'15 Season Preview: Curtin ready to lead Union to postseason

(SportsNetwork.com) - Since entering Major League Soccer as an expansion franchise in 2010, the Philadelphia Union have been running on the dreaded treadmill of mediocrity.

The club has made the postseason once and been close, but just shy, each of the past two seasons. With head coach Jim Curtin starting his first full season on the job, Union fans an players alike will be hoping the 35-year-old can lead his hometown club to its second playoff appearance.

Under former head coach John Hackworth, the 2014 incarnation of the Union started the season brightly by earning a point away from home against Portland, but as the first few months of the season passed, the developed a harrowing trend of conceding late goals and coughing up valuable points.

A trend which eventually cost Hackworth his job as he was relieved of his duties by the Union following a 3-3 draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps just prior to the World Cup break.

Curtin took over and has the team in position to make the postseason, but the team struggled down the stretch, fell out of playoff position and was ultimately eliminated from the playoffs following a 3-2 loss to Columbus in which the team surrendered a 2-0 lead with 10 minutes to play.

But there is always renewed hope in the dawning of a new season.

One of the bright spots from the Union's inconsistent 2014 campaign was the much-improved midfield with U.S. international Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueira and Cristian Maidana. All three players will return in 2015 which should give the Union one of the best midfields in the league.

With Edu and Nogueira holding down the defensive midfield spots in Curtin's preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, Maidana should thrive in his No. 10 creative midfield spot, while fan-favorite Sebastien Le Toux and Andrew Wenger on the wings.

Edu arrived on the banks of the Delaware River last season on a one-year loan from Premier League side Stoke City, but he will remain with the Union for the new next few seasons after signing a multi-year permanent deal.

"Mo is an extremely important player to our organization and we're excited that he will be in Philadelphia for the foreseeable future," said Union technical director Chris Albright. "We look forward to him helping lead us toward building a winning team."

With Union original Amobi Okugo gone to Orlando City and veteran Brian Carroll resigned to a substitute role, Edu will likely wear the captain's armband this season.

Along the back four, the biggest bright spot from last season was Raymon Gaddis, who was deployed as a left back and established himself as one the best one-on-one defenders in the league, carving out his own version of "Gaddis island" on his side of the field.

In central defense, the Union loaned Carlos Valdes to Uruguayan side Nacional and replaced him with Steven Vitoria, who was acquired on loan from Portuguese side Benfica. He will likely pair with Ethan White, while Sheanon Williams will man the right back spot.

One of the biggest needs for the Union to fill this offseason was finding a true striker, a position which all teams covet but find difficult to fill. For Philadelphia, the club enters 2015 with some nice depth up front.

Former Sporting Kansas City forward C.J. Sapong was brought over in a trade, while Venezuelan international Fernando Aristeguieta arrived on a one-year loan from French side FC Nantes.

"We're very excited to add Fernando to our roster," Albright said. "He adds a different quality up front and has experience at both the international and club levels. He's a player with a very bright future and we look forward to him having an immediate impact as we approach the season."

Aristeguieta and Sapong should provide the club with some good offensive punch, while Algerian international goalkeeper Rais M'Bolhi will be between the sticks in place of Zac MacMath, who was loaned to the Colorado Rapids.

But possibly the most interesting player for the Union heading into the season is midfielder/forward Dzenen Catic.

Catic, a player whom many projected to be a first-round talent, fell to the Union at No. 31 in this year's draft and could wind up being the steal of the draft.

At 6-foot-3, 185 pounds Catic possess excellent size and quick feet. In two seasons at Davenport University, Catic scored an impressive 63 goals and led his team to an NAIA title.

"When Catic fell into our lap, we were shocked," Curtin said. "That part worked out very well. He's a guy who brings some size, he's very good in front of goal. I was talking with a lot of other coaches at the combine and they saw him as one of the top players -- not just the top forward. He's a kid who's an underdog, a kid who I'm high on."

Looking at Philadelphia's starting 11, there's enough quality to compete with anyone in MLS, and with Sapong coming off the bench along with Catic and veteran Conor Casey, there's also plenty of depth for Curtin to call upon.

The talent is there, the onus now falls on the young Curtin to display proper man and game management. If he does, the Union should have an excellent shot to reach the postseason in an Eastern Conference which no longer contains Houston or Sporting Kansas City.

2014 IN REVIEW: The Union started out well, taking points from difficult away matches, but the conceded far too many goals and coughed up far too many points. Eventually those lost points cost the Union a playoff spot as the club finished in sixth place in the East with 42 points, missing the playoffs for the third consecutive year and finishing seven points behind fifth-place Sporting Kansas City.

ACQUISITIONS: C.J. Sapong (F), Dzenan Catic (F/M), Fernando Aristeguieta (F), Steven Vitoria (D).

LOSSES: Amobi Okugo (M), Zac MacMath (GK), Pedro Ribeiro (F/M), Carlos Valdes (D), Aaron Wheeler (F), Brian Brown (F).

OUTLOOK: Riding that aforementioned treadmill is a difficult spot in which to be, but there is plenty of talent on this roster, enough that making the postseason is a realistic goal for a young head coach in his first full season. Edu, Maidana and Nogueira can be part of a dominant midfield, while Aristeguieta and Sapong certainly provide plenty of fire power up front. Losing Valdes along the back line hurts, but Vitoria should be an ample replacement. Catic remains the wildcard in the equation, but with an extra team making the postseason this year, Philadelphia should be in the conversation all season.