieta (FC Nantes, loan return), Dzenan Catic (option declined), Conor Casey (option declined), Fred (option declined), Danny Cruz (option declined), Antoine Hoppenot (option declined), Ethan White (New York City FC, trade), Steven Vitoria (Benfica, loan return), Eric Bird (option declined), Jimmy McLaughlin (option declined), Zac MacMath (Colorado Rapids, trade), Michael Lahoud (New York Cosmos, loan), Zach Pfeffer (Colorado Rapids, trade)

An impressive end to the 2014 campaign after Jim Curtin replaced John Hackworth as head coach had some tipping the Philadelphia Union to make the playoffs in 2015, but things didn’t quite go to plan. A run of just one win in in their first 11 games left them constantly playing catch-up, and after being beaten in the US Open Cup final for the second straight year in September, Curtin’s injury-hit squad went on to finish 12 points off a postseason berth.

New general manager Earnie Stewart is now spearheading the rebuilding process, but while things look to be going in the right direction, few are expecting miracles in 2016.

Reasons to be positive

The Union made arguably their biggest move in club history last summer with the signing of Switzerland international Tranquillo Barnetta, and with playmaker Cristian Maidana since traded to the Houston Dynamo, he and offseason arrival Roland Alberg will likely split time in the No. 10 spot. While Maidana was unquestionably a creative genius, he was also a luxury player who proved a huge liability defensively, and the personnel switch should help the midfield be a bit more compact in 2016.

New wingers Chris Pontius and Ilsinho will also add some more quality on the flanks, while the midfield could be further boosted if skipper Maurice Edu gets the chance to stay at the No. 6 spot alongside Vincent Nogueira for the full year. The former Rangers man, who is still working his way back from offseason hernia surgery, spent most of 2015 at centre-half alongside the promising Richie Marquez, but he'd undoubtedly be best suited as the player linking the backline with the attack.

The club also had a superb SuperDraft, picking up three top 10 prospects in centre-back Joshua Yaro, right-back Keegan Rosenberry and striker Fabian Herbers, and though it’s unclear how many MLS minutes they'll see this term, they all have the ability to develop into core contributors in the long run.

The same can be said for goalkeeper Andre Blake, who finally looks to have established himself as the club’s No. 1 after struggling with injuries during his first 18 months in MLS.

Trouble on the horizon?

With Nantes loanee Fernando Aristeguieta returning to France, the Union will be relying on C.J. Sapong to lead the line in 2016. The former Sporting Kansas City striker enjoyed an impressive first year at PPL Park while Aristeguieta struggled for form and fitness, bouncing back from a DUI arrest early in the season to bag a career-high nine goals, but there's some doubt about whether he can offer the necessary production to push Curtin’s side up the table. The likes of Sebastien Le Toux, Barnetta, Ilsinho and Pontius should all provide some help in the final third, but that likely won’t be enough to compete with the top teams in the East.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether the club have found a settled solution at centre-back. The previously mentioned Marquez was the team’s unsung hero last season, going from relative unknown to one of the league’s top young defenders, but whether newcomer Anderson Conceicao will prove a reliable starter alongside him is yet to be determined. The Brazilian loanee has previously spent time in Europe with Real Mallorca, but he still enters the league has an unknown commodity after spending the past few seasons playing second tier football in his native country.

Key man: Tranquillo Barnetta

A three-time World Cup veteran and former Bundesliga star, Barnetta has the track record to suggest he could prove a real difference-maker for the Union. The 30-year-old Swiss midfielder showed some clear flashes of his ability over the second half of last year, recording one goal and three assists in 11 appearances, and he should make a much bigger impact this term with a full preseason under his belt.

One to watch: Eric Ayuk

It’s certainly wouldn’t be outlandish to say that Ayuk is the most exciting player the Union have had on their books since entering MLS in 2010. Signed last March following a successful trial, the 19-year-old Cameroonian winger provided plenty of glimpses of his potential during his first season in the States, using his outstanding speed and skill to fearlessly take on opposing defenders. He didn’t put up eye-popping numbers, recording just two goals and two assists in his 14 starts and 14 substitute appearances, but his talent is obvious.

Predicted regular season finish: 8th Eastern Conference

The Union’s roster already looks in a much better place after all the offseason moves, but getting the pieces to gel quickly enough for a playoff push in 2016 will be a tough ask. It’s not out of the question that they could challenge for the sixth seed if everything falls into place, but there are still a few flaws which need to be addressed.

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