Part 2 of our Union season predictions.
DZ: Right back competition
The top battle in the preseason was between Ray Gaddis and Keegan Rosenberry for the starting right back spot, and as recently as Wednesday, Jim Curtin wasn't tipping his hand about who would get the opening-day start. The longest-tenured player on the squad, Gaddis is solid and well-liked. But Rosenberry has the kind of star potential Union fans crave. If Rosenberry spends much of the season on the bench again, as he did last year after his Rookie of the Year runner-up campaign in 2016, it could spell trouble - both for his development and fans' angst.
RB: Jim Curtin's job security
With the Union utilizing youth on defense and at depth positions, Curtin is going to feel every growing pain his club suffers through. Barring a hot start, the manager, who missed the playoffs last season and stumbled into them in 2016, will be on the hot seat throughout. It might not be fair, but it could be the biggest fan fight of 2018.
They'll make the playoffs if …
DZ: Young center backs Jack Elliott and Auston Trusty can avoid rookie mistakes and lean on the veterans in front of them, Borek Dockal gives them the same kind of value at the No. 10 spot as Tranquillo Barnetta did two years ago, and CJ Sapong remains one of the league's top goal-scoring threats.
RB: Dockal is the team MVP and Trusty can match Oguchi Oneywu's 2017 performance on the back line. If Dockal produces, the Union will be an offensive heavyweight in the conference. But that won't mean a thing if Trusty is overmatched and can't gel with Jack Elliott to form a playoff-caliber defensive line.
They'll miss the playoffs if …
DZ: The young backline implodes early to cause a freefall from which they can't recover, Accam and Dockal struggle to adapt to their new city and new team, and the Union continue to drop points on the road at an alarming rate.
RB: Things play out as you'd expect. Even if Trusty eases into his role and Dockal acclimates to his teammates, the Union are still facing a grueling Eastern Conference field. Surprises aside, the Union are doomed from the start.
DZ: The Union have a better roster than they did last year and their patient build under Curtin and sporting director Earnie Stewart could soon pay big dividends. The biggest problem is that the Eastern Conference is loaded. Toronto FC, Atlanta and New York City FC arguably have more talent than anyone in the league, and Orlando and even Chicago may not be far behind. I think the Union make the playoffs but sneak in as the No. 5 or No. 6 seed, before losing their knockout-round game and having to wait at least one more year to finally win a postseason contest.
RB: As tough as it may be to watch, the Union season goes nowhere and they finish ninth in the East. But not all is lost. Stewart and Curtin finally rely on the kids, which gives fans hope for the future as well as a finish ahead of the New England Revolution and Montreal Impact in 2018.