The Philadelphia Union took a step forward in 2016 under first-year Technical Director Earnie Stewart. While Jim Curtin may be the one with the Head Coach title, anyone who has paid attention to Philadelphia this year knows that Stewart is the one calling all the shots in the city of Brotherly Love. During his first year, we saw drastic changes for the Union. For the first time in the club’s history, they were aggressive in player negotiations and went toe to toe with the big guns of MLS to acquire their targets. Despite Stewart’s efforts to change the players and culture, the Union stumbled into the playoffs after finishing the season in terrible form. There is no doubt that this team still needs help in a couple of key areas if they are to compete with the likes of the Red Bulls, NYCFC, and Toronto for power in the eastern conference. But after witnessing Earnie Stewart’s willingness to bring in the players he wants, Philadelphia fans have no reason to believe he will not do all he can to fill the teams obvious gaps for 2017.
Ken Tribbett is not a starting center back in MLS. Period. The former Harrisburg City Islander was originally under contract with the Union’s USL club, Bethlehem Steel, for 2016, but after impressing Curtin and his staff in preseason, earned a contract with the big boy club. Tribbett went on to play significant minutes for Philadelphia (1,727 in 22 games) and Earnie Stewart needs to upgrade his position in order to bring the club to the next level. They might have something in Josh Yaro, but after a slow start and injury troubles, the jury is still out on whether or not last year’s 2nd overall pick will develop into a formidable defender in MLS. Michael Parkhurst is currently out of contract with the Columbus Crew and we could see Stewart make a push to acquire Parkhurst to lead his young backline but the former USMNT player will certainly be on the radar of multiple other MLS clubs. If the Union is unable to bring in Parkhurst or another experienced MLS defender, Stewart will use his connections overseas to find the defender he needs. A starting center back is the number one priority for this club right now; it would be shocking to see Tribbett or Yaro starting next to Marquez in the 2017 season opener.
For most of 2016, CJ Sapong was the only true striker the Union had on their roster. Fabian Herbers and Chris Pontius have played as a striker in the past, but are both more comfortable playing out on the wing. To fill the need of striker depth, Earnie Stewart traded for longtime American soccer favorite Charlie Davies. After just coming back from cancer and missing several months, the Charlie Davies we saw in Philadelphia was understandably not the Charlie Davies US Soccer fans were accustomed to seeing. Now heading into 2017, striker depth remains an area of concern for the Philadelphia Union. Davies is expected to negotiate a new contract with Philadelphia, return to the Union and could provide that needed depth. If he is able to find his form again and be even just half the player he once was, Davies could be a real boost to the side and compete with Sapong for the starting role. However, given that it is unknown whether or not Davies will ever return his form, Union fans should fully expect Earnie Stewart to shop for a striker this offseason.
There are multiple other positions where we could see the Union make changes heading into 2017. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Philadelphia look to upgrade the left back role that is currently occupied by the inconsistent Fabinho or pick up a dynamic central midfielder to add depth. Such moves would undoubtedly improve the team going forward but do not require the attention that center back and striker do. The truth is you never know with Earnie Stewart. His aggression and commitment to doing things his way took the league by storm in 2016 and there is no reason to believe he will not continue to do the same until his project in Philadelphia looks just the way he wants.