A few months after qualifying for the MLS Cup Playoffs for only the second time in franchise history -- which preceded an early postseason exit -- the Philadelphia Union are ready to take the next step in their eighth season of play.
But can the franchise finally win its first-ever playoff game? What can fans expect from the offseason acquisitions? How much better can the team's young core of Andre Blake, Keegan Rosenberry and Fabian Herbers get? Who will be the star? Who will disappoint?
Leading into their season opener vs. Vancouver on Sunday (9:30 p.m., TCN), CSNPhilly.com soccer writers Dave Zeitlin and Ryan Bright break it all down and offer some sure-to-be-wrong predictions for the Union's much-anticipated 2017 campaign.
DZ: Alejandro Bedoya -- Most Union fans probably weren't wowed by Bedoya over the final 10 games of the 2016 season after he was signed. But it's important to remember that midseason acquisitions often struggle to get their footing, especially when coming from Europe. It's also important to remember that Bedoya had a full preseason to mesh with his teammates and get settled in Philly. Oh and one more thing: he's a regular starter with the U.S. national team. If that doesn't translate to MLS success, I'm not sure what does.
RB: Andre Blake -- The reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year has an overall better team in front of him but a shaky-enough backline to give him nightmares. Luckily for the Union, Blake is the fixer. Coming off a good preseason, the Jamaican international will be relied upon to be the team's best player on a nightly basis -- and he'll deliver once again.
DZ: Oguchi Onyewu -- World Cup veteran Haris Medunjanin is an easy choice here, and you can also make the case for English striker Jay Simpson, US national team player Fafa Picault or even rookie Adam Najem. But something says that 34-year-old center back Onyewu will surprise some of the people that assumed his career was over and recapture a little bit of the magic that made him one of the most feared American soccer players of his generation. (Or he'll get hurt and barely play. I immediately regret this decision.)
RB: Haris Medunjanin -- The Bosnian native won't move the needle when it comes to name recognition, but he could be the Union's most impactful ball-mover. Playing deep in the midfield, Medunjanin will be the primary facilitator that links the attack together. He will be a mainstay for the Union all season.
DZ: Derrick Jones -- Union head coach Jim Curtin had a surprise up his sleeve last year when he decided to start unheralded rookie Ken Tribbett in the 2016 opener, and now he appears poised to go with another opening-day surprise starter in 19-year-old midfielder Derrick Jones. It may be tough for Jones to retain his spot in the defensive midfield when Warren Creavalle and Maurice Edu recover from injury. But if Jones -- who Curtin calls the franchise's first true Homegrown signing from their growing youth academy -- is able to deliver some first-team minutes and score a few goals, it would be a very nice surprise for the club's future.
RB: Ilsinho -- Although Ilsinho is a known entity, he will stun the league this season with his goal-scoring prowess. The aging Brazilian has leaned down from his rookie MLS season and has been instructed by Curtin to shoot more, a little-known ability he put on fine display this preseason. Ilsinho will be the goal-scorer the Union didn't know they had.
DZ: Maurice Edu -- It's not unreasonable to ask, at this point, if Edu will ever be healthy again. After being sidelined for the end of the 2015 campaign and all of the 2016 season, he's set to now miss some time at the start of 2017 with his recovery going slower than expected. He's only 30 years old so it's too soon to start thinking about retirement. But even if he does find his way back onto the field, will the former US national team starter be the same player he once was?
RB: Chris Pontius -- Pontius led the Union with 12 goals last season but will disappoint in 2017. The Union will still rely on his finishing ability and he will be a productive asset, but last year's prowess matched with his recent call-up to the U.S. national team's January camp will elevate expectations that Pontius won't be able to reach.
DZ: Roland Alberg's minutes -- When Tranquillo Barnetta decided to leave the Union to finish his career in his native Switzerland, Roland Alberg seemed poised to take that over the starting No. 10 attacking midfield role. But heading into the season, it looks like Bedoya will take that spot as Alberg tries to find some minutes off the bench while maybe competing for time with guys like C.J. Sapong and Ilsinho. After scoring nine goals in only 1,153 minutes last season -- his first in MLS -- how would the talented 26-year-old Dutch midfielder handle an even more limited role this season? Something says he won't like it too much.
RB: Jay Simpson vs. C.J. Sapong -- The battle between Sapong and Simpson for the top striker spot will be pronounced all season long. But the controversy will truly begin when Curtin rides one of his forwards through a slump. If the club's offensive lights go out for an extended stretch, how Curtin manages the forward group will be a very hot topic.
They'll make the playoffs if …
DZ: Bedoya and Medunjanin form the potent midfield combo that Curtin hopes, Pontius continues to carry much of the scoring load, and Blake remains the shot-stopping phenom that wins them points in tough spots.
RB: Onyewu, Richie Marquez and Blake form an unbeatable holy trinity of defense. Scoring goals shouldn't be an issue for Curtin's squad, but giving them up might be. If the center back grouping of Marquez and Onyewu can control play, and Blake can put out enough fires, the Union will win enough games to sneak into the playoffs.
They'll miss the playoffs if …
DZ: Other players join Edu and Joshua Yaro on the injury list, Rosenberry and Herbers endure sophomore slumps, and Simpson and Onyewu prove not to be the right answers at the two trouble spots of striker and center back.
RB: The Eastern Conference is as good as it looks on paper. With impressive looking clubs like Toronto FC, New York City FC, New York Red Bulls, the Montreal Impact and Atlanta United all tightly competing for the postseason, the Union won't have much room for error.
DZ: Considering their only key loss from last season was Barnetta and they acquired at least four potential starting-caliber MLS players, the Union should improve upon last season's sixth-place result. But it's hard to see them climbing higher than fifth place in the East, and another Knockout Round playoff exit seems like the most likely scenario.
RB: Despite adding talent around a solid core and showing a more consistent form, the Union fail to keep up in the East and miss the playoffs by a hair. It won't be a late-season collapse that does them in but an improved conference that remains one step ahead throughout.