Editor’s note: To read each post in the Questions to Answer series, click here.
Making the playoffs isn’t a great indicator of an MLS team doing well. Even with the addition of Atlanta United, over half of the Eastern Conference is going to get to play at least one postseason game, so securing a sixth or even fifth place berth is as much about not doing poorly as it is about doing well.
But none of that matters because, despite attempts to make the Supporter’s Shield relevant, the MLS Cup final is still the definitive answer when someone asks who won the league. And in order to make it to that final, a team has to make the playoffs, so the question facing the Union is the same facing every team in every league in this country:
Will they make the playoffs?
Last year, the Union made the playoffs more due to Orlando City and New England failing to take advantage of a rapidly declining Union than the Union out and out earning their spot. Even though that spot was only good enough for an away loss to Toronto, it still allowed the team and its fans to head into the winter with some positives despite the team’s hapless performance in the second half of the season.
That’s really where we first start to find an answer to our question. If last year’s team was good enough to make the playoffs, then this year’s team must be good enough too.
Bump in the road: Barnetta’s departure
The first bump in the road is the departure of Tranquillo Barnetta. It was an admirable decision on his part to return home to play for his hometown team, and the Union did the right thing allowing it, as it should have cemented the front office’s player-friendly image.
But there is unquestionably a cost to that decision as, in light Jim Curtin’s decision to play Bedoya as a No. 8, there is no clear replacement for Barnetta at the No. 10. No doubt there are players on the team that are capable of filling the role, but it remains to be seen if any of them can deliver same level of play our former Swiss international. That question hanging over the team is the biggest uncertainty this team faces right now, which is concerning considering the uncertainty this team faces at other positions.
Question mark: Striker
Last February, C.J. Sapong set his sights on 20 goals in 2016. As we all know, he came up well short of that. While his holdup play was praised, the simple fact is he scored less than half that, even less than Roland Alberg despite spending over twice the amount of time on the field. The late-season addition of Charlie Davies led many to think a change was coming, but Davies failed to see much time on the field and the season ended without either player finding previously untapped wells of performance.
Heading into the off-season, many thought a major striker would be the obvious use of Designated Player funds. Instead they signed Jay Simpson, an Arsenal academy product who has roughly the same credentials Bradley Wright-Phillips came to this league with. It remains to be seen though whether Simpson will share Wright-Phillips’ sudden elevation of play upon moving to MLS. If he doesn’t, the Union will once again be without an ace goalscorer and playoff ambitions rightfully in question.
Question addressed: Medunjanin
What isn’t uncertain though is that Haris Medunjanin has removed the revolving door at deep midfield, providing the decisive passing and playmaking the team lost with Vincent Nogueira’s departure, paired with a defensive work rate and physical presence that should make him an even more effective player in MLS. He’ll be playing with a fully integrated Alejandro Bedoya, who should really start to pay dividends now that he’s had the time it traditionally takes mid-season DPs to find their bearings in this league. The pair could be a scary unit for opponents and a position of concern from the second half of 2016 might be the most exciting area of the field to watch going forward.
A fairly stable back line
Lastly, the defense is largely unchanged, with all the starters from last year returning and backed up with new reinforcements. Oguchi Onyewu will be providing a veteran presence that should calm some of the nerves that undoubtedly contributed to the rookie mistakes that plagued the young center backs last season. Giliano Wijnaldum, if nothing else, should be ready to take over when Fabinho realizes just how old he’s become. At the very least there is no reason to worry about this back line performing at least to the level of last year, and knowing Andre Blake will be there to compensate for any deficiencies in play might be justification for even a hint of optimism.
Outlook: Is this a playoff team?
In the week before the 2017 season kicks off, Philadelphia Union have a stronger back line than the team that made the playoffs last year, one of the most exciting midfield pairings in the league, and a trio of strikers that are at least as good as last season even if it remains to be seen if they’re good enough. The uncertainty at number 10 is of course a concern, but with the depth of midfield talent on this team it’s unimaginable that some sort of arrangement can’t be found that allows the Union to equal last year’s result. They’re better in several areas and no worse almost everywhere else.
So yes, absolutely, this is a playoff team.