MLSsoccer.com is previewing each of the 19 teams in Major League Soccer, beginning with the clubs that brought up the bottom of the table in 2011 and ending with the league's newest addition, the Montreal Impact. This is part one of two previewing Philadelphia's 2012 season. You can find Part 2 here.
Setting the Scene
After an inconsistent expansion season in 2010, the Philadelphia Union enjoyed an impressive turnaround last year, finishing with an 11-8-15 overall record and earning a spot in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Union exited the postseason quickly with two straight losses to the Houston Dynamo but hope for a deeper run in 2012.
2011 Philadelphia Union Goals
Despite their steady improvement from Year One to Year Two, Union manager Peter Nowak did a lot of retooling in the offseason, bringing in 11 new players (plus re-signing GK Chase Harrison) while parting ways with some key cogs from last year’s team, including goalkeeper and captain Faryd Mondragón – who was granted a release so he could finish his career in his native Colombia – and leading scorer Sébastien Le Toux, who was traded to Vancouver for allocation money. With those two out of town, a heavy burden will fall upon second-year 'keeper Zac MacMath, a young batch of strikers and the slew of international players signed in the offseason to keep the Union headed in the right direction in Year Three.
In and Out
IN: F Josué Martínez (12/7: transfer, Deportivo Saprissa); M Jimmy McLaughlin (12/12: Home Grown); M Gabriel Gómez (12/21: Indios/Mexico); D Porfirio López (12/22: Dalian Haichang/China); F Chandler Hoffman (1/12: SuperDraft); M Greg Jordan (1/12: SuperDraft); D Raymon Gaddis (1/12: SuperDraft); F Krystian Witkowski (1/17: supplemental draft); F Antoine Hoppenot (1/17: supplemental draft); F Lionard Pajoy (2/8: Itagüí Ditaires); D Chris Albright (2/13: free); GK Chase Harrison (2/21: free)
OUT: D Juan Diego González (11/23: waived); G Thorne Holder (11/23: waived); M Justin Mapp (11/23: expansion draft); M Stefani Miglioranzi (12/12: option declined); F Levi Houapeu (1/17: option declined); M Morgan Langley (1/17: option declined); M/D Ryan Richter (1/17: option declined); D Joe Tait (1/17: option declined); F Veljko Paunovic (1/18: retired); G Faryd Mondragón (1/30: released); F Sébastien Le Toux (1/30: trade to Vancouver); M Kyle Nakazawa (2/1: trade to LA); M Nizar Khalfan (2/22: released)
Star Attraction: Freddy Adu
It was a massive story in Philly when the ex-wonderkind returned to MLS in August to play for his first professional coach in Nowak after a rough few years overseas. But the first chapter of the Adu-Nowak reunion did not go quite as planned as the midfielder was slowed by an ankle injury and registered just two goals and one assist in 609 minutes for Philly. Now, with a healthier ankle and a full preseason to get readjusted to MLS, can Adu rekindle the magic that once made him the most hyped soccer prospect in the United States?
Unsung Hero: Brian Carroll
Carroll’s middle name should be “unsung hero.” The defensive midfielder (pictured right) has led his team to the playoffs in all nine years he’s been in the league and yet has never been named an All-Star. Last year, teammate Danny Califf called him “one of the most underrated guys in the league,” but the Union certainly recognize his value linking the defense to the attack and understand that his addition was one of the main reasons for last season’s big-time turnaround. As one of only a handful of MLS veterans on the Union, Carroll’s leadership and steadying presence in the midfield was also vital last year – and will be once again in 2012.
Ready for Primetime: Zac MacMath
There are a number of young offensive players who could be poised for breakout years (Roger Torres and Jack McInerney immediately spring to mind) but none will have the spotlight on them as much as 20-year-old goalkeeper MacMath. Thrust into the starting role maybe a year earlier than the Union coaches would have liked because of Mondragón’s request to play in Colombia, MacMath will have a lot of weight on his shoulders in just his second year in the league. But the Union love the goalkeeper’s talent and maturity, and MacMath showed he’s certainly capable of big things when he went undefeated in seven starts while filling in for Mondragón last season.
Storylines to Watch
1. Who will score the goals? Over the past two seasons, Le Toux had 25 goals and 20 assists, which made him a part of nearly 60 percent of Philly’s scoring. With the Frenchman now in Vancouver, who if anyone will emerge as the team’s go-to offensive player? The Union certainly have a lot of options in Danny Mwanga, McInerney, Chandler Hoffman, Josué Martinez and Lionard Pajoy, and the Philly coaches appear to be high on all of them.
2. Who will leave for the Olympics? It’s likely that the Union will lose at least three players during the Olympics as Adu, McInerney and midfielder Amobi Okugo were all invited to the most recent US U-23 camp. MacMath and defender Sheanon Williams are also possibilities to go to London, which would leave the Union pretty shorthanded for part of the season.
What He Said
“We have a bunch of young guys that we’re looking to get a lot out of this year. I think a lot of those guys are ready. This is going to be a big season for a lot of us.”
– Union defender Sheanon Williams
If Everything Goes Right
It’s hard to get an accurate reading on the Union since a few of Philly’s key players have yet to play an MLS game. But if Gabriel Gómez, Martinez, Pajoy and Porfirio López can perform as well as the coaches think they can, the team’s youngest players continue to make big strides and the club’s veteran backline led by Califf and Carlos Valdés aids in MacMath’s development, a deep playoff run is certainly possible.
WATCH: McInerney, Adu, Califf, MacMath preview 2012 season