The 2017 Philadelphia Union season caused fans to feel every type of emotion ranging from A-Z. Despair, intrigue, hope and denial all could explain the sort of emotions that Union fans endured. It was the second season under the rule of sporting director Earnie Stewart with Jim Curtin at the helm. The team underwent a major facelift in terms of new faces. There were more question marks surrounding this team than any other MLS non-expansion teams.
The Union would end up with the same exact record as last season with 11W-14L-9D for 42 points. Whereas last season that was good enough for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, they ended up eighth this season in the surprisingly strong conference.
2017 Philadelphia Union Season Review
New Facilities, New Faces
With contracts expiring and glaring needs in the starting XI, the Union searched overseas to scout new talent.
Arguably the most successful of their new signings was Bosnian international Haris Medunjanin. After signing with the Union from Maccabi Tel-Aviv in Israel, Medunjanin cemented himself as an every game starter. Having appearing and starting in all 34 games, he is the only player on the team to do so. He had a team high 12 assists and two goals, one of which was from a game-winning free-kick against Colorado Rapids. From this success, he is rumored to be linked for a move to an unnamed team in the German second division.
To fix the Union’s lack of a goal scoring striker problem, they signed English striker Jay Simpson from Leyton Orient in England’s third division. The signing was a puzzling one. Why a third division striker? What has he done? Is this a move of brilliance from Earnie Stewart? The move did not seem to pan out in 2017 as Simpson scored just one goal in 22 appearances. It came against Toronto FC at home, the second game of the season. The Union have him on a two-year deal so there is still another year for him to prove his worth.
Giliano Wijnaldum signed with the Union to be the apprentice to the aging and soon to be out of contract player, Fabinho. Wijnaldum, brother of Liverpool midfielder Georgino, trained with AZ Alkmaar’s youth academy where Earnie Stewart came from before the Union. After playing for Go Ahead Eagles in the Netherlands and VFL Bochum in Germany, Wijnaldum signed with the Union on a free transfer. He appeared and started in 13 games this season at left back. With the heavily rumored departure of Roland Alberg to CSKA Sofia, he himself may leave the club due to Alberg being his Dutch companion. This offseason will tell.
Fafa Picault made the switch from FC St. Pauli to Major League Soccer in February on another free transfer. Picault would not see full starting action right away as he would see himself as a substitute five times before starting his first game against L.A Galaxy. 26 of his 28 was spent on the left midfield spot and he would record seven goals and three assists from there.
This honor has to go to C.J. Sapong. After never breaking the double digit goal scoring mark in his seven years in the league, Sapong this season broke the franchise record for goals in a season with 16, surpassing Union great Sebastien Le Toux’s record of 14. This record comes after not starting the first few games in favor of Simpson. He notched two goals in their final game against Orlando City to seal the record. Runner-up for the award goes to Medunjanin.
What Went Wrong?
Multiple reasons can be pointed to as why things went awry for the Union. Regression for multiple key players is one aspect. After having a stellar rookie season, Keegan Rosenberry barely saw game action after a poor start to the season. Keegan was featured in the USMNT January camp after his rookie campaign. It was at this point that his sophomore slump showed. After picking up an injury, veteran Ray Gaddis returned to the lineup and maintained his spot. Rosenberry would see the field again in August to mid-September, but another injury put him out of action. He would be suspended for the last game of the season after what coach Jim Curtin would say “inappropriate social media use.” The post in question has since been removed. Along the lines of the sophomore slump, center back Richie Marquez fell out of action due to an illness and regained his fitness over a long period of the season. He started five of the last six games of the year where their record would be 3-2-1.
Getting off to a slow start is another aspect. Dating back to the 2016 season and into the 2017 season, the Union were winless in 16 straight games. They had the opportunity to break the skid early in the season at home against Montreal Impact. After being up 3-0 at one point in the game, Montreal scored three in a row to salvage a draw. The Union did not register a win for the first eight games. The winless streak would end after a 3-0 win at home against New York Red Bulls, where Sapong would record a hat trick.
What Went Right?
Not a whole lot went right for the club in 2017. Having the same record, the Union from last season increased their goal differential by six goals. C.J Sapong broke the single season goal scoring record and goalkeeper Andre Blake set a career high for clean sheets in a season. Also, the Union’s four game win streak in May established themselves as a possible playoff team for a little bit. A dip in form would put that notion to bed quick. There have not been many silver linings for this season.
How to Contend in 2018
A few positions need to be addressed in the offseason. With the impending departure of Roland Alberg and the Union having some money to spend, for the nth season in a row, a designated player level number ten is needed. The club has needed it for a long time and they have not addressed it yet. With Giliano Wijnaldum possibly leaving and Fabinho out of contract, sign another left back and do not re-sign Fabinho. And after Andre Blake’s standout Gold Cup, the club could sell while the iron’s hot and use some of the money to buy another goalkeeper and use some of said money towards a playmaker. Who they bring in will be the key to next year as this off-season may be the most busy offseason in their now nine year history.