Inside MLS season preview: Philadelphia Union
Last year in a nutshell: The start of the campaign catapulted the Union into the playoff hunt, but persistent goalscoring issues prompted a late-season swoon and an early conclusion to the season.
(as of March 2, 2014)
Incoming: GK: Brian Holt (unattached); DF: Austin Berry (Chicago), Ethan White (D.C. United); MF: Corben Bone (Chicago), Maurice Edu (Stoke City/England), Cristian Maidana (Argentinos Junior/Argentina), Vincent Nogueira (Sochaux/France)
Outgoing: GK: Oka Nikolov (Fort Lauderdale Strikers); DF: Chris Albright (retired), Don Anding (unattached), Jeff Parke (D.C. United); MF: Michael Farfan (Cruz Azul/Mexico), Greg Jordan (unattached), Kléberson (unattached)
Key Player: The departure of Jeff Parke during the winter thrust Amobi Okugo into the spotlight. Okugo has adjusted well to full-time defensive duties, but he now faces the additional burden of serving as the leader of the revamped back four. It isn't a role beyond his capabilities. The former U.S. youth international boasts the technique and the tools to thrive at center back over the long haul. He must rise to the occasion this season to form a stout partnership with recent arrival Austin Berry and shepherd the Union defense through this transitional phase.
Strengths: Union boss John Hackworth turned perhaps his side's biggest deficiency into its primary strength by making several impressive midfield signings during the winter. Hackworth now counts a U.S. international (Maurice Edu), a former Ligue 1 regular (Vincent Nogueira) and a lively Argentine winger (Cristian Maidana) among his choices in that department. Brian Carroll, Edu and Nogueira provide the consistency, the flexibility and the protection required to permit Hackworth to deploy a 4-3-3 setup with Maidana and either Danny Cruz and Sébastien Le Toux pushed higher up the field to provide width, if he so chooses. The other departments possess their own strengths: the defense combines mobility and strength with Sheanon Williams now in the mix among the top right backs in the league, while Conor Casey and Jack McInerney provide a decent blend of hold-up play and plundering among the forward options.
Weaknesses: Hackworth enters the season with several selection issues to sort out and a host of new players to integrate into the squad. Goalkeeper looms as a potential flashpoint with number one Zac MacMath now looking over his shoulder at Jamaican international Andre Blake. MacMath will start the season as the first choice, but he could find himself under threat at some stage even after improving his displays last season. Depth and experience constitute major concerns at the back with a paucity of options available in central defense if either Berry (a consistent presence in the Fire rearguard for the past two seasons) or Okugo succumbs to injury. Casey's perpetual fitness concerns limit his effectiveness over a 34-game season and often thrust McInerney into a role ill-suited to his preferred poaching methods due to a dearth of alternatives. If Casey isn't available to facilitate the play with his back to goal, then those tidy combinations through midfield may peter out in the attacking third.
PROSPECTS FOR 2014
● Who is the long-term goalkeeper?: Blake's surprising arrival during the SuperDraft placed the onus on MacMath to prove his worth to the Union. If MacMath buckles under the weight of keeping his place in the team, then Blake – a talented prospect with a higher ceiling – might receive his chance to feature in the first team. The key in all scenarios: finding a number one capable of achieving the consistency required to backstop the side.
● How quickly can Edu return to his usual form?: Edu spent the better part of 18 months on the fringes of the team at Stoke City, barring a loan spell here or there. His pedigree at this level and his place in the Union team are undisputed, though. If Hackworth eventually plumps for a three-man midfield with Carroll included, then Edu must shuttle reliably to ensure the trio exerts its anticipated impact on matches. He is more than capable of fulfilling that brief (even if he's probably best in the role Carroll might take), but he will need to meet the standard quickly to advance his World Cup hopes and stitch this revamped Union midfield together.
● Are there enough goals in the side?: Casey (10 goals) and McInerney (team-high 12 goals) combined for 22 of the Union's 42 goals last season, while the third-highest scorer registered just three. Those numbers by themselves do not present too much cause from concern, but potential issues with Casey's fitness (he registered a career-high 31 appearances in 2013) and McInerney's consistency (his 12-goal season included a 14-game goalless stretch) reinforce the need for supplemental options. Expect the overall numbers to improve a bit with the midfield additions, though.
Best case scenario: Philadelphia finds the right answers to all of the pressing questions. MacMath grabs the number one shirt with both hands to dispel any goalkeeping concerns or Blake fills the sudden void with composure well beyond his professional experience level. Berry and Okugo lead a strong defense. Edu and Nogueira improve the midfield substantially. Maidana stamps his imprint on the side by slicing apart opposing defenses. And Casey and McInerney score the goals required to fire the Union back into the postseason.
Worst case scenario: Uncertainty continues throughout the season with few answers emerging along the way. Blake and MacMath shuffle between the starting XI and the substitutes' bench. The rearguard misses Parke's steady presence and ships too many goals. The midfield takes a bit too long to find its footing. The goals dry up with Casey and McInerney misfiring. All of the promise during the winter ultimately ends up with the Union missing the postseason yet again.
2014 INSIDE MLS SEASON PREVIEWS