Armchair Analyst: Despite everything, Union on the way up
Over the next three weeks, MLSsoccer.com will take a look back at the 2012 season that was for all 19 clubs in Major League Soccer, starting with Toronto FC and ending with the Supporters' Shield-winning San Jose Earthquakes. You can find the schedule and comprehensive reviews for each team here.
2012 record: 10-18-6 (36 points); 37 GF / 45 GA (-8 GD)
Let’s just come out and call the 2012 Philadelphia Union season exactly what it was: the most stunning, inscrutable deconstruction of any MLS playoff team in the history of the league. There was neither rhyme nor reason to pretty much any of the personnel moves they made – especially since they’d done so well to even qualify for the postseason in just their second year of existence – and it resulted in a massive step backwards.
I still don’t understand it, and chances are the true story of just what led to the totally unnecessary overhaul will probably never come out.
With that as the prologue, it should be no surprise whatsoever that the Union struggled mightily for two-thirds of the season to try to figure out any kind of identity or build a semblance of togetherness and chemistry. The lack of all of the above (and almost certainly some other stuff) ended up costing Peter Nowak (right) his job by the midway point of the year, and I’ll make no argument against that particular decision.
If there was an upshot to the dysfunction, it’s that John Hackworth – a coach with both clearer tactical vision and greater tactical flexibility – eventually took the job outright, and that a number of youngsters showed that they could be built around for the next couple of years with reasonable hope for success.
First and foremost among them is Freddy Adu. Nah, just kidding – he was mostly terrible, save for his set piece delivery (which remains fantastic). Freddy was supposed to be the standout youngster on this team, but he struggled to have any sort of consistent impact on the wing either going forward or in possession.
McInerney with classic striker's goal
The few times he was tried centrally he was more impressive, but not so much that Hackworth felt compelled to play him regularly. With Sébastien Le Toux back in the mix as of Thursday’s trade, it’s hard to see a regular starting role for Adu going forward.
Alongside Le Toux in attack will most likely be Jack McInerney, a classic “fox in the box” who earned his wings by taking a No. 9’s beating in 2012. McInerney is small, not too fast and not overly technical, but he runs the channels, finishes with one touch and doesn’t overcomplicate things.
Thus, in the name of simplicity, it makes sense to expect a switch to the 4-4-2 – or maybe even a 4-4-1-1 – for 2013. Le Toux can drop into midfield or flair wide with equal effect, and Amobi Okugo, the converted midfielder who was a revelation in central defense, can step forward into the play to create numbers-up situations. Few teams in the league are afforded that luxury.
Another youngish player with much on his shoulders is Michael Farfan, who was handed the keys to the Union possession game and showed he knew how to turn the car on and put it in drive, but didn’t usually locate the gas pedal. For all his gifts, he created far too few chances and finished even fewer.
What he did show, however, was an ability to confound backpedaling defenders in isolation on the attack, and a willingness to track back defensively that's rare in such gifted 1-v-1 players. A move to the left wing, with a more defensive-minded central midfield (it could be Okugo alongside Carroll, now with Jeff Parke in the fold) could be on the docket. Should be, even.
It feels like a lot of the past three years were for naught, but Union fans can content themselves with this: The core of Le Toux, McInerney, Farfan, Okugo and defenders Sheanon Williams and Carlos Valdés are all younger than 30. Carroll and Parke are just over that number, and can show everyone in the locker room all their trophies. That seems like a good recipe, so in spite of everything, this is a team on the way up, not down.