Union manager Jim Curtin doesn’t shy away from the fact that Sunday’s season finale against Orlando City is “without consequence.” It won’t even be an opportunity to give first-team minutes to prospects, because the key ones went to Bethlehem Steel’s playoff game in Louisville on Friday.
But there will be a few names in the spotlight Sunday, because of questions about their futures with the team. Keep an eye on these players, and how much — or how little — they’re on the field.
Midfielders Roland Alberg and Ilsinho: They are the top playmakers on the Union’s depth chart, but they haven’t lived up to the billing. Alberg has seven goals and one assist in 23 league games this year; Ilsinho has four goals and four assists in 26 games.
Both players’ contracts expire after the season. Both are expected to be let go from the team, amid expectations that the Union will finally spend big money on better attacking talent this winter.
Alberg told MLS’ website last week that he wants to stick around, despite constant rumors — and a fair amount of clear evidence — of chemistry issues in the locker room. Ilsinho has bountiful skill, but hasn’t fit right in any position on the field. He’s also injury-prone, 32 years old, and carrying a $518,333 salary cap hit.
Sunday will be Alberg and Ilsinho’s last chance to prove they should remain with the team.
Forward Jay Simpson: He was signed from Leyton Orient to be the team’s top striker. He has been the polar opposite, with just one goal in 22 appearances. The Englishman has a multi-year contract that likely includes a raise from the $508,000 he earned this year. He told the Delaware County Times a few weeks ago that he knows he’s on the hot seat, and wants to prove his worth.
The question is whether the Union want to raise the bar even higher for soccer’s most valuable position. It’s one where the the front office has never been willing to spend sums that matter. There’s a straight line from that to the team’s perennial mediocrity.
Defenders Fabinho and Giliano Wijnaldum: The latter was signed to supplant the former as the Union’s starting left back. For a time late in the summer, it seemed that Wijnaldum had done it. But between injuries and a drop in form, he hasn’t played since Sept. 9. He didn’t even make the bench last weekend.
Curtin was asked this week why Wijnaldum has disappeared.
“I could never really say he had a glaring error or big drop-off, but I still wanted more in terms of grabbing hold of the position,” he answered. “A young player who has talent and has ability, and you see it every day in training, and has a high ceiling, but how do we challenge him to squeeze even more out of him?”
Fabinho is 32 now. He has been a good servant to the team throughout his five years here, and his family has settled in the region. It wouldn’t be surprising if he joins fellow Brazilians and former teammates Kléberson and Fred on the Union academy’s coaching staff some day.
But Wijnaldum is likely the starter of the future. Making him the starter of the present, as well, would help bring that future closer.
Philadelphia Union vs. Orlando City
Sunday, 4 p.m. at Talen Energy Stadium, Chester
TV/online streaming: NBC Sports Philadelphia+, MLSSoccer.com (paid subscription)
Union’s record: 10-14-9, 39 points (9th in the East); 9-4-3 at home
Orlando's record: 10-14-9, 39 points (10th in the East on a goal difference tiebreaker); 7-5-5 at home
Series history: Union 2 wins, Orlando 2 wins, 2 ties
At Talen Energy Stadium: Union 2 wins, Orlando 1 win, 2 ties
Orlando players to watch
Forward Cyle Larin: The powerful Canadian striker has been dealing with a hip injury lately, but he's still a huge threat. If he plays, it could be his final MLS game. Multiple European clubs have expressed interest in signing him, and this winter will be the right time for him to go.
Midfielder Yoshimar Yotún: Although the U.S. won't be at next year's World Cup, many other players will be. Yotún, a smart playmaker, will join the list if he can help Peru beat New Zealand in a home-and-away playoff next month.
Midfielder Antonio Nocerino: Before coming to Orlando last year, he played for Milan, Juventus, West Ham United and Italy's national team. It seemed for a while that the 32-year-old was running out of gas, but he has stepped up to become a reliable defensive presence.