The year as a whole was certainly a rough one for the Union, who missed out on the playoffs for the fourth straight season and lost a heartbreaker in the U.S. Open Cup final.
But the last few days have at least provided a glimmer of hope for the future with the Union winning their final game of the season, making a very smart hire to bring on Earnie Stewart as technical director, and unveiling the sharp name and logo of their new USL franchise (Bethlehem Steel FC) that will be a crucial component of player development.
It's never been more critical for the Union to keep that momentum going. In the final edition of the Inside Doop this year, we'll lay out a five-point offseason plan that should put the Union in the best position to finally be a winning team in 2016 and beyond.
1. Open the wallet for a goal-scorer and a wide attacker
Union head coach Jim Curtin has said he wants to follow the midseason signing of attacking midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta with two more players like him in terms of cost, talent and experience. And majority owner Jay Sugarman has said the team will open its wallet for the right kind of player that fits into the culture and makeup of the club (read: not Rais Mbolhi), if not shelling out the millions needed for an aging star like, say, Didier Drogba.
So if you put all that together, it seems likely that a good chunk of the Union's offseason spending will potentially center around two relatively big-time players. And the Union would be wise to make those two players a striker who can play with C.J. Sapong (since Conor Casey and Fernando Aristeguieta are likely not returning) and a playmaking winger (U.S. national team player Alejandro Bedoya may still be a good option there).
The reason for this is simple, of course. The Union scored the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference (42) and didn't have a double-digit goal-scorer for the first time since 2012. Perhaps more detrimental, they lacked both creativity and depth, especially on the wing, when they dealt with a rash of injuries. A couple more key offensive players could solve that problem and ease the burden on Sapong, Barnetta and franchise stalwart Sebastien Le Toux, who is likely to return but should perhaps be used as more of a role player as he climbs up there in age. The Union should also bring back playmaking midfielders Vincent Nogueira and Cristian Maidana and only trade or sell either one if a good offer is on the table.
2. Upgrade the fullbacks
Credit to Fabinho - the Brazilian left back had a better season than most were expecting, making Curtin's then-controversial decision to protect him in the expansion draft look smarter than it initially seemed. But even Curtin would probably tell you that the 30-year-old, out-of-contract journeyman isn't the long-term solution at left back, a position the Union have struggled to fill well throughout the franchise's existence.
Great left backs are, of course, hard to come by, but the Union should - and likely will - scour the world to find one this offseason. They also might want to consider bringing in another right back to at least put some heat on Ray Gaddis, who can still be a very good lockdown defender but made too many mistakes this season.
As for the rest of the backline, the Union could use another backup center back now that Steven Vitoria is almost certainly gone, but they don't need to spend a lot of money if Maurice Edu is slotted there alongside rising star Richie Marquez. That said, if Edu does anchor the backline in 2016, the Union will need to sign or draft a defensive midfielder even if Brian Carroll and Michael Lahoud return.
3. Sign a veteran goalie ... but only to mentor Andre Blake
Barring another injury, Andre Blake is going to be the Union's starting goalkeeper in 2016. And considering his freakish ability and heady resolve, this is a very good thing for the future of the franchise. It's also a much-needed development for a team that's had a revolving door of goalkeepers throughout its history - especially this past season.
Fellow youngsters John McCarthy and Brian Sylvestre have proven to be capable starters in this league but probably won't be more than backups next year. One of them may even be called upon to be the starting 'keeper for the inaugural season of the Bethlehem Steel, which could leave a spot open for the Union to sign a veteran goalkeeper who has the wisdom to help Blake progress in his career and the experience to start in net if Blake's knee issues persist.
At the same time, if the Union just stick with Blake, McCarthy and Sylvestre, that would probably be fine, too. It would also help to not traumatize Union fans, most of whom are trained to expect the worst when they hear anything about signing another goalkeeper.
4. Find some American winners
Curtin talks often about wanting players who won't crumble under pressure. But the Union once again blew leads throughout the season - one of the big reasons why they finished in ninth place in the Eastern Conference with a 10-17-7 record. Meanwhile, after the moves to trade or loan longtime franchise players like Amobi Okugo, Zac MacMath, Danny Cruz and Sheanon Williams, the locker room turned into a weird mix of young guys, middle-tier foreign players and quiet veterans like Casey and Carroll.
When Sporting Kansas City came to town and gutted out a win over the Union in an evenly played U.S. Open Cup final, many said the big difference was that SKC had guys that knew how to win, as vague of a concept as that might sound. And while the Union probably won't be able to recruit players at the same level as SKC stars Matt Besler, Benny Feilhaber or Graham Zusi, they can still look for experienced winners through the re-entry draft and free agency. Philly native Jeff Larentowicz is one prime example of a veteran who could be a good fit in his hometown, but there are certainly others out there who can help round out the roster.
5. Make the draft count/sign youth academy players
The Union have a thriving youth academy and it's time they start to take advantage of it. With the Bethlehem Steel beginning play next year, this is the perfect opportunity to sign a couple of top academy players to homegrown deals and help them develop in the USL. Some could even be good enough to get first-team minutes within the next couple of years, if not sooner.
Meanwhile, a year after not having a first-round draft pick and seeing both of their second-round draft picks fail to get on the field, the Union have a good opportunity to make a splash in the SuperDraft. With the third overall pick, they may miss out on a potential game-changer like Georgetown defender Joshua Yaro or UCLA striker Abu Danladi, but they should still be able to get a player who can be groomed into a starter.
With so much turnover every year, it's probably hard for fans to get excited about a young core. But if the Union can add a couple of good pieces to go with Blake, Marquez, Eric Ayuk and Zach Pfeffer - and give them all the right tools to develop - the future will suddenly seem a whole lot brighter.