A different-looking Philadelphia Union will take to the field for their 2012 opener Monday night on the road vs. the Portland Timbers (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
Philadelphia's 28-man roster includes 13 new faces, many of whom will be expected to play a prominent role with this year's club.
Of the newcomers, one would expect left back Porfirio Lopez, central midfielder Gabriel Gomez, and attackers Lionard Pajoy and Josue Martinez to see significant playing time in 2012, beginning Monday.
Of the returnees, there are three key players to keep an eye on. The first is second-year goalkeeper Zac MacMath, now the team's number one goalkeeper. MacMath had a terrific rookie season that he hopes to build upon. Third-year pro Danny Mwanga will be expected to continue his growth, which the Union hope will translate into more goals.
The third returnee to watch is Freddy Adu. Where is he positioned on the field? What is his responsibility when he's out there? Adu came in late last year and had some injury issues, but this can be a huge year for him both for club and country. Adu is expected to be a key cog for the Union and for the U.S. in Olympic qualifying this spring, as well as the Olympics this summer if the U.S. qualify. He could also garner attention for the senior U.S. team for World Cup qualifying this summer.
No one knows what to expect from the Union on Monday since their preseason did not include any games with MLS teams and their recent trip to Costa Rica was kept under the radar. Contrast this to Portland's preseason, where they were unbeaten in seven games played, outscoring opponents 11-3, with four shutouts to their credit.
Like the Union, Portland have made some major changes during the offseason. If newcomer Kris Boyd can live up to his Designated Player status, the Timbers offense is guaranteed to be better. Last year Kenny Cooper led Portland with eight goals. Boyd is expected to easily reach double figures in goals. The Scotsman scored 164 goals in 296 games in the Scottish Premier League, leading that league in goals four different seasons.
If Portland is to improve enough to make the playoffs in the West, that effort will be led by their two returning Colombians, Jorge Perlaza and Diego Chara. Perlaza notched six goals and two assists in 2011 while Chara had two goals and four assists. Can they lift their play in year two, like fellow Colombian David Ferreira did in his second year with FC Dallas? Another player to keep an eye on is second-year pro Darlington Nagbe out of the University of Akron, whose upside is enormous. In his rookie season, he connected for two goals and three assists, including the MLS Goal of the Year.
While there are plenty of questions for both teams on Monday, we do know that JELD-Wen Field will be sold out with a sea of green. An intimidating atmosphere and a smaller turf field will greet the Union in their first game. Like PPL Park, JELD-Wen is a true home field advantage.
Whether you’re a player, coach, fan or broadcaster, Portland, Oregon will be a happening place on Monday. It will be exciting to get the season started.