The 2011 Philadelphia Union showed much improvement over year one. The club finished in third place and made the playoffs while increasing their win total by three and points by 17. They were tough to play against, especially at home, where they lost just once all season.
Looking closer at the numbers, the team relied mostly on their defensive effort to gain results, going from a 1.63 goals against average in 2010 to a 1.06 GAA in 2011. They were tied for the second best defensive mark with Real Salt Lake. Only the MLS Cup champion LA Galaxy had a better defensive record.
So how do they improve again in 2012 and take the next step towards a longer playoff run and a shot at advancing to MLS Cup?
First, they will need to maintain their solid defensive play. In all sports, championship teams win with their defensive play. That said, the offense needs to show improvement in order for the team to progress. If you look at the numbers, the Union averaged 1.29 goals per game this past season, which is higher than in year one. However, those numbers are somewhat skewed by a six-goal game vs. Toronto and seven goals scored in two games vs. New England. Sebastien Le Toux was their only prolific scorer, finishing with 11, but remember, even he scored only once in the first 22 games.
Another area that needed improvement coming into the offseason was depth. The Union have arguably the best corps of young players in MLS, but they could have used a couple extra experienced hands down the stretch last season.
So far, in preparation for 2012, the club has addressed some of their offensive needs, improved their defense and increased their depth. Let's look at four recent signings.
Josue Martinez -- This is a player who can help Philadelphia's offense. The 21-year-old is a highly-touted Costa Rican international who was rumored to be Philly-bound last year, at the time of the Carlos Ruiz transfer to Veracruz. He tallied 18 goals in 43 game played with Saprissa. How quickly he can adapt to MLS is the bigger question. At 5-10 and weighing in at 159 pounds, he will need to handle the physical play in MLS. Martinez helped Costa Rica to a fourth place finish in the last U-20 World Cup.
Gabriel Gomez -- He will add talent and versatility to the squad, as he is able to play in the midfield or in the back. The guess here is he will most likely play in the center of the midfield with Brian Carroll, especially with the team signing Porfirio Lopez. Gomez is an international player with Panama, helping them improbably reach the 2011 Gold Cup semifinals. He converted a penalty kick in an opening round upset win over the USA.
Porfirio Lopez -- This left back either makes the team better defensively, or he gives the squad added depth in the back, which was missing last year. If he starts at left back, this would allow Gabe Farfan to compete for the left midfield slot, while also providing depth on defense. Farfan did a nice job for the Union after taking over for the traded Jordan Harvey. If he is given the chance to compete for the left back spot, it will be great competition for Lopez.
Nizar Khalfan -- Picked up in the waiver draft from Vancouver, Khalfan is a speedy outside midfielder who will add some quickness to the team. He won't have Justin Mapp's experience, but salary-wise he has given the team more flexibility to bolster other areas. Khalfan had one goal and four assists in 2011. He could be a starter, or at the very least compete for regular playing time.
The Union also signed Jimmy McLaughlin to a Home Grown contract, but expectations should be tempered for the outside midfielder in his rookie season. Any contributions from the 18-year-old in 2012 should be considered a bonus.
Philadelphia aren't done tweaking their roster for 2012, especially with the SuperDraft coming up in January. I would think they might still be shopping for another option at forward, and perhaps someone else who could give them more experience in their defensive depth chart.
These are exciting times for a Union team that made great strides in year two. In year three, they look to take another step forward, perhaps as far as MLS Cup.