MLS ’12 Preview – Philadelphia Union
Team: Philadelphia Union
Coach: Piotr Nowak
Last Season: 11 – 8 – 15 = 48 points, 3rd Place Eastern, 8th Overall
Twitter Hashtag: #DOOP
The Sons of Ben certainly couldn’t have imagined an offseason quite like this.
The Philadelphia Union enjoyed a solid sophomore season, where they completely turned around an abysmal defense and had a chance to finish first in the Conference in the waning weeks of the season. A poor late season run of form ended those thoughts, typified by a devastating loss at Red Bull Arena. The first Playoff run for the franchise ended with a tough Conference Semifinal loss to eventual runner-upHouston. The loss wasn’t easy, but the future was bright with a returning case led by Sebastien Le Toux, Faryd Mondragon and company.
By February 1, 2012, all that had changed.
At the time of the SuperDraft, there were rumblings that a move would need to be made, especially after forward Danny Mwanga graduated from Generation Adidas. It took a few weeks, but a flurry of roster moves left the Union looking quite different, and left the future with a few question marks. There have been some good players brought to PPL Park, but as with any major roster shakeup, the resulting chemistry may be the important factor as to how this team performs.
COACHING STAFF AND FRONT OFFICE: To call Peter Nowak unconventional is an understatement. The first MLS manager/head coach to take to Twitter, Nowak is also the type of manager who would not bat an eyelash at dealing the face of his franchise. Anyone who tries to guess what Nowak has up his sleeve is liable to be pounding their head on the desk when the studs finally meet the turf.
The general consensus is that the offseason moves were tied to remaining within the salary cap budget. Reports have indicated that the ownership group, led by Jay Sugarman, is not interested in venturing into the Designated Player realm at this point. With younger players beginning to graduate from Generation Adidas (Danny Mwanga being the first), there is now a premium on getting the biggest bang for the buck.
KEY PLAYERS LOST: Let’s start with the losses, since they were the major story as the offseason progressed. Deportivo Cali made inroads to lure Union Captain Faryd Mondragon back to his homeland to complete his career, and the Union obliged his desire to return to his boyhood club in Colombia. Mondragon was considered a major catalyst in the fortification of the Philadelphia defense in 2011. The group allowed the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference (and tied with Real Salt Lake for second-best in MLS).
Additionally, the Union seemed bent on finding a new home for leading scorer Sebastien Le Toux. They asked the French forward/winger to trial at Bolton Wanderers inLancashire,UK, hoping that a transfer to the EPL could be forged. When that didn’t materialize (reportedly Le Toux walked out of the trial), the Front Office worked out a deal with the Vancouver Whitecaps, receiving allocation money in return.
There were some other outgoing moves made this offseason. Veljko Paunovic, who came out of retirement to join the team early in the summer, decided to hang up the boots again. Justin Mapp was selected by Montreal in the 2011 Expansion Draft. The contracts of holding midfielder Stefani Miglioranzi and central defender Juan Diego Gonzalez were not renewed. Midfielder Kyle Nakazawa was also moved to the L.A. Galaxy via trade.
KEY PLAYERS GAINED: The Union finally replaced forward Carlos Ruiz, who was dealt to Mexico in June of 2011. Josue Martinez was acquired early on from Costa Rican side Deportivo Saprissa. As the Union Front Office worked out the details of the Le Toux trade, they were also agreeing upon terms with Colombian side Ciudad de Itagui for their leading scorer, Lionard Pajoy.Martinez and Pajoy will share time with Mwanga and United States U-23 player Jack McInerney up top. The Union also picked up a forward with their first SuperDraft pick, Chandler Hoffman from UCLA.
In midfield, the Union acquired Panamanian Gabriel Gomez, who impressed in the Gold Cup as well as the recent friendly against the US Men’s National Team. The team also made Roger Torres’ loan deal permanent, reportedly using the Allocation Money received in the Le Toux deal.
The other major pickup for the Union is at left back. Another Costa Rican player, Porfirio Lopez, has been brought in to be a more natural option on the left. While Gabriel Farfan did a respectable job in that role after moving Jordan Harvey to Vancouver, it was assumed that a move would need to be made to acquire a more natural left back.
PROJECTED STARTERS: Nowak seems to prefer systems that emphasize narrower play from the midfield and width from deep positions. He has mostly used a 4-4-2 diamond formation, but will bring out a double-pivot 4-2-3-1 in situations where he’s looking for a more defensive posture.
With the departure of Mondragon, the goalkeeping job will be Zac MacMath’s to lose. The US U-23 keeper performed admirably when the Colombian was injured late in 2011, but the situation is different now and there will be additional pressure without the safety net of the internationally-experienced Mondragon.
The backline is mostly intact, with Lopez being the only addition. Danny Califf and Carlos Valdes were excellent for most of last season in the center of defense. Sheanon Williams’s excellent play as a right back was rewarded with a contract extension in the offseason, and has earned his place in the team. Both Williams and Lopez will be expected to get forward and provide the width in attack.
The front 6 are the least-settled in Nowak’s system. Speaking in terms of the midfield, I suspect that Brian Carroll and Gabriel Gomez will be the most consistent of the starters. US U-23 midfielder Amobi Okugo should gain more minutes this season as well. In an attacking central midfield sense, Freddy Adu and Roger Torres will split time in that role. Any wing play from the midfield should come from the Farfan brothers, Michael and Gabriel.
That leaves the forwards, and again this will be a rotation. I expect to see Martinez, Pajoy, and Mwanga getting the most minutes up top, with McInerney and Hoffman earning substitute duty. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Nowak using forwards in those wide attacking midfield positions in a 4-2-3-1, though.
PLAYER TO WATCH: This is a tough one to call. I think you have to go with Freddy Adu. Upon his return to MLS, Adu failed to impress much, but there were rumors that he was injured for some of that time and never got to full fitness. Adu has a lot to prove, especially if he desires a return to Europe before long. There could be nothing better to boost his value on the European market than if he came good on some of the hype from his younger years.
BEST CASE SCENARIO: The best case scenario would be the top spot of a weak Eastern Conference. I don’t think this team has the experience to make a deep run in the playoffs, but if they find the goals they lost in the Le Toux trade, there is no reason why they can’t be the class of the East.
WORST CASE SCENARIO: The Summer Olympics are an issue for the Union. They have at least 3 players who will be gone for the better part of a month in the summer. There are questions at keeper, and it’s not a certainty that the offensive output will be adequately replaced with the moves made. The worst case for this team is missing out on the playoffs, finishing 5th or 6th in the East.
PREDICTION: I think the Union will finish in the same spot as last season, 3rd in the East, and will lose in the Conference Finals.