By IVES GALARCEP
It hasn't exactly been a good week to be the Philadelphia Union.
Yes, Sheanon Williams scored a dramatic late equalizer for the Union in the team's recent draw against Toronto FC, but given the fact Philadelphia is essentially out of the playoff race, that comeback felt very much like a case of "too little, too late."
In that same week we have seen the Union miss out on forward Marcus Tracy, just the kind of forward project the team could have used. New developments emerged in the increasingly ugly legal battle between the team and former head coach Peter Nowak. Then last night Union fans had to watch Danny Mwanga show off some flashes of brilliance in scoring two goals for the Portland Timbers.
No, it hasn't been a good week at all.
Union fans will be hoping to enjoy a respite from the disappointment tonight when Philadelphia takes on rival D.C. United at PPL Park. The Union will be looking to play the role of spoiler against a D.C. side locked in a fierce battle for the final playoff spot in the East.
Beyond tonight, and the rest of this season, Union fans should start thinking about the future and about just where the third-year club stands as it heads into a new era. The John Hackworth era.
Hackworth has been named the team's permanent head coach and will head into the off-season looking to make the necessary adjustments to a team that is sorely lacking some veteran talent, but also a team that boasts the best collection of young talent in MLS.
Here is what lies ahead for Hackworth and the Union, and what the team needs to do to get ready for a rebound year in 2013:
FIND A QUALITY VETERAN FORWARD
Hackworth has talked a lot about Jack MacInerney and about wanting to give him his chance to grow and develop. He is certainly a talented young forward, but if the team is counting on him to lead the line in 2013 then next season won't be much different than this season.
The team needs a reliable goal scorer, a veteran who can trouble defenses and mentor young forwards like MacInerney and Chandler Hoffman. Finding such a forward is likely going to require some financial muscle (no, not million-dollar DP money, but more money than the team has been known to spend).
Teams like Columbus (Federico Higuain), Real Salt Lake (Alvaro Saborio) and Seattle (Fredy Montero) have struck gold with forwards in Latin America, while the Union (Lionard Pajoy) are still looking for that gem of a forward. Whether he comes from Latin America, or Europe, or even from within MLS, the Union have to make landing a quality forward their top priority.
What the Union manage to bring in at forward this winter will tell us quite a bit about just how committed the team's ownership is to revamping the Union. There is a sense building around the league that the Union are becoming a team that looks to spend less than most. The team's off-season activity will tell us plenty because it is going to take money to help the Union make the necessary upgrades to really improve and be a strong team in 2013.
KEEP ADU AND FARFAN, UNLOAD TORRES AND GOMEZ
Freddy Adu has faced a ton of criticism for his production, or lack thereof, this season but the reality is he has been setting up chances at a regular rate, only to have those chances wasted on a consistent basis. On a team with quality forward, Adu would have somewhere between 10-14 assists. On the 2012 Union he has managed just one despite being among the league leaders in chances created. He is a costly, but worthwhile piece to build around, but only if the team is serious about revamping the attack with a quality forward or two.
Michael Farfan has enjoyed a solid second season and, along with Adu, gives the Union some creative pieces to a midfield with some promise. The team can certainly use some fresh wide midfield options, and the recent addition of Danny Cruz does help in that regard, but the Union still lack a truly dangerous wide option on the roster.
As far as players the team can look to move, Roger Torres and Gabriel Gomez are at the top of that list. Torres is a fan favorite, and his quickness and skill has produced flashes of brilliance before, but he has had several years to show he could be a starter-worthy option and he has failed to do so. Gomez is a player who has been particularly disappointing because his form for the Panamanian national team in recent years seemed to suggest he could be a real impact player for the Union. He has had his moments, but has struggled badly to find consistency. There is always a chance that a player like Gomez can see a boost in quality in his second year in the league, but the Union will have to decide whether he is worth keeping around. Based on 2012, they should look to let him leave.
One of the more disappointing additions to the Union has been Bakary Soumare, who has had his arrival stunted by struggles with his surgically-repaired knee. The Union paid a steep price to land the former Fire centerback so getting rid of him doesn't make much sense even with Carlos Valdes and Amobi Okugo firmly entrenched as starting centerbacks.
So why keep him? When healthy Soumare is a dominant centerback, and as well as Okugo has played since moving to centerback, the sense in Philadelphia seems to be that it isn't a permanent move just yet. He is still a highly-regarded midfield opion, so keeping Soumare means keeping open the possibility of having Okugo develop into a central midfield anchor.
Where Okugo plays in 2013 is an interesting question because if Hackworth believes that veteran Brian Carroll is slowing down, he might have to seriously consider starting Okugo in defensive midfield to start the 2013 season, but he can really only do that if Soumare is still on the team, and healthy.
ADD SOME EXPERIENCE TO THE COACHING STAFF/FRONT OFFICE
The Union handed Hackworth the coaching job for 2013, so now it will be up to him to construct a coaching staff as well as build a front office. He has full control of the team and based on what is coming out of Philadelphia, it sounds like the basic structure for the team's front office and coaching staff is rounding into shape.
Hackworth's current lead assistant, Rob Vartughian, is being primed for the role of technical director. He doesn't have front office experience in MLS, but has picked up many of the kind of duties that job carries for the past few months. The Union will be hoping Vartughian can duplicate the front office success of another former goalkeeper in Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerwey. When Lagerwey joined RSL he didn't have front office experience either, but all he has done since is become one of the best, if not the best general manager in MLS.
Hackworth isn't exactly an inexperienced coach, having had experience in college, with the U.S. Under-17 national team and as an assistant with the U.S. national team. The 42-year-old has had a chance to run the team this season, and gain experience that way, but he will head into his very first off-season as the head coach of a professional team and what he does this winter will determine whether the Union become a playoff team again in 2013, or take a step back and continue to struggle.
With Vartughian picking up on a technical director role, Hackworth will need to add one or two coaches to his staff, and it will be interesting to see if he adds a more experienced assistant to the staff. Former Chicago Fire standout Jim Curtin has been mentioned as a potential assistant, but it remains unclear whether Hackworth plans on adding someone with some more experience.
The job of rebuilding the Union won't be easy, but it isn't as much of a make-over as you might expect for a team that has had so much upheaval, and so many bad signings this year. The team still boasts some quality young talent with players like Adu, Farfan, Okugo, Sheanon Williams and Zac MacMath, but it will be up to Hackworth to find the right select veterans to fill the team's most glaring needs and give the squad some sorely-needed leadership.
If Hackworth brings in a quality forward or two, if Soumare returns to health and top form, and if Okugo plays as well in midfield as he has at centerback, the Union will jump right back into the Eastern Conference playoff conversation in 2013.
Those are a lot of "Ifs", and it will be up to Hackworth and his staff to find answers to those question marks. If he doesn't, the Union could find itself searching for a new coach yet again a year from now.