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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Saturday, February 6, 2016

So it begins: Five things to watch in the preseason opener vs. Jacksonville (w/ livestream)

The first game of preseason may mean little in the grand scheme of a lengthy soccer season. But the Philadelphia Union’s inauspicious exhibition start last year ushered in an equally underwhelming campaign.

There’s no causality between the 3-1 loss to Jacksonville Armada 364 days ago and the sluggish start to the MLS season or the disappointing exclusion from the postseason for a fifth time in six seasons. But that doesn’t completely strip Saturday’s return voyage to Jacksonville of meaning. (Livestream is available on the Union's website, and embedded below.)

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

Last year’s meeting was more pertinent for the hosts, playing the first competitive match in franchise history and jumping out to an early lead before 13,000 spectators. It also featured an Andrew Wenger goal, a rare sight that wouldn’t manifest itself in a meaningful game for another five months. Seven of the starters in last year’s game are no longer with the Union (though one never was, to be fair).

So what’s in store this time around? Here are five things to watch for:

Formation. Jim Curtin and his staff have played it coy on committing to a formation. We’re left to speculate that it’ll be a 4-3-3, which seems to fit the personnel, but what will that look like in practice? How will (presumably) Tranquillo Barnetta and Vincent Nogueira space themselves in central midfield? What balances will be struck by wingers like Sebastien Le Toux and Chris Pontius cutting inside? Will the professed desire for fullbacks to get higher up the pitch result in concrete changes? Where does Roland Alberg fit?

Changes in concepts. Earnie Stewart wants the Union to change the way they play in some fundamental ways. Even accounting for lack of sharpness, fitness and familiarity with each other, glimmers of that should shine through. We can get certain indications about certain precepts – ideas like short passing, playing out of the back, schemes for pressuring the ball – are sinking in.

The defensive hierarchy. The draft process likely leaves Joshua Yaro a little more fit than Anderson Conceicao, so no grand declarations if he gets the nod to start the game at center back. But seeing both of those guys play alongside Richie Marquez could give indications as to Curtin’s thinking on pairings.

Trialists? The Union have been uncharacteristically mum about who’s in camp. Last year, their openness on that matter still resulted in the brief dawn and eclipse of the Pape Gassama era. If the Union repeat last season’s tack of utilizing three waves of outfield players in 30-minute shifts, we’ll be exposed to plenty of the candidates.

A little patience. The Union are playing six preseason matches, the other five against MLS opposition. The hefty workload differs from previous years’ sketches, which certainly stems from Stewart’s influence. Last year’s Armada loss was followed by winning the Suncoast Invitational, which led to the disastrous start to the season. Those are the perils of ascribing too much meaning to any result before the games that matter start.

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