Philadelphia Union's first offseason is approximately half over, and to date there have been more players lost (Seitz, Moreno, Salinas, Fred) than gained (Brian Carroll, Zach Pfeffer). The second half of the offseason figures to reverse that trend, especially in light of comments Manager Peter Nowak has made on numerous occasions alluding to reinforcements being on the way.
While the club’s core is still very much in tact, the Union are likely a few impact players away from seriously contending in 2011. There’s a good chance Carroll ends up being more valuable than any of the club’s outgoing players, but even if that's the case the success of the Union’s offseason still hangs in the balance.
SuperDraft Success 2.0
Philadelphia walked away from the 2010 SuperDraft with an embarrassment of riches, but they also had the top overall pick and three of the top seven selections. While that’s not the case this year, there’s no reason the club can’t emerge as draft day winners again. The Union already have a dynamic young core, so quantity is of secondary importance. The objective will be to hit it big at number five overall and hope to uncover value later in the draft. Finding talent that can help significantly in 2011 would be nice, but should be considered icing on the cake.
Starting with a Bang
The 2010 season was essentially doomed by a 2-7-1 start, eight matches of which were played away from Philadelphia. It goes without saying that a hot start would have the reverse effect, inspiring a level of confidence that was only present in short spurts during the club’s expansion campaign. For all the accomplishments achieved last year, one that proved elusive was Philadelphia’s first winning streak in league play. If the Union can check that box within their first five matches, it would go a long way towards psychologically distancing the club from their expansion season.
Surviving the Road
It’s no secret that the Union struggled mightily away from home in 2010. That needs to change if the club hopes to make a playoff push in 2011, and it shouldn’t be too difficult to take a meaningful step in the right direction. Philadelphia only managed a 2-12-1 record on the road last season, worst in the league. The Union don’t need to become world-beaters away from PPL Park -- only LA and San Jose managed more wins than losses on the road last season -- but they need to be respectable.
For perspective, the least number of road points any 2010 playoff team mustered was 17 (ironically the MLS Cup champion Colorado Rapids). While that number will likely fall with 10 playoff teams in 2011, the Union need to walk away from road matches with at least one point more often than not. Every 2010 playoff outfit cleared that benchmark with plenty of room to spare.
Development of M&M
Whether the club brings in another proven scoring option remains to be seen, but either way the success of the offense will hinge in large part on the progression of two players already on the roster: 2010 first rounders Danny Mwanga and Jack McInerney.
Mwanga was dangerous in stretches as a rookie, but the Union need him to consistently attack the goal. The youngster’s finishing ability is exceptional at this stage in his career, but there is room for improvement when it comes to beating defenders 1v1. Reaching double-digit tallies is certainly feasible with a full season of action.
As for McInerney, the key will be earning more playing time. The 18-year-old was very efficient when he saw the field, but he needs to prove to Nowak that he’s capable of maintaining the same quality when featured more frequently. If he can, we may see a starting combination of McInerney and Mwanga sooner rather than later.
It’s hard to win consistently without a potent offense, but near impossible with a leaky defense. The Union suffered through the first half of 2010 with the latter but were able to right the ship down the stretch, save for a few setbacks. With no key defenders lost to this point -- although the status of Michael Orozco Fiscal’s loan remains uncertain at this point -- continuity should do a world of good in year two.
One could argue that a lack of cohesion was the main reason Philadelphia struggled early on the defensive side of the ball, but that won’t be a viable excuse in 2011. After managing only two shutouts in 2010, it’s not an exaggeration to say that exponential growth is the expectation.
Rivalries Ramping Up
Epic rivalries aren’t built in a day, or a year for that matter. But the foundation for a heated I-95 rivalry between the Union, New York Red Bulls and DC United is undeniably established and intensifying by the match. The progression was especially evident at Philadelphia’s last home match again New York, where spirits were elevated both on the pitch and in the stands. Another year promises to ratchet the animosity up even further after both season series were split in 2010.
Sorting Out the Midfield
If the Union are stocked at one position its midfield. The technical staff will have some difficult decisions to make, and that’s not accounting for any potential acquisitions between now and First Kick. Without even considering Nick Zimmerman, J.T. Noone, Toni Stahl and Zach Pfeffer, the four midfielders on the roster who likely face the toughest road to significant minutes in 2011, Nowak will look for four starters from a pool of Carroll, Eduardo Coudet, Justin Mapp, Roger Torres (assuming he remains with the club in 2011), Kyle Nakazawa, Stefani Miglioranzi, Amobi Okugo, Andrew Jacobson, and potentially Sebastien Le Toux. Le Toux could easily slide up top to open up a midfield slot, but that still leaves eight players vying for half as many starting spots. Will Nowak rotate his options as frequently as he did in 2010 -- 12 different players started in the midfield -- or will a more consistent foursome emerge?
Spreading the Wealth
Le Toux became a true superstar in his first season with the Union, breaking the MLS record for percentage involvement in his club’s goals (71.4 percent). However, if the Union hope to take the next step as a franchise, that metric needs to decrease. Not that Le Toux’s value will diminish -- it’s clear that the offense should, and will, revolve around the Best XI member again -- but others must share the offensive burden. Mwanga is the most likely candidate to challenge Le Toux’s overall goal scoring total, but the midfield also needs to increase their collective productivity in the attacking third. No midfielder produced more than four goals (Fred) or six assists (Torres) in 2010, and no midfielder currently on the roster netted more than a single goal. Aside from Le Toux and Mwanga, who will step up and put the ball in the back of the net in 2011?
The Next Zach Pfeffer
The signing of 15-year-old Zach Pfeffer took Philadelphia’s youth movement to a new level, but it’s only the beginning for a unique academy structure that is only now beginning to take root. Youth development guru John Hackworth is constructing an innovative “club-country” model for the Union's academy, meaning players will remain with their respective youth clubs and be called upon to train with Union youth sides. The objective is to cast as wide of a net as possible, rather than competing with other top local clubs and potentially missing out on players.
So now the question is who’s the next Pfeffer? Or better yet, how prolific will the Union academy be in terms of producing first-team caliber players? The verdict won’t be delivered in 2011, but we should get an idea as to how far the academy setup has come in a short period of time. Speaking of Pfeffer, will the youngster find his way into a league match this season as a 16-year-old?
Playoffs in Year Two?
Yes, the Union are built for the long run. And yes, it usually takes more than two years for an expansion team to perennially contend. But the thinking heading into 2011 is clear for Philadelphia: playoffs or bust. Captain Danny Califf echoed that very sentiment when he recently stated, “I wouldn’t say it’d be a disaster, but it’d be pretty poor if we can’t make the postseason next year.” Those words haven’t been muttered by Nowak, but you get the sense he feels the same way, especially with 10 teams qualifying for the 2011 edition.
While the Union finished their inaugural season with a record of only 8-15-7, the campaign was generally deemed successful for an expansion franchise. The combination of Le Toux's breakout, flashes of brilliance from a number of youngsters, consistent quality in the run of play, triumphant victories in the Home Opener, PPL Park Opener and Home Finale, and a feverishly devoted fan base all contributed to the notion of a positive start. In order to maintain the current momentum, the Union must play past the 34-match regular season MLS schedule. Ultimately, that'll be the storyline that deservedly receives the most attention.
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