Question the First
A healthy portion of the Union's success this season has been driven by a marvellous rookie class. Keegan Rosenberry was an all-star in his first season and should be a primary contender for the Rookie of the Year award, while Fabian Herbers, Ken Tribbett, and Josh Yaro have all been solid contributors. Andre Blake is not strictly speaking a rookie, but his stepping into the starting position has undoubtedly been a factor as well. Yaro will miss out on Saturday after his red card on the weekend, but what has this quintet of young players brought to the side and has their progression led to the belief that this year's success is not a one-off, but more the building of a foundation upon which future success can be built?
All five have shown potential, with Rosenberry and Blake being among the best (if not the best) at their position in MLS. Their starting the MLS All-Star Game speaks volumes to how good those guys are and can be. I feel like while not at the level of Rosenberry and Blake, the other three have worlds of potential that you're seeing being refined as the weeks go on. Fabian Herbers has been solid on the right wing while Ilsinho has been returning from injury, and I think his ability to play right wing, forward, or attacking midfielder is very valuable in a league where most players are expected to be able to play a couple of positions well. Ken Tribbett and Josh Yaro have had their ups and downs, just like every other rookies in the league. Tribbett had an awful game last time out against Toronto, and hopefully he can use that as motivation to do much better this time around. Similarly Josh Yaro had a poor performance last week against the Portland Timbers, and hopefully the week off will allow him to regain some focus. When he's been on, he's been a huge asset for the Union, and it's been good watching him develop from a guy who relies solely on his speed into a guy who values positioning in addition to his speed.
When you look at how young these guys are, it's hard not to be a little bit excited about the future of this club. I am hopeful these guys will be the cornerstone of this franchise for many years to come, however I can see Blake and Rosenberry especially making moves abroad to bigger clubs.When and if this happens, I feel like the Union are in a position to rebuild mostly from within, as the Academy and Bethlehem Steel FC provide a clear path to becoming a professional soccer player and these teams are stocked with talent.
Question the Second
Something uttered in various MLS circles this season has been, regardless of where they finish in the standings, the Philadelphia Union are a dangerous playoff team. With a solid defensive unit, strong goalkeeping, and a much-varied attack with a plethora of weapons, such a statement seems apropos. What is it that makes the Union such a potentially troublesome opponent, who are some of the players who can step up into starring roles, and what would be a satisfactory end to 2016?
At the beginning of the year, most Union fans were just looking at being better than 2015. Not finishing third-worst in the league again. Playoff elicited a Jim Mora-esque response from the fans around here. But success breeds confidence, and expectations have shifted. Now if the Union don't make the playoffs, the season will be considered a failure. And personally I don't have any expectations if (I am not going to be the guy who jinxes this) the Union make the playoffs simply because only Brian Carroll remains from the 2011 team that made the playoffs. We just don't know what this team is capable of in the playoffs, and that's exciting and terrifying all at once.
What we do know is that this team is capable of scoring on any one at any time - with 49 goals scored the Union are fourth in the league. The hardest part is that there's no one standout goalscoring threat. Goals can come from anyone. 12 players have scored this season for the Union, and only Chris Pontius has more than ten goals. That being said, I think CJ Sapong has to step up if the Union are going to make a deep run into the playoffs. Sapong has 7 goals on the year, however he only has two goals since May 20. While the Union get scoring from everyone, they can't continue to rely on scoring by committee.
I think that someone on the defense is going to have to step up as well, be it Josh Yaro, Ken Tribbett, Warren Creavalle, or the (possibly?) returning Maurice Edu. Someone is going to have to come in and be the guy that plugs the gaping holes that have allowed 47 goals on the season - fourth worst in MLS. Yaro, Tribbett, and Creavalle have all shown flashes of that this season, and Edu is certainly capable of being that guy, but one or more of them is going to have to take that responsibility and run with it.
Question the Third
When the top hotbeds for player development are mentioned, places like New York City, Los Angeles, and Dallas get the nod. Toronto is widely seen as having huge potential here north of the border. With TFC legend Dan Gargan – Release the Gargan! - a product of the Philadelphia soccer scene, what is the potential of the soccer landscape in the area? Also, the Union, like Toronto, have a USL side in Bethlehem Steel FC, and must similarly compete with a variety of other major sports for attention in the local media market, how have the Union navigated both the media and player development pathways, and how has the USL partnership – both with Bethlehem and Harrisburg City, previously – benefited the club?
The Delaware Valley (which encompasses the Philadelphia area as well as the suburban counties in Pennsylvania to the south and to the west as well as Southern New Jersey and Northern Delaware) is a hotbed of soccer talent, rivaling Southern California, Dallas, and Northern New Jersey. Tons of former and current TFC players are from this area. Dan Gargan is a Philly guy, as is Bobby Convey. Michael Bradley was born in Princeton, New Jersey - roughly 75 km from Philadelphia. Jon Conway is from Media, just outside of Philadelphia. This area has a long history of producing great players, and the Union are certainly eager to tap into that resource. There are plenty of youth clubs in the area, and the Union have formed partnerships with most of them. The Academy is comprised of kids from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware as well as kids from outside of the area. The best go to the Union's high school, where a school curriculum is scheduled along with soccer practice sessions.
If a kid is talented enough in the Academy, the Union now have Bethlehem Steel FC in the USL where they can be signed to play alongside of USL veterans, other Union prospects, and Union first team guys who aren't getting many minutes or are rehabbing from injury. This allows the kid to develop under the Union's umbrella in the Union's system with Union coaches and players. Before with the Harrisburg City Islanders, players were loaned out and played with players who may or may not have known the Union's system and under coaches hired by HCI, not the Union. The facilities at HCI are substandard - they practice at a local middle school and played home matches at a dilapidated stadium that didn't even have washrooms. BSFC changed that. The players now train with the Union at their brand new facilities with Jim Curtin and the rest of the first team. This is all fairly new to the Union, however we're starting to see the fruits of that labor already, as the Union signed Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty to contracts via the Homegrown Player mechanism. Both of these players came up through the academy, excelled with Steel, and signed pro contracts.
As far as the local market goes, it's very different from Toronto. When I've visited Toronto, TFC is pretty well covered by major television and print media outlets. Here in Philadelphia, that coverage is much smaller. There's precious little television coverage - our local news doesn't show Union highlights but once in a while and never talks about player movements or other things that you'd see with the Eagles or Flyers (or in your case, Argos or Leafs). There are a few print outlets that cover the Union. The biggest outlet that provides regular coverage is Jonathan Tannenwald and Marc Narducci of Philly.com, while the rest is done by minor newspaper outlets (Matt De George and the Delaware County Times provides great Union coverage) and bloggers such as us at Brotherly Game and Kevin Kinkead of PhillyVoice.com Media coverage is even scarcer beyond the first team, especially for Bethlehem Steel FC since they're outside of the Philadelphia market. Brotherly Game is the only outlet that has consistently covered BSFC from their inception and continues to do so today - a fact that I am immensely proud of. Same with the Youth Academy. We were covering Keegan Rosenberry two to three years when he was still at Georgetown.
I feel like part of this dearth of coverage on some level has to do with Philadelphia's big four teams having decades to grow and ingrain themselves in the sporting and media landscape in this town, and the Union are only in their seventh season (and were terrible for five of the previous six). I feel like the Union are making good strides in getting themselves into the forefront of the local media, and having a winning team will also go a long way in helping that. It seems like the pieces for the Union to become part of that landscape are all here - a deep-rooted culture of soccer, a city of passionate sports fans, and plenty of media who aren't completely ignorant to the game. Whether or not it can all come together is just a matter of time.
Many thanks to Eugene for taking the time to provide some quality insight into the Union – he can be found on twitter @GolazodelGringo. WTR's responses can be found here and be sure to check out The Brotherly Game for all the latest Philadelphia news heading into the match - their twitter handle is @BrotherlyGame.