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

Monday, January 23, 2017

Out camping: Five positional battles to watch in the Union preseason

The question of Roland Alberg's fitness for the Union's full-time No. 10 job
will be tested this preseason. (AP)
The Philadelphia Union’s first full practice of the 2017 season will take place Tuesday morning at the Power Training Complex. And it will ensure an almost unfathomable level of consistency from the last time the Union assembled in the shadow of Talen Energy Stadium.

Of the 18 players in the squad last October for the Union’s first playoff game in five years against Toronto FC, 17 remain with the club. Ten of 11 starters’ jobs are preserved from last season, Tranquillo Barnetta the lone exception. I don’t even have to check past figures; that’s surely unprecedented for a club where roster churn has been the norm.

As I wrote Monday, the Union have the best of both words. They have the prestige and tangential benefit of three players prepping for the season with the U.S. National Team in its January camp, three who are certainly among the 10 given starters. Fewer regulars means more opportunities to see the contestants for the other slots on the depth chart battling it out.

So let’s look at the five positional battles sure to play out in camp this week and in Florida next month:

Roland Alberg vs. Expectations. Lest you think the Union have everything figured out, consider that one battle dictates several others. (I needn’t remind you how many returning starters Columbus had in place before last season, do I?) Parse the roster and the Dutchman is the only player you’d consider a No. 10, lest Alejandro Bedoya moves up into that spot and somewhat out of position. Doing so leaves the current reserve corps at the No. 8 remarkably thin. So getting Alberg to consistently play the 10 in a 4-2-3-1 system that the Union show little taste for changing is vital. Alberg proved last year he can play excel in spurts; if we allow the benefit of the doubt in his acclimation period to MLS, then the hypothesis to be proven is that he can be for the Union what Barnetta was last year.

Fabinho vs. Gilliano Wijnaldum. To dub this Fabinho’s job to lose would disrespect the work the Brazilian did last season. More apt is that it’s Wijnaldum’s job to win. Earnie Stewart put it bluntly: Wijnaldum didn’t come to MLS to sit the bench. And while Fabinho wasn’t necessarily the weak link in a defense that leaked 56 goals in 35 games last year, his left back spot is as logical a place as any to start searching for reinforcements.
Jay Simpson vs. CJ Sapong. No one said so explicitly, but I’d guess that Simpson isn’t being paid to watch either. For all the early plaudits of the Union’s attack last year, it finished fifth in the East in goals scored. The fact that Sapong scored just once from open play in his last 23 games didn’t just coincide with the club’s flagging offense. Time for Simpson to push the envelope.

Ken Tribbett vs. Josh Yaro vs. Veteran Centerback.
That last name is odd; French I think. In all seriousness, the Union remain committed to adding a veteran on the backline. (It’ll be interesting to see how footedness plays into this, with Richie Marquez as the established starter but only option on the left.) The right center back job oscillated between Tribbett and Yaro last season. The surety is that Yaro will play somewhere to continue his development. Whether that’s at the Union is up to his preseason, and it’s plausible that a veteran would, as much as anything, provide the Union a bench option as the younger defenders play for Bethlehem Steel.

The previous three rely on scarcity. This one is borne of abundance. Chris Pontius, Ilsinho, Eric Ayuk and Fabian Herbers (plus the option of a wide-shifted center forward and the two draftees) offer a bevy of choices for manager Jim Curtin (and there may be more on the way). Ilsinho’s class is more valuable in the post-Barnetta era. Ayuk, at age 20, could be at a pivotal year in his growth. Herbers and Pontius were the Union’s two most consistent attacking pieces last year. Fitting together the puzzle pieces will be a challenge.

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