Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By DAN KARELL
While other clubs preferred to make headline-grabbing signings this offseason, the Philadelphia Union took their time and for the most part stayed under the radar.
Coming off a season where they finished three points outside of a playoff spot, manager John Hackworth, Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz, and technical director Rob Vartughian took their time and did their due diligence on re-working their flawed lineup.
The Union were able to offload veteran defender Jeff Parke and in his place, bring in former D.C. United Homegrown centerback Ethan White and former Rookie of the Year Austin Berry to improve the defense. The Union also upgraded across the midfield, acquiring U.S. Men’s National Team pool player Maurice Edu on loan from Stoke City, and foreigners Cristian Maidana and Vincent Nogueira. Midfielders Michael Farfan and Kleberson were allowed to leave in the offseason.
But before signing Edu, Maidana, and Nogueira, the Union made waves by trading up to draft Jamaican international goalkeeper Andre Blake with the first overall selection in the MLS Draft, giving goalkeeper Zac MacMath some legitimate competition this season. Add to that the draft picks of Pedro Ribero and Richie Marquez and suddenly the Union’s roster becomes on paper good enough to earn a playoff spot.
Hackworth’s challenge now is to mold this side into a playoff team. They have talent, depth, and experience, but Hackworth and his staff will have to work hard to take them to the promised land, especially in a vaunted Eastern Conference.
Here is a closer look at the 2014 Philadelphia Union:
PHILADELPHIA UNION SEASON PREVIEW
2013 FINISH: 12-12-10, 46 points (Seventh in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Maurice Edu, Cristian Maidana, Vincent Nogueira, Ethan White, Austin Berry, Andre Blake, Corben Bone
KEY LOSSES: Michael Farfan, Jeff Parke, Kleberson, Chris Albright
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Maurice Edu. The USMNT midfielder hasn’t played an official match since last April, languishing on Stoke City since moving there from Rangers in 2012. Before moving to Stoke, Edu was a solid defensive midfielder who also could contribute from time to time in attack. It will be interesting to see whether the lack of playing time in the past year hampers Edu in Philadelphia or whether he’ll be fresh and ready from the start of the season.
PRESSURE IS ON: Zac MacMath. The 22-year-old goalkeeper (who is actually younger than Andre Blake) struggled to start the 2013 season before improving greatly in the second half of the season. Though he finished with 12 clean sheets, third best in MLS, MacMath will need to be in top form from the start. Otherwise, fans may begin the calls for Blake to be the new Union No. 1.
On the whole last season, the Union were one of the most average sides in the league.
They finished with 12 wins and 12 losses (with 10 draws) and scored only two fewer goals than they conceded. But average last season wasn’t good enough, and with the improvements made by Toronto FC, and D.C. United, the Union had to be active this offseason if they were going to take a step forward this season.
For the second year in a row, the Union will be anchored in goal by Zac MacMath, who recorded five shutouts in August and September combined and looked a much better goalkeeper in the second half of the season. He’ll have direct competition from Andre Blake and a few mistakes early in the season could lead to a place on the bench.
Moving forward, the Union have two options of players to start alongside Amobi Okugo in central defense, in Ethan White and Austin Berry. The deal to acquire Berry, a former Rookie of the Year, might have been one of the best deals of the offseason, pairing two young but talented defenders together in the middle. If their partnership works, it could be a pairing for years to come.
In front of the back four will be Maurice Edu, who returns to MLS after more than five years in Europe. If the Union play the 4-4-2 that they played all last year, Edu is likely to be partnered with either Keon Daniel or Brian Carroll in the middle.
The Union this season have an overload of options in the midfield, after adding Vincent Nogueira and Cristian Maidana to the mix as well. Both can play in the middle of the park and out wide, giving Sebastian Le Toux and Danny Cruz a run for their money along the wings.
On the bench the Union even have Corben Bone and rookie Pedro Ribeiro who can each fill in for any of the midfield starters if need be.
Up top, the Union will once again look to Jack McInerney and Conor Casey as the team’s main supplier of goals. McInerney was the hottest goal scorer in MLS early last season but he cooled off considerably in the middle and end of the year. Both Casey and McInerney should receive better service from midfield this season, and it’s up to them to be able to finish their chances.
Heading into the season, the Union are in the midst of an injury crisis, with Casey missing the entire preseason with a calf injury and right back Sheanon Williams suffering a quad injury late in preseason. In a talented Eastern Conference, the Union probably can’t afford to get off to a slow start.
However, considering the team’s talent and assuming they’ll be able to gel, this is a team that can give anyone in the league a run for their money, and by the end of the season, they should make it into the playoffs.