The saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Philadelphia Union's roster certainly isn't broke. It's built around a core group of young players, with skilled veterans leading the way.
But if there's a way to improve the squad, you can bet that manager Peter Nowak and the technical staff will pull the trigger. After all, the ultimate goal isn't simply making the playoffs, it's holding the MLS Cup trophy.
Whereas last year's offseason was highlighted by wholesale changes, this coming offseason will be about fine-tuning an already cohesive squad. There are several areas in which the Union may be able to improve this winter without disrupting the chemistry that led to a much-improved second season in Major League Soccer.
1. Left back
It's not that Gabriel Farfan is a poor left back. In fact, he performed admirably after being thrust into the role and gave every impression that he could become a very good left back with a little more seasoning.
But is it his best position on the field?
By bringing in a serviceable left-sided fullback, Farfan would have the freedom to play in the midfield, where his attacking talents might be better utilized.
Throughout the season, we've seen the skill that Gabriel, and his brother Michael, bring to the attacking third. The twins are very composed and comfortable on the ball, and they are particularly adept at going one-on-one with defenders in open space.
Take for instance Gabriel's run against Seattle defender James Riley at CenturyLink Field. Farfan was able to push the veteran to the endline and fight for position before centering the ball for Freddy Adu. The Union went up 1-0 and eventually won 2-0.
In an almost identical situation, Michael assisted to Sebastien Le Toux on the road in Kansas City. Roger Torres hit a cross that looked to be going out of bounds, but Farfan was able to beat Chance Myers, tip-toe the endline, and cross for Le Toux to hit the equalizer.
After Jordan Harvey was traded to Vancouver, the twins filled in at both left back and right back. Gabriel spent the majority of his time filling Harvey's role. When the Union switched to a 4-5-1, Michael moved into the midfield, facilitiating his fantastic run of form in the season's final third.
Whether the Union target a new starting left back or give Gabriel another year to discover his defensive potential is one of Philadelphia's primary offseason storylines.
2. Defensive depth
Nowak told reporters during his season-ending press conference that bolstering the backline would be an offseason priority.
Most teams in MLS have 3-4 extra defenders on the roster, but the Union got through this season by using midfielders in makeshift defensive roles. As mentioned, both Farfan twins spent time at fullback. Sheanon Williams played center half on occasion in addition to his normal right back duties. Stefani Miglioranzi also filled in as a central defender.
Philadelphia were fortunate that their defensive starters remained healthy throughout the season. Danny Califf played 33 out of 34 games, while Carlos Valdes and Williams both played 32.
Beyond the starting back four, only Juan Diego Gonzalez and Joe Tait are considered natural defenders. Both players did not see action this season.
Adding depth to the defense will prevent the Union from having to make multiple adjustments to compensate for a single defender missing time. It'll also safeguard against an emergency situation in which multiple defenders are forced to miss action, a scenario the club was fortunate enough to avoid for any extended period of time in 2011.
You either have it, or you don't. Philadelphia's squad is not stacked with a lot of tall players.
In world football, smaller teams have generally competed by keeping the ball on the ground and using their advantages in speed and skill to defeat larger, more physical teams. European champions FC Barcelona only have about three or four players taller than six feet. Size doesn't exactly matter when you have Lionel Messi and Xavi in your starting XI.
But height and physicality are important in MLS, and the Union struggled mightily in dead ball situations this year, both on the offensive and defensive ends of the field.
Califf and Valdes did well winning balls during the run of play this year, while Veljko Paunovic was the most successful attacker in the air. But there were too many goals conceded off of set pieces, and not enough generated.
Set pieces are just as much about attitude and grit as they are about physical ability. Who is willing to go up and sacrifice their body to win the ball in the air? Naturally, though, physical attributes do come into play. You can't make your players taller, no matter how much you focus on body positioning, discipline, and limiting opponents' set pieces.
Ultimately, adding a player or two who have proven to be difference-makers in the air could go a long way.
4. Consistent playmaker
Every team wants a playmaker who can control the midfield. Javier Morales, David Ferreira and Mauro Rosales immediately come to mind in MLS.
The role of the creator is one of the most difficult on the field — and arguably the rarest to find.
Torres has shown flashes of brilliance in this department. The youngster is blessed with incredible vision, dribbling skills and body control. The question is whether he has the physical ability to withstand a full 90 minutes throughout the course of a season. And can he continue to improve his defensive qualities?
At times the Union had issues scoring goals this year. Most of the time, promising build-up play would fizzle out in the final third. A rotating cast of characters in the midfield did a commendable job of getting forward, but the offense was mostly inconsistent this year, relying on long balls late into the season.
It will be interesting to watch the development of Freddy Adu with Philadelphia, because he certainly has the skill to play this role. The technical staff has explained that they prefer Adu in a central position, so perhaps he will find his form as a distributor and set up man in 2012.
Aside from Le Toux, no player on the 2011 roster registered more than four assists. The Union would do well to find a more consistent midfielder orchestrator in 2012, whether that means bringing in outside talent or continuing to develop their own — namely Torres, Adu, Michael Farfan, or even Zach Pfeffer, who will be 17 next season.
5. Second striker
Nowak would like to create more competition in the midfield and amongst his strikers.
There's no denying the quality of Le Toux, who once again led the team in goals and assists this year. Danny Mwanga and Jack McInerney continue to show plenty of upside.
But the squad did miss the skills of Alejandro Moreno and Carlos Ruiz, even though both players had their shortcomings. Moreno brought target man capabilities to the final third, while Ruiz was a natural finisher in and around the box.
Every squad could use a poacher, a player who has a nose for the goal and knows how to pounce on loose balls. Every squad could also use a big bruiser who can battle it out with defenders.
Le Toux has shown himself to be a versatile lone striker. He can cover ground, beat the offside trap, and get behind defenders. But he is not a player who will frequently receive the ball with a defender on his back, turn, and either fire on goal or lay it off for an overlapping teammate.
Salt Lake's Fabian Espindola and Colorado's Conor Casey are good examples of this type of striker. They always seem to be in and around the box, they're good with their back to goal, and they'll do the dirty work to hold onto the ball and free up space for their teammates.
Mwanga has displayed many of these characteristics and will continue to improve, but he's still finding his consistency over the course of a season. Perhaps year three will be the year he puts it all together. In spurts over his first two seasons, the top pick in the 2010 draft has shown potential to be among the league's best.
Either way, it couldn't hurt to bring in competition for the second striker role. Ideally that player would be an aerial threat who can hold up the ball and help free up space for Le Toux, rather than neutralize the Frenchman's impact.