2014 Philadelphia Union Preview: All the pieces are in place in Chester | Armchair Analyst
Leave the past in the past: Most of the Peter Nowak-era contracts – including those for guys who weren't on the roster in 2013 – are finally gone. That cap flexibility means John Hackworth was finally able to carve out the roster to his own specs, filling holes in each segment of the field. If it doesn't work, it's on the new coach, not the old one.
Keep-ball: The biggest and most obvious change will be a shift to the 4-3-3, a formation Hackworth has said (repeatedly) that he prefers to the 4-4-2 he was largely handcuffed into last season. The goal will be to dominate central midfield through numbers, and thus dominate possession. Think Sporting KC-style.
Building trust: One of the best parts about 2013 for the Union was Amobi Okugo's major step forward as a central defender after switching to that spot late in 2012 – he looks like a future All-Star there. But that jump took place while playing next to veteran Jeff Parke, who now plies his trade down I-95 at RFK. Austin Berry's going to be Okugo's new partner, and while he's similar to Parke, "similar" is not "the same as." It'll be a test for both Berry and Okugo to get on the same page in a hurry.
Star Attraction: Jack McInerney
McInerney ran the "USMNT fans' hopes and dreams" gauntlet last year. He started the season hot, and instantly became the "cap him now!" next big thing. Then he went into a three-month slump and became the "he's overrated, we need better players!" poster-boy. And then he finished well, with two goals in his last three games, and nobody gave a damn.
I gave a damn, though. Dude put home 12 goals last season as a 20-/21-year-old, which gives him 20 total in a year-and-a-half under Hackworth. Any fan – of Philly or the US – who's not happy with that needs to have their head checked.
The key for this season's improvement isn't just raw numbers, however. Jack Mac is still more opportunist than creator up front, which will be an issue if he plays primarily in the center of the front three. If he scores another dozen goals, that's fine. If he scores another dozen goals, but also figures out how to work his fellow attackers into the play, then the Union are in business.
Probable Formation: 4-3-3
Major Acquisition: Maurice Edu
The Union actually made a number of significant additions, with Vincent Nogueira joining Edu in central midfield, Cristian Maidana coming in as a DP winger, and Berry shoring up the center of the defense.
Edu, though, is the one who's supposed to be the star. He's set to play as a box-to-box midfielder, the type of position where you have to make a mark on the game on both sides of the field for 90 minutes each and every week. Think Will Johnson in Portland – that's how influential Edu is expected to be, and really how influential he has to be if the Union are going to compete.
I've always preferred Edu as more of a true No. 6, or even in central defense instead of that box-to-box role. But it's the spot he wants to play, and it's the spot he has played most often as a pro – including a few memorable moments with Rangers.
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What He Said
“That’s something I believe very strongly in and when you come to our training sessions you’ll see players having that smile when they walk on and off the training pitch – because that’s when you get the most out of a player.”
– John Hackworth
Fantasy Pick: Fábinho ($6.5m / selected by 1.5 percent of teams) – Dangerous left back who has a knack for getting down the field and contributing in the attack. Clean sheets could be hard to come by at first, but this is an offensive-minded player with the potential to earn bonus points in crosses, key passes and big chances created. He'll likely be getting on the score sheet from time to time as well.
Players to watch: Conor Casey, Sheanon Williams and Cristian Maidana
The Union feel like they're aimed for the top of the Eastern Conference, and while that might be a bit ambitious, you have to give them a chance. They were 13 points off the pace last season, and were extremely good at not dropping points to bad teams. That indicates a level of focus and consistency rare in such a young bunch.
So. .. are they 15 points better this year? That's a stretch, unless Edu, Nogueira and Maidana are all DP-caliber guys out there week after week. And even that might not be enough unless Conor Casey gets healthy enough to contribute at a high level again. Plus McInerney needs to channel his inner Di Vaio and Okugo needs to continue his current improvement curve.
But even if none of that happens, this is a playoff team. The roster is balanced and versatile from front to back, and seems to have difference makers at every line. Somehow I've gotten through this entire preview without mentioning the thought of Fábinho overlapping up the left, while Sheanon Williams does the same on the right. That's a weapon most teams can't match, and every team the Union face will have to account for. It does risk exposure in transition, but that's where Edu – whose defensive range is super-human when he's fit – should shine defensively.
And if he doesn't? If it doesn't all work out? Union fans know who to blame.