Union Open Preseason Camp With Hungry Returning Core, Intriguing Newcomers

CHESTER, Pa. - There were some new faces out there at the Power Training Complex on Tuesday as the Union officially opened preseason camp. And there were some guys missing because of their inclusion in U.S. national team camp (Alejandro Bedoya, Chris Pontius and Keegan Rosenberry) or visa issues (new additions Jay Simpson and Giliano Wijnaldum).

But as the team gathered on a cold, windy day in Chester before it flies south to Florida for the bulk of its preseason next week, this much was clear: almost the entire core from the 2016 season has returned.

For a franchise that's often lacked stability, that was reassuring to head coach Jim Curtin as he looks to build upon the team's first playoff berth in five years - and an early playoff exit that still stings.

"We got a taste of the playoffs last year and we want more," Curtin said following Tuesday's training session. "A good core of them have now played in two U.S. Open Cup finals and the playoffs. And there's a whole 'nother level and next step we need to go to."

The one big player the Union did lose is attacking midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta, who decided to end his career in his native Switzerland. But Roland Alberg or Bedoya could fill those spots, and the midfield should be bolstered by Maurice Edu, who's hoping to return from injury before the start of the regular season on March 5.

Perhaps the best part is welcoming back young players like Rosenberry, Josh Yaro and Fabian Herbers - all of whom had productive rookie campaigns last year and are looking for more in 2017.

"I think guys did really well in the offseason," Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said. "I was very pleased with how they came back. From a general sense, you can see it already, just talking to Fabian Herbers and Josh Yaro … they're at a young age but almost veterans the way they perceive themselves and the way they go about their business."

Rosenberry, too, has those same qualities. But Stewart has yet to welcome in the MLS Rookie of the Year runner-up, who's currently with the U.S. national team in California, along with Pontius and Bedoya. 

Both Pontius and Rosenberry are looking for their first cap when the USMNT plays Serbia on Sunday and Jamaica on Feb. 3. The alternative isn't too bad either - at least from the Union's perspective.

"The hope is that they'll play," Curtin said. "The feedback we've gotten is good. Keegan, it's his first time going through it. Chris is Chris - a great professional that I'm sure is showing well. And Alejandro is a guy in and around a starting spot at all times for the national team. The hope is they get minutes because it would be a great experience. But if they don't, then we get them back here and they'll be confident, flying and fit. It's a win-win."

There were plenty of other guys to help fill their void Tuesday with Curtin calling on some youth academy players as well as some from the affiliate Bethlehem Steel to round out training. Perhaps the most surprising addition was Oguchi Onyewu, a former U.S. national team star who Curtin said was just there to keep his fitness level up.

But even if it's unlikely, Stewart didn't rule out that the player known as "Gooch" could be signed, especially with the team in the market for an experienced center back.

"Never say never," Stewart said. "That's going a bit too far right now. But it didn't take Jim and myself too long to say yes when Gooch asked if he could maintain his fitness. We're open to that. I think Auston Trusty will be better for that, I think Josh Yaro will be better for that, I think Ken Tribbett will be better for that, just by being able to stand next to him, talk to him and speak about the game situation."

On top of signing a veteran center back - Onyewu or not - Stewart is in the market for a new defensive midfielder. The Union also could move to sign Fafa Picault and Adam Najem, two players who are currently on trial. The club appears to be especially high on Picault, who was called into the U.S. national camp as recently as last May. 

"He has a bounce in his step," Curtin said. "He's a guy who can add pace to our wide areas and has played up top as a 9, too. He checks a lot of boxes of someone we need."

Whether or not they sign one or both of those trialists, the Union will likely continue to make moves throughout the rest of the preseason, as they've done in past years. The difference now is those players will be added to a stabler, hungrier locker room.

"The expectations from fans should rise," Curtin said. "Certainly on paper we added good pieces, and I think there's more to come. The roster is still fluid and evolving."

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