Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Union
It sounds like what a supervillain in a pulpy summer movie might call the second stage of his master plan to take over the world.
Or, alternatively, it’s what Jim Curtin calls this part of Philadelphia Union’s preseason, when the team will play a couple of scrimmages in Clearwater and train until Friday. After a quick return to Philadelphia, they’ll head back to Clearwater for the Rowdies Suncoast Invitational — the last preseason matches before first kick in Vancouver.
Now, Curtin’s second phase might not be motivated by any evil intentions. (Of course, we can’t say for sure.) But it is an important step towards putting together an attack at MLS Cup 2017. With what Curtin has described as one of the deepest Union sides ever — “To get into our 18 this year will be a very big challenge,” he said Friday — there will be a lot of competition to figure out who the best XI are.
Here’s a quick look at the five most interesting positional battles that Curtin will be keeping an eye on during Phase Two. One note: I’m leaving out the center of midfield in this post. The health status of Maurice Edu really complicates things, and we simply don’t have enough information about where the coaching staff sees as Alejandro Bedoya’s best position. So — for now — let’s put that one to the side.
C.J. Sapong carried the load last year for the Union, starting 29 of the team’s 34 MLS games. Yet Sapong struggled down the stretch, finishing with just 7 goals on the year. That’s two fewer goals than 2015, despite playing nearly 600 more minutes.
The new import is Englishman Jay Simpson, an Arsenal academy product with a long history in the Championship and League One. Simpson just arrived in Clearwater late last week, and Curtin sounded eager to see what he brings to the table.
The scouting report on Simpson suggests that these two have different skill sets. Where Sapong is a bruising No. 9 who looks to hold up the ball and score through sheer physicality, Simpson offers more finishing skill and guile in the box. Though it’s unlikely Earnie Stewart envisions Simpson as a bench player, he’ll still have to earn the coach’s trust in training. The tiebreaker for Curtin is often defensive play, so if Simpson can’t come close enough to Sapong’s defensive work rate, we might see more of C.J. to start the season.
Charlie Davies is also on the team.
Both Fabian Herbers and The Artist Formerly Known as Ilsinho came into camp with something to prove. The second-year pro faded regularly at the 60-minute mark in his first professional season, even while he exceeded the expectations many observers had for him. The Brazilian struggled with fitness and injuries throughout the campaign, flashing tantalizing glimpses of his exceptional skills between stretches in street clothes.
Both have impressed Curtin so far. The manager called Herbers “the sharpest guy in training,” pointing out how much his fitness has improved over the last year. Ilson Jr., meanwhile, is down eight pounds from last year, and Curtin praised his fitness as well.
The solution here might be matchup-based. Curtin mentioned that the Union might play different lineups at home and on the road this year. Herbers is more of a “road” player because of his defensive qualities, and Ilson is more of a “home” player. My gut feeling is that Curtin trusts Herbers and would like to play him more often, but I expect this to be a spot where both players will see a lot of minutes this year.
After his best season in a Union shirt, it looked like Fabinho had cancelled his one-way rocket journey to the sun once and for all. But, in a somewhat surprising move, Stewart brought in a young player from the Dutch league to challenge for his spot.
Giliano Wijnaldum, the new Dutch left back, is this year’s co-winner of the “Most Difficult Last Name To Spell Award” along with Haris Medunjanin. Other than that his brother plays for Liverpool, I can’t say I know too much about Wijnaldum. But he wouldn’t have been signed if the Union didn’t envision him supplanting Fabinho, whether this year or in the future.
This preseason will give Curtin a chance to figure out what qualities Wijnaldum brings to the table. If he can pair Fabinho’s speed and attacking instincts with more composure and defensive consistency, the young Dutchman will likely end camp in the starting back four.
The 2016 Union never settled on a solid center back pairing. With Josh Yaro and Ken Tribbett rotating alongside Richie Marquez, chemistry on the back line ebbed and flowed as the season went on.
Tribbett’s miserable playoff performance left a bitter taste in the mouth all offseason, and he faces a tall task to claim a starting spot in the lineup. Yaro has more speed and ball skills and should be the first choice in his second season in the league. The wild card is Oguchi Onyewu, who Curtin praised as “playing center back at a very high level” early in the preseason. Onyewu is the Union’s tallest player, which negates Tribbett’s biggest advantage over Yaro, and has more experience than every other center back on the roster combined.
Marquez and Yaro are the presumed starters, but expect Onyewu, Tribbett, and Auston Trusty (in that order) to push them for playing time. I’d expect the latter two to be playing a lot of games in Bethlehem this year.
For the first time ever, the battle to make the game-day 18 might be as fierce as the battle to make the starting lineup. Curtin will only have six spots to allocate to field players, so there will be some excellent players watching each match in street clothes.
Let’s use this two-deep to illustrate the point.
— Peter Andrews (@pfandrews) February 2, 2017
If you assume that the team on the left is the “starters,” you can only pick seven of the eleven players on the right for the bench. If that’s Sapong, Roland Alberg, Herbers, Warren Creavalle, Onyewu, Fabinho, and John McCarthy, then your street clothes squad is Charlie Davies, Fafa Picault, Brian Carroll, Tribbett, Ray Gaddis, Auston Trusty, Derrick Jones, and Eric Ayuk.
Those are some good players on the street clothes squad! There will be real decisions at the back end of the roster every week, and Phase Two is a crucial chance for these players to show that they deserve a reserve role. Chaos is a ladder, and the opportunistic player will stake a claim as soon as possible.