Only three points separated Montreal from Philadelphia at the end of the 2016 regular season, but what happened after that differed dramatically.
Opening day …
Projected XI -- Blake; Rosenberry, Marquez, Onyewu, Wijnaldum; Medunjanin, Alberg, Pontius, Bedoya, Ilsinho; Simpson.
In the Knockout Round, Montreal eliminated D.C. United and Toronto FC beat Philly to set up an epic all-Canadian conference semifinal won by TFC, 7-5. The Designated-Player power of the Canadian teams certainly shone brightly, yet in the rubble of its playoff fizzle the Union acknowledged that to be more competitive at crunch time, it needed to be more competitive on the training field.
It has added solid players who can vie for starting spots in several positions, and while the starry array on the rosters of conference rivals continues to frustrate Union fans, they should be treated to a better brand of soccer as well as a more competitive one even though playmaker Tranquillo Barnetta has returned to his native Switzerland after two seasons.
The spine of the team has been strengthened by the additions of defender Oguchi Onyewu, midfielder Haris Medunjanin, and forward Jay Simpson. At left back, Giliano Wijnaldum should vie for starting time with Fabinho, Simpson will duel with C.J. Sapong, and American winger Fafa Picault adds depth on the flanks.
Head coach Jim Curtin liked what he saw of Medunjanin and Bedoya in preseason and they seemed to like each other as well. In his 10 appearances after joining Philly last August, Bedoya scored just one goal and didn’t register an assist, and he labored at times to jell within the system.
“Haris’s vision, his passing range, is fantastic,” Bedoya said of the Bosnian who came to MLS from Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv. “It’s easy to play next to a guy like him. He’s a guy that sees the game very well and gives you more confidence to play with someone who’s comfortable on the ball, that you know is going to find you in those spaces. It’s exciting.”
Ilsinho belted a goal from distance in a 2-2 tie with Montreal Wednesday in his battle with Fabian Herbers to win a spot. He reported to training camp about eight pounds lighter than last year and his increased range and energy have impressed the coaching staff.
Waiting in the wings are Maurice Edu and Josh Yaro. Edu missed all of the 2016 season recovering from a tibia stress fracture and fractured fibula; Yaro underwent shoulder surgery two weeks ago and will be out until May or June.
With a stiffer defense and a bit more skill across the board, Curtin believes there will be more possession play and goal-scoring chances this year, and less dependence on spectacular saves from Goalkeeper of the Year Andre Blake.
“We have a very good team, a very deep team, one that the fans should be excited about,” says Curtin. “We have a mix of young and old. We’re certainly going to be fun to watch. We’re going to have the ball a lot and it’s going to be a good group.”Who’s in …
Who’s out …
GOALKEEPERS: Matt Jones. DEFENDERS: Taylor Washington. MIDFIELDERS: Tranquillo Barnetta (St. Gallen/SUI, Free Agent), Leo Fernandes (Tampa Bay Rowdies, Free Agent), Kevin Kratz (Atlanta United, Trade), Cole Missimo, Walter Restrepo. FORWARDS: Anderson Conceicao.