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

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Peering into the crystal ball for the Union's 2016 season

So numerous are the illustrations of change within the Philadelphia Union that the numbers no longer astound. Yet 365 days from the 2015 season opener, one more stat about the tumult and Earnie Stewart-overseen cleanout seems worth mentioning.

Thanks to a bevy of new arrivals like Fabian Herbers, left,
Vincent Nogueira is one of the few holdovers from last season's
Union lineup. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)
Of last year’s starting XI for the opener against Colorado, six are no longer with the Union. Coupled with Maurice Edu’s injury absence and (depending on who you ask) the tenuousness of certain veterans’ spots, it’s possible that CJ Sapong and Vincent Nogueira are the only two players to start consecutive openers.

Stewart’s rebuild is still in the nascent phases (Josh Yaro is to the Union as Michael Carter-Williams was to the Sixers?), and the club opted for the prudent course of building for the long term instead of spending more on short-term patches.

Those tempered expectations portend another season of playoff-free soccer at The Stadium Formerly Known as PPL Park, even if the elements thereof contain more redeeming and hopeful qualities.

For mocking purposes, here’s my prediction for the Union’s 2016 result:
11-13-10, 43 points, 8th in the East
The Union will improve. They’ll capitalize more often on opportunities afforded by MLS’s schedule, like games when none of LA’s designated players want to fly east or when Toronto has four guys on international duty. They’ll drop fewer points from leading positions, their hallmark. They’ll threaten for the playoffs before fading as other teams get serious and pull away.

But they also lack the firepower to consistently collect wins. Having Sapong as the lone striking option isn’t dire if the midfield responds by creating chances more consistently than last season (or if they splash some cash in the summer, maybe for some guy whose name rhymes with “Blatan”). Andre Blake’s stability in goal will be an unfamiliar yet appreciated boon.

By the end of 2016, the goal should be for the Union to have fewer liabilities within the squad and have identified the path toward remedying them and achieving regular playoff contention.

And now, league-wide predictions:

Eastern Conference

After stumbling in last year's MLS Cup final, Ethan Finlay
and the Crew are poised to be back in the picture again. (AP)
1. Columbus. Kei Kamara is paid and happy. Ethan Finlay is getting his due in the national team picture. The Crew hit their stride last year, and if Wil Trapp features more this year than last, the Crew are Supporters Shield contenders.

2. Toronto. The Big 3 are back, and even if Sebastian Giovinco doesn’t ascend the heights of last year’s MVP campaign, the rebuilt defense should even out the peaks and valleys to help the Reds collect points more consistently.

3. New York Red Bulls. The Red Bulls have won the Supporters Shield twice in three years. Any drop off this season in replacing Matt Miazga promises to be slight within a Jesse Marsch system designed to exceed the sum of the individuals.

4. Montreal. If Didier Drogba replicates what he did late last season over 30 (or because of turf, 26) games, the Impact will compete for MLS Cup. Smart offseason additions mean that the Impact are more than just a one-man team.

5. New England. The injury to DP acquisition Xavier Kouassi puts a damper on their offseason, but the passel of attackers entering their primes jelling for another year should eliminate some of the nagging inconsistency of the past.

6. Orlando City. The Lions threatened for a playoff place in their expansion year. While Cyle Larin may suffer a sophomore slump, less roster upheaval and more time for a young nucleus to coalesce should portend improvement.

7. New York City FC. The defensive issues have been addressed, and the team seems closer to competing. But accommodating Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard in the same midfield hasn’t become any more conducive to winning.

8. UNION. Earnie Stewart has improved the team in his first offseason at the helm. He’s positioned them well for the future. But those gains won’t yet bridge the sizeable gap between the Union and the ever-increasing standard for playoff inclusion.

9. D.C. United. With no replacement for Perry Kitchen, D.C.’s group is another year older and not that much wiser. The Ben Olsen hoodoo on opponents started to wear off last year, and this might be the year all the narrow escapes catch up to D.C.

10. Chicago. Vjelko Paunovic’s rebuilding project is on the order of years. He’s cleared out some lots of dead weight on the Fire roster, and David Accam is a valuable piece who will attract international transfer attention, but there are no expectations of an instant turnaround.

Western Conference

Kekuta Manneh, left, the the Whitecaps
are primed for a stellar season. (AP)
1. Vancouver. The Whitecaps are one of the most daunting trips in the league. They have so many pieces back from a squad that started to flourish last year, and that continuity should yield wins with alarming regularity.

2. FC Dallas. Dallas will contend for MLS Cup. After winning the West last season, their youthful core can still improve. The only reason for pessimism is the possibility of a hiccup if a foreign club woos Mauro Diaz or Fabian Castillo this summer.

3. Seattle. Jordan Morris will have a role instantly with the Sounders, breathing new life into a side that seemed to stagnate last year. The regular season is just an elongated exercise in ramping up, since it’s MLS Cup or bust this year.

4. Portland. The reigning MLS Cup champs could experience a slight hangover. But they struggled early last year, too, and with the bulk of the team back and strategically reinforced, the Timbers will be in the conversation once again.

5. L.A. Galaxy. There’s too much talent for the Galaxy not to make playoffs, even while trying to replace Omar Gonzalez, finding a role for the aged Steven Gerrard and keeping the disciplinary report from being renamed in Nigel De Jong’s honor.

6. San Jose. The Earthquakes finally seemed to hit on something a little too late to salvage last year’s season. Dominic Kinnear knows how to win in MLS, and if they can maintain the same strong spine while finally unlocking Tommy Thompson’s potential, maybe the playoffs are in the offing.

7. Real Salt Lake. The dependence on Jamison Olave, whose knee ligaments are one tackle from oblivion, to anchor central defense is concerning. The return of Yura Movsisyan could be invigorating, but he’s struggled to score in MLS before.

8. Sporting Kansas City. SKC is better in most respects. Their defense is healthy, they have a bevy of MLS effective midfielders. But they didn’t replace the wing scoring of Krizstian Nemeth, which puts an uncomfortably large burden on Dom Dwyer after a lackluster season.

9. Houston. Owen Coyle is accruing pieces. But how they all fit together remains a question that requires time. Will Bruin could have a crazy breakout season to keep them in contention, and while they won’t be easy to play against, that doesn’t a playoff team make.

10. Colorado. Shkelzen Gashi could be one of the big surprises in MLS this year, and the Rapids season is in a holding pattern until the Tim Howard rumors resolve themselves. Stockpiling young talent bodes well, but the rebuild shows no signs of abating, even if Jermaine Jones makes it more interesting.

MLS Cup: FC Dallas over Red Bulls.

Supporters Shield: Columbus.

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