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Analyzing the 2012 Union schedule

It's only been about two months since the Union's 2011 playoff season came to a close, but we're just about nine weeks out from the start of the 2012 campaign.

This season, there will be a few changes to the league schedule. Each MLS club will again play 17 home games and 17 away games, but the schedule will be "unbalanced," meaning that some conference rivals will play three games against each other and some non-conference opponents will only play once. In turn, a number of lengthy road trips against non-conference members will be eliminated.

Philadelphia will play regional rivals New York and DC three times this season, and avoid traveling to Salt Lake City, Vancouver, Colorado, and San Jose. LA, Portland, Seattle and Dallas will not be traveling to PPL Park this season.

Additionally, 14 of the Union’s 34 total games will be shown on national television. Philadelphia will finish the season against New York on NBC's main network, while also playing once on ESPN, three times on ESPN2, seven times on NBC Sports, and twice on Galavision. The club's local television schedule has yet to be released.

Here's a more detailed breakdown of the schedule.

March 12 – at Portland (ESPN2)

March 18 – Colorado (NBC Sports)
March 24 – at Chicago
March 31 – Vancouver

If you wanted excitement to start the season, you got it.

Philadelphia begins the year at raucous JELD-WEN Field on national television. Portland were incredibly tough at home last season, and you can bet the atmosphere will be electric for the Timbers' home opener.

It doesn't get much easier in Philadelphia's home opener. Colorado were one of just two teams to win at PPL Park last year. Gary Smith will no longer be in charge of the Rapids, but the squad is still stacked with the likes of Jeff Larentowicz, Pablo Mastroeni, and Omar Cummings.

The Union travel to the Windy City on March 24 to take on the Fire. Chicago ended their season on a nice run last year and became a much improved squad under then-interim coach Frank Klopas.

Playing Vancouver at home will be the lone meeting between the two teams. The Union will have to wait until 2013 to play their first match at BC Place, which is a difficult trip to make. The 'Caps will be looking to improve upon a last place finish in their expansion year.

You'd have to happy with positive results against Portland and Colorado. Those are difficult games to begin the year, while Chicago and Vancouver look to be a bit easier based on last season's results.

April 14 – Columbus (NBC Sports)
April 21 – at Chivas USA
April 28 – San Jose

On the surface, April looks like a very favorable stretch for the Union. Manager Peter Nowak's team will get a two-week break before hosting Columbus. The Crew lost leading goal scorer Andres Mendoza in the offseason, and struggled down the stretch in 2011. Philadelphia beat Columbus 1-0 at home last year.

Chivas USA are going through wholesale roster changes this winter, so it's hard to know what to expect. Traveling cross-country is never easy, but the Union have never lost to the Goats at The Home Depot Center.

San Jose are another team looking to get back on track after a poor 2011 campaign. Frank Yallop parted ways with Bobby Convey and brought former Union winger Shea Salinas back to the club. The team also acquired Marvin Chavez and Jean Alexandre from Dallas and RSL, respectively.

It isn't unrealistic to expect anywhere from six to nine points during this stretch. If the Union can hold serve at PPL Park and get a result in Los Angeles, then April will be a very good month.

May 5 – at Seattle (NBC Sports)
May 13 – New York (ESPN2)
May 19 – at FC Dallas
May 26 – at Toronto FC

May looks to be an extremely tough run for the Union.

The team will return to the Pacific Northwest to take on Seattle in one of the best environments in the league. Philadelphia won 2-0 at CenturyLink Field last year, but the Sounders were without playmakers Mauro Rosales, Steve Zakuani, Fredy Montero, and Alvaro Fernandez. That won't happen again this year.

Then, things get really interesting.

Rival New York comes to town for a nationally-televised Sunday matinee at PPL Park. This will be the first of three matchups against the Red Bulls. Philly and New York split last year's series, each winning at home.

It's important for the Union to get a result against either Seattle or New York, because the team has struggled mightily in Dallas. The Union have not scored a goal at Pizza Hut Park in 180 minutes of play. FCD will once again be led by young standout Brek Shea, but the status of defender George John is still up in the air. Dallas recently added Panamanian striker Blas Peréz to bolster their attack after crumbling towards the end of 2011.

The third road trip in May takes the team to Toronto. Aron Winter's side improved drastically over the course of last year, and will no doubt remember the 6-2 thumping they received at the hands of the Union.

In all likelihood, the Union will need to beat New York at home and win one of three road games to walk away with at least six points in May. This is one of the most difficult months on the calendar, and it will be a good indicator of the team's potential.

June 16 – DC United (Galavision)
June 23 – Sporting Kansas City
June 30 – at Houston

The Union get a 20-day break from league play before hosting DC United. Right now, DC have only made one roster change, bringing in veteran Robbie Russell from Real Salt Lake.

Then, Sporting Kansas City come to town. KC will again be one of the favorites in the Eastern Conference this year. Peter Vermes lost Designated Player Omar Bravo, but his squad is still stacked with the likes of Kei Kamara, C.J. Sapong, Graham Zusi, and Teal Bunbury. The Union drew twice with KC last year, and nearly overtook Vermes' side at the end of the season.

Philly ends the month with their first trip to Houston's new home, BBVA Compass Stadium. The Union played the Dynamo four times last year, winning on the road, drawing at home, and losing both playoff games. Houston went all the way to the finals last year, and as long as Dom Kinnear is at the helm, they're always going to be a contender.

There are only three games in June, but they are all against Eastern Conference teams. This is a prime opportunity to get two home results and try to create separation in the standings.

July 4 – at Los Angeles
July 8  – Toronto
July 14 – Montreal
July 21 – at New York (ESPN)
July 29 
 New England (NBC Sports)

July will be a busy month, beginning with three games in a 10 day stretch.

Philly starts in Los Angeles, looking for their first ever road result against the Galaxy. The Union are just 0-3-1 against LA in four tries.

Then, some Canadian flair.

Toronto comes to PPL Park on the 8th, followed by expansion side Montreal on the 14th. Again, back-to-back home games are a great opportunity for six points.

Game two of the New York series takes place at Red Bull Arena on the 21st. This game will be on ESPN and is scheduled for a 2:30 p.m. start.

July wraps up with another nationally televised game against New England at home.

There are three winnable home games and two difficult road trips in July. If the Union are to return to the playoffs this year, these home matches against Eastern Conference foes are absolutely critical.

August 4 – at Montreal
August 12 – Chicago (Galavision)
August 19 – at DC United (NBC Sports)
August 24 – Real Salt Lake (NBC Sports)
August 29 

Philly begin August with the return trip to Montreal. It will be the first time the Union have played at Saputo Stadium.

Chicago come to town on the 12th, then the Union will play back-to-back games on the NBC Sports Network, against DC United and Real Salt Lake.

Philadelphia received a favorable draw by avoiding a trip to Rio Tinto Stadium this season. Nowak's side have yet to beat RSL in Utah, and generally have not played well in the Rocky Mountain altitude and atmosphere.

After RSL, it's a short turnaround for a Wednesday night home game against Columbus.

August looks to be one of the most critical months on the Union calendar. Of the three home games and two road games, four will be played against Eastern Conference teams.

September 1 – at New England
September 15 – at Toronto FC
September 20 – DC United (ESPN2)
September 23 – Houston
September 29 – at Columbus

The Union's schedule is stacked in September and October, with 10 total games over the course of eight weeks.

Every match in the final two months will be played against Eastern Conference foes, which means that we're in for another thrilling end to the season.

It starts on the road at New England and Toronto, then home to DC and Houston. There will be three games in eight days, two at home and one on the road.

After that stretch, September ends with a trip to Crew Stadium.

There are three road games this month, but they are each separated by two weeks. The quick turnaround after the Toronto game will be difficult, but getting Houston and DC at home is a big opportunity for points.

October 3 – at Chicago
October 6 – New England
October 20 – at Houston (NBC Sports)
October 24 – at Sporting Kansas City
October 27 – New York (NBC)

This should be a fantastic final month of the season.

A second trip to Chicago precedes another New England home game.

Then the final three games of the season – at Houston, at Kansas City, home to New York, all in one week.

Call it the "gauntlet" if you want. It's an extremely difficult way to end the year, with nine vital points on the line.

If the standings are tight entering October, the Chicago and New England games will be the crucial for setting the club up for the final three games. There's only a three-day turnaround between those games, but then the squad gets a two-week break before starting that seven-day finale.

All indications point to this being another close race in the Eastern Conference. With the new schedule format, most of the games in September and October will be played against conference foes. That means more relevant matchups in the final weeks of the season.

And what better way to end the '12 season than a finale against New York for the third straight season? This year, Philadelphia's final regular season game will be played at PPL Park in front of a national network audience.

First Kick can't come soon enough.