2013 Philadelphia Preview: Playoffs within Union's reach?
2012 record: 10-18-6 (36 points); 37 GF / 45 GA (-8 GD)
Over the next two weeks, MLSsoccer.com will preview each of the 19 teams in Major League Soccer, beginning with the clubs that brought up the bottom of the table in 2012 and ending with the Supporters' Shield-winning San Jose Earthquakes. This is part one of two previewing Philadelphia's 2013 season. You can find Part 2 here.
Setting the Scene
Coming off a tumultuous year that saw franchise stalwarts dealt away, manager Peter Nowak fired and losses piled upon more losses, the Philadelphia Union are hoping for a much smoother – and more successful – 2013.
Manager John Hackworth, in his first full season in command, has already put his stamp on the franchise by cutting ties with many of Nowak’s guys, most notably Freddy Adu. The onetime child prodigy, who sputtered through a rocky year-and-a-half in Philly, is still on the Union roster but Hackworth hopes to trade him before the season begins on March 2.
In an attempt to stabilize the ship, Hackworth brought in three valued MLS veterans: former Union star Sébastien Le Toux, Philly-area native Jeff Parke and longtime US international Conor Casey. Le Toux and Casey will be asked to revive a dormant offense while Parke will aim to fill the shoes of 2012 captain Carlos Valdés, who was sent on a one-year loan to Colombia’s Independiente Santa Fe, at centerback.
Those three acquisitions, combined with a highly-touted young core that includes rising stars Amobi Okugo, Sheanon Williams, Michael Farfan and Jack McInerney, have the Union believing they can make the playoffs for the second time in three years.
In and Out
IN: F/M Sébastien Le Toux (12/6/12 - trade from New York); D Jeff Parke (12/7/12 - trade from Seattle); F Conor Casey (12/14/12 - Re-Entry Draft Stage 2); F Aaron Wheeler (1/19/13 - transfer from KooTeePee); D Damani Richards (1/19/13 - free); M Alex Mendoza (1/24/13 - free)
OUT: M Gabriel Gomez (11/19/12 - option declined); D Porfirio Lopez (11/19/12 - option declined); F Krystian Witkowski (11/19/12 - option declined); M Zach Pfeffer (12/4/12 - loaned to Hoffenheim); F Josué Martínez (12/6/12 - traded to New York); D Carlos Valdes (1/15/13 – loaned to Independiente Santa Fe); D Damani Richards (2/20/13 - waived); M Alex Mendoza (2/20/13 - waived)
Star Attraction: Sébastien Le Toux
Union fans can take their Le Toux jerseys out of the closet; the franchise’s all-time leading scorer is back in Philly after a one-year absence. A fan favorite during the Union’s first two seasons because of his scoring prowess (he had 25 goals), hustle and affability, Le Toux was sent away by Nowak prior to the 2012 season, only to return a year later, hungry to revive his career after a rough season in Vancouver and New York. And the Union probably need him as much as he needs the Union.
Unsung Hero: Sheanon Williams
One of the few holdovers from the Union’s 2010 expansion season, Williams has started nearly 90 percent of the team’s games over the last two years and has quietly emerged as a club leader. A natural right back, he has also gladly filled in at centerback and left back when asked, while always making sure to push forward and join the attack. Will this be the year he’s recognized as one of the league’s best fullbacks?
Ready for Primetime: Michael Farfan
One of the reasons Adu was made expendable is because of the faith Hackworth has in Farfan to be the catalyst for the Union offense. The 24-year-old midfielder was handed the keys to the car last season and, despite playing well, only contributed five assists and one goal. But with more quality strikers now in front of him, the crafty playmaker should be able to produce much bigger numbers in 2013.
Storylines to Watch
1. 4-3-3 or 4-4-2? Last season, Hackworth decided to use a 4-3-3 formation, which morphed into a 4-5-1 with McInerney as the lone striker. The Union manager has hinted he might stick with the 4-3-3 again, but does that mean McInerney, Casey and Le Toux all play together up top? And if not, which of those three guys goes to the bench?
2. Where does Okugo play? One of the revelations of the 2012 season was Okugo filling in beautifully at centerback. But with Parke in town and Bakary Soumaré back from knee surgery, is there room for him to play there again this year? Or will he join captain Brian Carroll in the defensive midfield? The answer might end up being a little bit of both.
3. Will the set pieces get better? The Union will certainly have a lot more height this year, which should help them improve on one of last season’s main weaknesses: defending and scoring off set pieces. But they’ll still need to find someone to consistently offer up quality service.
What He Said
“From the very first game, we want to be a team that has a distinct style and plays an attacking brand of soccer. It’s no secret we were disappointed with the results last year and we don’t think those are acceptable in our organization. We’re doing everything we can to make sure there’s a vast improvement this year.”
– Union manager John Hackworth
If Everything Goes Right
The Union rebounded from an 8-15-7 record in 2010 to go 11-8-15 in 2011 and make the playoffs. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Union could make the postseason again this season after going 10-18-6 last year. But for that to happen, the veterans will need to stay healthy and the young players will need to make steady improvements throughout the year.
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.