Five ways for Union to improve next season

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Five ways for Union to improve next season

CHESTER, Pa. – For the Philadelphia Union, it’s been hard not to look back at all the points they left on the table over the past eight months.

Those missed opportunities, after all, prevented the club from making the playoffs and caused its season to end on Saturday with a disappointing 2-1 loss to Sporting Kansas City at PPL Park.

But while the Union probably could have gotten a couple of better breaks, finished with a few more points and made the postseason, the harsh truth is this was always a middle-of-the-road MLS team that was never really a championship contender.

So instead of looking back at all of the what-ifs, it’s time to look ahead to what the Union can do to become a championship contender and join the ranks of some of the other elite teams in the league.

Here’s a five-point offseason plan:

1. Keep coaching staff, young core in place
When a team wins only twice in its last 10 games to fall from near the top of the standings into seventh place, it’s natural for fans to want changes. And the axe usually falls on the coach. But while Union manager John Hackworth made some mistakes this season and was painfully stubborn with some of his lineup decisions (hardly playing Kleberson at all until October remains a tough pill to swallow for many fans), he deserves another year as he continues to bring the club forward from the mess that former manager Peter Nowak left behind.

Hackworth’s offseason moves last year to bring in veterans Jeff Parke, Conor Casey and Sebastien Le Toux were good ones, and the team’s young core -- eight of the top 12 players are 26 or younger -- have been mostly thriving under his guidance. And that young core, led by rising stars Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo, Zac MacMath and Sheanon Williams, should only improve next season. The biggest priority should be to keep those players for the long term.

2. Open up wallet for star playmaker
The good thing about the makeup of this Union team is that wholesale changes aren’t necessary. As mentioned above, they have some of the league’s top young talent, which mixes nicely with a few reliable MLS veterans. But all of those players would be so much better if the Union had a premier attacking midfielder. Too often this season the Union relied on crossing and blind runs to try to create offense, lacking creativity in the final third.

What they need is a big-time playmaker that can take on defenders, take shots from distance and have the vision to make the right passes. Naturally, these kinds of players cost a lot of money. Freddy Adu was supposed to be that guy and Kleberson was supposed to be that guy, but in the end, Hackworth had issues with both of those high-priced midfielders. With some more salary cap flexibility, will he bring in someone he likes for that role? Or will the Union try to steer clear of bringing in another Designated Player?

3. Make the draft count
Here’s something to look forward to: Because of a trade that sent Gabriel Farfan to Chivas USA, the Union will have two of the top-six picks in the upcoming MLS SuperDraft, including the second overall selection. And just like the 2010 draft, when the Union landed McInerney, Okugo and the since-departed Danny Mwanga in the first round, the draft will be held in Philadelphia. The MLS draft can certainly be hit or miss, but if the Union are able to land another one-two punch like McInerney and Okugo, they’ll have a lot to look forward to over the next few years.

4. Be flexible and creative
While Hackworth won’t want to trade some of his top players, there are certainly a couple of positions where the Union have the numbers to make some moves. At right back, they’re stacked with Williams and fellow youngster Ray Gaddis, so Hackworth will have to decide whether he wants to trade one of them or make the right-footed Gaddis the permanent left back.

And then there’s the defensive midfield spot, where captain Brian Carroll played all but the final game of the season. Carroll is a great leader, an even better person and an underrated player, but the Union might be better off with Okugo, a natural midfielder, in that spot. Yes, Okugo played well at center back all season, but if they move him into the midfield they could either pick up another center back in the draft, get 2012 captain Carlos Valdes back from his Colombian loan, or move Williams over to center back. For Hackworth, it should at least be a move worth considering.

5. Shed the underdog label
For most of the season, Hackworth and the players talked about not getting enough respect, not being picked to make the playoffs and playing better in an underdog role. While that’s all well and good for a team in Philly -- we do love “Rocky,” after all -- it might be time for them to stop worrying about what other people think about them. If they want to be an elite team, they have to act like it.

CSN, TCN to air 25 of Union's 34 games in 2017

CSN, TCN to air 25 of Union's 34 games in 2017

Twenty-five of the Union’s 34 games in 2017 will be featured on CSN and TCN, as Jim Curtin’s club vies for a second straight playoff berth.

Twenty matches will air on TCN, while five can be seen on CSN. The nine others will be appear across 6ABC, ESPN and FOX Sports 1.

The Union’s season opener on March 5 at the Vancouver Whitecaps will broadcast on TCN and the team’s home opener on March 11 against Toronto FC will air on CSN. The next three games — March 18 at Orlando City SC, April 1 at D.C. United and April 8 vs. the Portland Timbers — will be shown on TCN.

The Union are coming off an 11-14-9 season and their second-ever trip to the MLS playoffs in which they suffered a first-round exit to Toronto FC.

For the Union’s full 2017 schedule, click here.

Union Notes: With Yaro sidelined, 'Gooch' poised to be a starter

Union Notes: With Yaro sidelined, 'Gooch' poised to be a starter

It’s been roughly two years since Oguchi Onyewu last played a professional soccer game. But with Joshua Yaro out for at least the next three months after dislocating his shoulder, Onyewu will likely be the team’s opening day starter when the Union’s 2017 season begins in Vancouver on March 5. 

“Gooch has been really good in the preseason,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said after the team wrapped up a training session from inside the Penn Park Bubble on Monday. “Him and Richie (Marquez) have established themselves as the guys that, at least at this stage, we’ll go with going into this final phase between MLS games.”

Ken Tribbett, who started 19 games a rookie last season, is also “pushing for minutes,” Curtin acknowledged. And 18-year-old Auston Trusty is an intriguing option to perhaps make his MLS debut at some point this season.

But no matter what the Union plan to do, the injury to Yaro will certainly be a big blow. The second-year player, who battled injuries and concussion problems last season, was prepared to make a big leap in 2017 and show the kind of promise that made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 draft.

“Josh is a starter,” Curtin said. “When he’s healthy, he’s established himself as such. It’s a big loss, a speed loss on the backline. It will call upon guys to step up in his absence. Hopefully, we get him back sooner rather than later.”

Calling the injury both “tricky” and “painful,” Curtin knows the recovery process can’t be rushed though. Yaro actually dislocated the same shoulder last May in a game vs. Orlando but the team decided at the time that surgery wasn’t necessary. This time, after Yaro dislocated his shoulder in a non-contact drill about a week-and-a-half ago, they decided to go the surgery route, which they hope will prevent any more issues.

“It’s tough because he plays so aggressive and physical,” Curtin said. “So to be out there a little wounded and already a little undersized is difficult. We thought it was best to get the surgery taken care of. He’s a really important piece we’ll miss but everyone else has to step up.”

For what it’s worth, Onyewu seems more than ready to fill the void. A former US national team star, the 34-year-old center back confidently stated when he was signed: “My ambition and my goal is to start every minute.”

“Looking at things in reality, I’m 34 years old, so I’m not gonna play for another 15 years,” Onyewu added at the time. “But if the question is, ‘Do I have more left in my tank?’ I definitely do. You’re gonna see that this season.”

From New York to Philly
It’s been an interesting last couple of months for Adam Najem, a star player at the University of Akron who bypassed this year’s MLS draft because his homegrown rights were owned by the New York Red Bulls … who then traded those rights to the Philadelphia Union … who then signed him last Wednesday.

But now that a little bit of the uncertainty has passed, he’s ready to make Philly his new home. 

“I grew up a Red Bull fan,” Najem told reporters Monday. “I played there since I was 12 years old. But my heart and everything else is with the Philly Union. I’m gonna give everything I can to the organization. That’s all I’m thinking about right now.” 

Perhaps the most interesting part of Najem’s move from New York to Philly is that his brother, David, is part of the Red Bulls' system.

Might the two siblings face off in a rivalry game down the road?

“We grew up playing against each other all the time — one-vs.-one battles in the backyard,” the Union midfielder said. “It will be fun to see him on the other side of the field.”

The Bosnian has arrived
It’s been nearly two weeks since Haris Medunjanin was signed but the Bosnian midfielder just arrived in Philly this week after working to attain his visa.

Medunjanin, who’s expected to be a major piece in the Union midfield, didn’t practice with the team at Penn on Monday but will fly out with them to Florida on Tuesday for the third and final phase of the preseason and should be available to play in the next three preseason games at the Suncoast Invitational.

In the meantime, he took a physical on Monday and enjoyed a tour of the Power Training Complex, which he told Curtin was better than many training centers he’s seen in Europe.

“He’s excited,” Curtin said. “He really wants to fit in well with the group, which we know he will.” 

Union look to add resident tattoo artist 
The Union’s roster may be just about complete as they prepare for their start of the 2017 season but they are still looking to fill at least one position … a chief tattoo officer.

Wait, what?

Yes, Union vice president of Marketing Doug Vosik announced on CSN’s Philly Sports Talk on Monday that the team would be the first professional sports organization to make such a hire with the person acting as a resident tattoo artist for players and staff.

All interested tattoo artists may apply for the position by emailing portfolio images to tattoos@philadelphiaunion.com.

“This is an exciting initiative for all of us here at Philadelphia Union as we look to provide a revolutionary service for our players and front office, particularly those new to the area,” said Vosik, who will be the first to get a Union tattoo. “Our hiring process begins immediately; we are looking for a partner with a wide variety of talents and skills, and someone who can offer a broad range including American traditional, as well as Japanese, realism, new school and more.”