TEAM: Philadelphia Union
HEAD COACH: Piotr Nowak
2010 RESULTS: 31 pts, 8-15-7 record, 7th Eastern Conference
The inaugural season for the Philadelphia Union epitomized the difficulties that can hamper a team trying to ensure a strong future while mixing and matching spare parts into holes for the interim. Many bright spots were found during the campaign. Sebastian Le Toux surprised many to become a breakout star for the team, finishing tied for fourth in the league with 14 tallies. Danny Mwanga, the 19-year old striker from the Congo Republic, showed his promise with 7 goals of his own. The defense was built around captain Danny Califf, who returned from Denmark to anchor the backline. And Nowak’s attacking philosophy was a hit with the city. Unfortunately, a lack of home fixtures early in the season, coupled with inconsistency in all disciplines of the game, meant that the Union played most of the season from behind, and never truly threatened to make the playoffs in their first season.
KEY ADDITIONS: One area that needed improvement from last season was in goal. The Union took steps to address this need, both for the present and the future. 39 year old Faryd Mondragon was signed after a 4-year stint at German club FC Koln to protect the net, while Zac MacMath was selected with their 1st round SuperDraft pick from the University of Maryland.
From a veteran standpoint, two other Latin Americans have been signed to fill gaps within the team. Former MLS MVP – and controversial figure – Carlos Ruiz returns to Major League Soccer from the Greek side Aris to pair with Mwanga up front. Carlos Valdes, a 25 year old defender, rounds out a group of four Columbian players (including Mondragon) on the team. He should solidify a backline that seemed to struggle at times each match. To round out the veteran acquisitions, the Union traded a second round pick and allocation money to the Columbus Crew for veteran midfielder Brian Carroll.
In regards to the draft, aside from McMath, Michael Farfan was selected from the Tar Heels as an attacking option from the midfield.
KEY LOSSES: The Union have experienced a lot of starting squad loss this offseason. Many of these players were older placeholders for youngsters coming through the system. Chris Seitz and Brad Knighton both moved on as goalkeepers, with neither playing particularly well in 2010. Half of the starting backfield are gone, in Cristian Arrieta and Michael Orozco-Fiscal (whose loan from San Luis Otopsi was not renewed). Midfielders Fred, Andrew Jacobson, and Eduardo Coudet were not brought back for the 2011 season. And finally, forward Alejandro Moreno was taken in the Expansion Draft, along with reserve fullback Shea Salinas.
PROJECTED STARTERS: Nowak has used a 4-1-3-2/4-4-2 Diamond formation, and probably won’t move from that.
FORWARDS: Mwanga and Ruiz will be the starting forwards. The Guatemalan has struggled to be the type of striker that earned him the Golden Boot and MVP nearly 10 years ago. If he struggles to contribute to the team, Jack McInerney and Le Toux will surely see time up front.
MIDFIELD: Le Toux should start most matches in the right attacking midfield role. Justin Mapp will see the bulk of time opposite Le Toux. The midfield duo is the question mark right now. Stefani Miglioranzi, Brian Carroll, and Amobi Okugo are all vying for the holding midfield position. I think Carroll would have the advantage, being a solid starter in Columbus last season. The central attacking midfielder is less certain, but youngsters Roger Torres and Kyle Nakazawa should both get opportunities to prove themselves in the role.
DEFENSE: Califf will likely pair with Valdes in the central defense. Jordan Harvey will continue to be the left fullback of choice for Nowak. Sheanon Williams was brought in from Harrisburg of the USL-Pro in August of 2010, and he immediately jumped into the starting right back role. He will look to support Le Toux as the Frenchman ventures forward into the attack.
GOALKEEPER: Mondragon will be relied upon as the primary goalkeeper.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: Le Toux has become the face of this franchise. His danger comes from his ability to float around the attacking half, creating mismatches and drawing attention from the defense. His vision is excellent, and his finishing touch was extremely important to the Union in 2010, as Moreno struggled to find form and Mwanga learned the ropes as a starting forward. There may be less pressure on Le Toux to be the main scorer, but he will still need to be a key member of the attack.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Mwanga would be the expected pick for this. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Roger Torres will become a major factor in the Union offense this season. He’s only 19, but he has shown an ability to create chances for his teammates. With the likes of Le Toux, Mwanga, and Ruiz to clean up, the creativity of Torres and Mapp could help push this team to another level offensively.
OUTLOOK: I like the way that Nowak and the Union have put the priority on building a youthful organization. I don’t think that 2011 will be the year that it all comes to fruition, but they should benefit from confidence in net and some key additions throughout the pitch. In this wide open conference, I could see the Union finishing anywhere from 2nd to 6th, depending on how well they come together as a team especially in the defensive third.
PREDICTION: 48 pts, 4th place Eastern Conference