For the fourth straight season, Philadelphia Union will test its mettle against a club from the top flight of English football.
Stoke City, promoted to the Barclay’s Premier League in 2008, wraps up a three-game U.S. tour on the banks of the Delaware River.
It’s a transformative time for the Staffordshire club, nicknamed the “Potters”. This will be the first season in eight years that manager Tony Pulis will not be calling the shots.
The reins have been handed to Mark Hughes, the Welsh striker whose lengthy career featured more than 100 goals for Manchester United and stints with powerhouse clubs like Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Chelsea.
As a manager, he’s bounced around over the years, spending a chunk of time at Blackburn Rovers before moving on to Manchester City, Fulham, Queens Park Rangers, and now Stoke.
He’s tasked with improving a team that remained mostly stagnant in Pulis’ later years. Stoke was seen as a “long ball” team under the veteran manager, a style of play some deride as either unimaginative or too direct. Over the years, Stoke City became the poster child for physical, simple play at the expense of passing, possession, and/or creativity.
Whether those criticisms are warranted or not is mostly irrelevant now. Hughes is tasked with providing a kick-start to a club that finished 13th in the top flight of English football last season.
This will be the third and final match of the Potters’ United States tour. Stoke redeemed a 2-0 loss in Houston with a 1-0 shutout against Dallas on the weekend. Philadelphia, meantime, is 1-2-0 all-time against English competition, defeating Everton but falling to Manchester United and Aston Villa by 1-0 scorelines.
Hughes is looking to improve an attack that accounted for just 34 goals in the Premier League last season. Only relegated QPR (whom Hughes began the season with) scored fewer goals than Stoke in the 2012-13 campaign.
At the top of the list was Irish international Jonathan Walters, who tallied eight in the league and added three more goals in the FA Cup and League Cup tournaments. He bagged the winning goal against Dallas and figures to be a big part of Hughes’ plans this season.
Former Liverpool man Peter Crouch had seven for Stoke last year in 28 league appearances. Now 32-years-old, the six-foot-seven striker had an up-and-down year in 2012, highlighted by a shot to the face that resulted in lost teeth and corrective surgery. At the top of his game, he’s a big man with good feet and surprising agility to boot.
Striker Kenwyne Jones joined up with the team following Trinidad and Tobago’s exit from the Gold Cup. He was relegated mostly to a bench role at the end of last season. It was a similar situation for Cameron Jerome, who came off the bench in 21 of his 30 appearances last year.
The Stoke midfield isn’t flashy, but it’s filled with blue collar players.
Glenn Whelan, Charlie Adam, and Steven N’Zonzi all played prominent roles in the midfield last season. Michael Kightly and Matthew Etherington played fewer minutes in 2012 as they drifted in and out of favor with management.
Former FC Dallas man Brek Shea is a bit of a question mark at this point. He had a fabulous Gold Cup and he looks healthy again, so we’ll see how he fits into Hughes’ 2013-14 plans.
No doubt you’ll recognize fellow American internationals Maurice Edu and Geoff Cameron on the defensive side of the pitch.
A holding mid by trade, Edu spent last season on loan with Bursaspor in the Turkish League. He’ll have a chance to prove himself under new management this season. On the other hand, Cameron was a regular in Pulis’ squad and played all over the place – center back, right back, even in the middle of the park. He was used in a flexible fashion, similar to his days of shuffling under Dominic Kinnear in Houston.
The jury is still out on whether the constant switching of positions is really helping or hurting his long term stock.
The rest of the Stoke defense is filled with physical, no-nonsense players. Captain Ryan Shawcross is first-choice center half alongside Robert Huth. Fullback Andy Wilkinson is a Stoke veteran while converted left back Marc Wilson has featured fairly consistently since 2010.
There’s some newfound versatility in the back this season though, with the additions of Marc Muniesa from Barcelona and Erik Pieters from PSV Eindhoven. The 21 year old Muniesa couldn’t break into the first team at the Camp Nou and suffered an ACL injury in 2012, but he has the skill that seems inherent in products of the La Masia youth academy. Pieters is a left sided Dutch fullback who’s more of an adventurous, forward-thinking type. He inherited the starting left back job for his country following the retirement of longtime captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst.
The crop of goalkeepers is among the best in the EPL as well. Bosnia and Herzegovina international Asmir Begovic is first-choice at the Britannia Stadium. Thomas Sorensen is now 37-years-old but has years and years of EPL experience. Also factor in 20-year-old Jack Butland who came through the England youth ranks and will eventually find himself starting for a Premiership club in the future.
Stoke City FC roster for U.S. tour:
Forwards: Peter Crouch, Jonathan Walters, Cameron Jerome, Kenwyne Jones
Midfielders: Charlie Adam, Glenn Whelan, Florent Cuvelier, Wilson Palacios, Steven N’Zonzi, Matthew Etherington, Michael Kightly, Jamie Ness, Maurice Edu, Brek Shea (played with USA in Gold Cup)
Defenders: Robert Huth, Ryan Shawcross, Geoff Cameron, Erik Pieters, Ryan Shotton, Andy Wilkinson, Marc Wilson, Marc Muniesa, Jordan Keane
Goalkeepers: Asmir Begovic, Thomas Sorensen, Jack Butland
Note: winger Jermaine Pennant was denied entry into the United States. He signed a new contract for the upcoming season.
Stoke City Fast Facts
Location: Stoke-on-Trent, England
Stadium: Britannia Stadium (Capacity 28,000)
Nicknames: The Potters
Manager: Mark Hughes
Main rival: Port Vale (Football League One)
Premier League titles: none
FA Cup: Runners-up in 2010-11
2012-2013 league record: 9 wins, 15 draws, 14 losses (42 points, 13th place)