All eyes on Philly as new season nears

Murphy at PPL

Towering expectations follow the Philadelphia Union into their fifth MLS campaign after a whirlwind off-season of high draft picks, international wheeling-and-dealing and collective moves that basically addressed every gap in the 2013 club’s near-miss roster. CEO Nick Sakiewicz, Manager John Hackworth and the rest of the front office have put together a group of players that, on paper, looks like a potential powerhouse. Union supporters knew the club was bound to make changes after last year’s disappointing finish. Few anticipated this magnitude of change.

FROM THE RUBBLE

As the Union slipped out of playoff contention in last season’s waning moments, the shortcomings were obvious. The Union were long on defense, but way too short on offense, especially in the midfield where the club often spent entire games failing to generate more than one or two creative rushes. The club scored only one goal in 16 of its 34 league matches. They were also shut-out six times, five in the season’s second half, a telling statistic for club that spent most of the year clinging to one of the final playoff slots in the East only to see it slip away in the season’s final weeks.

OFF-SEASON EXPLOSION

A flood of international signings by MLS sides marked the off-season, starting with Toronto FC reeling-in American international star Michael Bradley. Intriguing for Union fans was that word soon leaked that Philadelphia had also made a play for Bradley. The Union were ready for big moves, it appeared, and in the ensuing weeks, team officials jetted back and forth across the Atlantic, setting the table for what was one of the more aggressive and active off-seasons of any Philadelphia sports franchise in recent memory.

For their struggling midfield, the Union signed a Bradley-esque American international midfielder, Maurice Edu, who was languishing as a bench player on a crowded English Premiere League squad, but who is not very far removed from a starting role with the U.S. Men’s National Team. In the days prior to the deal being officially announced, Sakiewicz told me the club feels Edu is, in fact, very close to Bradley in skill and game-changing ability; it was obvious how psyched he was to be closing-in on the former U.S. play maker. The Union also made good on rampant rumors by signing Argentina midfielder Christian Maidana, a wizard in one-on-one play, and midfielder Vincent Nogueira, who was playing for a so-so team in France’s top Ligue 1. These are not aging stars trying to cash-in at the end of their European careers (a familiar script behind many traditional international MLS signings). Edu and Maidana are 27. Nogueira is 26. As much as Union fans have enjoyed the small contributions of older veterans like Kleberson and Carlos Ruiz, players brought in on short deals for a temporary jolt, the Union’s new midfield has younger legs and a skill set that should be very near their prime. And all three figure to stick around for a while.

Philadelphia didn’t stop there. In honoring a trade request by veteran defender Jeff Parke (for off-field personal reasons which have been kept private), the Union may actually have managed to improve. His replacement is 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year Austin Berry, a 25-year-old, 6’ 2” defender, nabbed from the Chicago Fire for allocation money. The MLS doesn’t report cash amounts in deals like this. It had better been a lot. Otherwise, this deal was a steal for Philadelphia.

NOT ENTIRELY NEW

The Union return plenty of familiar faces. Jack McInerney, Conor Casey and Sebastien Le Toux are all back up front, as are midfielders Brian Carroll, Danny Cruz and super-sub Antoine Hoppenot. In fact, given how crowded the Union roster is now, the list of potential star-quality substitutions the Union has at their disposal may be among the most daunting in the league. Defensive options still include Sheanon Williams, Raymon Gaddis, Fabinho (who impressed last season in the second half) as well as one-on-one defensive specialist Amobi Okugo. Zac MacMath, who made great strides last season and almost single-handedly delivered the Union a couple of their wins and draws, returns in net.

Add to this a half-dozen picks in the recent MLS Super Draft (including top selection, UConn goaltender Andre Blake and a couple of promising midfielders) and the Union comes into 2014 with more depth than at any time previously. The league is taking notice. While several other teams including FC Toronto are creating buzz (the perennial also-ran has already sold-out its season tickets thanks to the Michael Bradley and Jermaine Defoe signings), it’s the Union who have been getting perhaps the most attention.

PRESSURE PLAY

Attention, of course, is a double-edged sword. There is enormous pressure on Hackworth and the rest of the coaching staff to get all these new pieces coordinated and churning. And anyone sneaking glances at the Union’s pre-season box scores may have been alarmed to see no more than one goal per outing, a continuation of last season’s all too familiar pattern.

But as the season opener approaches (at Portland, Saturday, March 8, 10:30pm, CSN), excitement and optimism around this club abound and rightly so. It has been a dynamic and thrilling off-season. And no matter the week-to-week result, the 2014 Union should be a much more entertaining team to watch. It’s hard to imagine the front office doing a much better job of putting a playoff contender on the PPL Park pitch. Hopefully, the players, new and old, can deliver.

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