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What is the ceiling for Philly? Three Questions on the Union

In their second year in MLS, the Philadelphia Union surprised the league by combining unbreakable defense with timely scoring.  Philly was in the top three of the East most of the season before slipping a bit at the end of the year and bowing out of the playoffs to eventual champ Houston.  Regardless, the year has to be seen as an unquestionable success, as the team secured a lucrative shirt sponsorship deal, packed its new soccer stadium, and showed that it could compete long-term in MLS.

So, with the calendar turned to 2012, where does this team stand in the offseason?  Has it improved or what does it need to do to improve?  The Philadelphia Union are up next in our “Three Questions” series:

1. What will you do, Freddy Adu?

Freddy Adu joined his fellow U.S. national team hopefuls by going overseas to train with a foreign club team to improve his skills and get additional playing time.  However, unlike some of his teammates, it looks like the short training spell could turn into something longer.  Reports from Spain suggest that struggling Rayo Vallecano may be impressed enough with his training to extend an offer to the forward for the rest of the season.

Adu’s impact on the Union last season was less than expected (or at least less than the optimists expected) but two factors were at play.  First, he played less than half a season and was adjusting back to MLS after spending time in some vastly different European leagues.  Second, he was added as “instant offense”, an impact player off the bench where a full year in MLS might see him starting more often.  Honestly, his departure would not sink the Union, but it would leave them needing to find another veteran scorer.  His leaving or staying may dictate where Philly turns the rest of their offseason attention.

2. Have the offseason signings addressed their needs?

As soon as the book closed on the 2011 season, the Union were opening their check book (or whatever the 2012 equivalent is).  They offloaded Justin Mapp and some pricey depth players and addressed some glaring needs: forward (Josue Martinez), left back (Porfirio Lopez), and central midfielder (Gabriel Gomez).  In addition, they added another hometown signing in Jimmy McLaughlin who joins Zach Pfeffer as the team’s second “local” youngster.  While the team still has some positions it can beef up (especially if #1 comes true) the front office did what they did last offseason, struck early to address their needs and filled in where necessary.  Soon enough we’ll see if this strategy works again.

3.  What is Sebastien Le Toux role on this team?

In their inaugural season, the French-American was a scoring machine for the Union, notching 14 goals and being named to the MLS All Star team.  Last season, his scoring decreased but he played more as a creator, setting up his forwards to score their own goals.  Despite his scoring dropping, the team’s record improved.  So is Le Toux a scorer or a creator?  A Van Persie or a Fabregas?  How Nowak uses his going forward will give this team a definite identity going into a season where they will no longer be considered underdogs, but potential favorites in the East.