Preseason left the Union faithful with a lot of questions, so many in fact that the most pressing questions were featured in a series of columns before the season started. But now we’re three games in and it’s time to start considering whether any of those questions have been answered. Granted three games isn’t even a tenth of the MLS season, but with no wins in those three, it’s hard to deny that answers need to present themselves sooner rather than later.
…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?
It was too early to make predictions like that when I first wrote that article and a month later it’s still too early. But look at how the Union played against Toronto. Most pundits have the Reds making another deep playoff run, and the Union were in that game the entire 90 minutes. If Bedoya had put away his penalty, or if Mark Geiger hadn’t fallen for Jozy Altidore’s theatrics, the Union probably would have beaten that “guaranteed” playoff team. So if you thought they were postseason bound before, you should feel more confident in that opinion now. And if you never thought they were, you’re going to need a lot more convincing than two draws and a loss could ever show you.
If you’re still not sure you’re probably a rational person. Because, again, it’s only been three games.
The Union don’t need (or have) a player capable of making a Golden Boot run and thus must rely on a collective effort and a lot of things going right. The question is, will it be enough? They need enough players to hit the 5 to 10-goal mark. So who could they be?
At the time, few would argue that this team’s strikers won’t be the answer to this most important of questions. And yet here we are with strikers C.J. Sapong and Jay Simpson as the only players on the scoresheet. Conversely, Chris Pontius’ contributions have been relatively unremarkable and Ilsinho (who appeared to be a real threat on goal in preseason) has been out with injury. We’ve yet to see meaningful minutes from Alberg or Picault, but considering that the Union have played 126 minutes needing a goal, you have to imagine they would have been out there if they could have been the difference. Unless …
This year, Curtin has depth, quality veterans, and rising youngsters. He has a superstar goalkeeper who earns his team points with his own personal highlight reel. His staff of assistants may be light in quantity, but it has quality, with assistant B.J. Callahan’s creative set pieces showing a tangible contribution from a team that includes Mike Sorber, Oka Nikolov, and technical director Chris Albright. Can Curtin and his team put it all together this year?
This one is probably the most important question and Dan Walsh hit the nail on the head when he suggested that “this is likely the year that Curtin either shows he belongs at this level or moves on to other, less blue and gold pastures.” He has been quicker to go to the bench this season, but it’s mathematically impossible for him to have been slower. The starting lineups have been nearly identical in all three games so far, with only Jay Simpson’s injury bringing about a change with C.J. Sapong sliding into his place. But that itself could be a product of injuries, as Ilsinho, Simpson, Yaro, Edu, Davies, Tribbett, and Carroll have all been unavailable for at least one game already this season. So it’s possible this isn’t traditional Curtin thick headedness, rather a shorthanded team making do with what they have available.
Whatever the reason for the frozen lineup, we still need to see more before we start sharpening our pitchforks. This is unquestionably the deepest roster the Union have ever fielded and if a manager costs the team points by failing to take advantage of depth they have no business leading an MLS team. But that depth needs to be available and healthy before any kind of final decision is made.
This season, the Union will look to fill those three positions — for convenience, I’m just going to call them the 6, the 8, and the 10 — without Nogueira for the first time since 2014. The question is simple: Will it work?
None of these questions have definitive answers yet, but we’re seeing the beginnings of an answer for Peter Andrews’ question. At least when it comes to his 6 and 8, Medunjanin and Jones have both exceeded expectations, which is quite an achievement considering how much hype Jones in particular has had to live up to. Medunjanin is no spring chicken, but there’s no reason to expect he can’t keep doing what he’s best at all season long.
But things aren’t so sunny up at #10. Alejandro Bedoya, the highest paid Union player in team history, has failed to be the spark so many of us wanted him to be. That isn’t to say he is to be blamed for the team’s lack of success, he wasn’t brought in to play that position. But his skillset and style of play seem wasted in the position and it’s hard to not think that the team might be better served by putting him to work elsewhere on the field. Replacing Herbers on the wing and putting Alberg in the middle seems to be the most popular suggestion, and while it could be an experiment worth trying it also feels like a waste of talent for both Herbers and Bedoya.
So here we stand with two points after this international break, no closer to answering pretty much all of these questions. But the optimists should not be ignored when they point out that there’s no negative answers as well; someone could still have a breakout year scoring goals, Curtin could lead this team to victory, and with as much talent there is in this midfield, it’s hard to imagine it can’t be arranged for success. And if all that happens (and it very well could) what possible conclusion could there be other than another shot in the playoffs?