While many of the key Union players remain in place, the big story during the offseason in Philadelphia was the busy period the team had in terms of their personnel moves.
The club moved to improve and strengthen spots in all areas of the field, starting with a new look in the midfield. With Maurice Edu playing alongside Brian Carroll, and Vincent Nogueira in front of them, the team took what was perceived as an area of weakness, and turned it into strength.
Cristian Maidana gives the club another player in the attack that should make the left side of the Union much better. He'll play on the same side as left back Fabinho who likes to go forward as we saw last season.
The team hated to part with central defender Jeff Parke who cited personal/family reasons for leaving Philadelphia, but in Austin Berry they have found a younger and potentially more effective player to partner with rising star Amobi Okugo.
Add in goalkeeper Andre Blake to compete with Zac MacMath, and you begin to understand why many of the soccer writers and broadcasters have considered the Union among the top three teams in terms of improvement during the offseason.
On paper, the Union look like a playoff contender, but no one wins or loses a title on paper. How will this team play together on the field, beginning with a tough match Saturday night in Portland against the Timbers?
Regardless of Saturday's outcome, I think it's going to take a good six to eight games for the team to come together, maybe longer. Edu, Maidana, and Nogueira have to get used to not only their teammates, but the league, the referees, and travel. A short preseason didn't help the club much, especially with the injuries they suffered.
Of this trio, I expect Nogueira to adapt the quickest since he was playing on a regular basis most recently in a physical French League with Sochaux. Like many of the Union fans I met during the club’s “Meet the Team” event at Dave and Busters, I am excited for the start of the season. As Major League Soccer begins its 19th season, here are some other storylines to look at:
In a World Cup year, how will this effect Major League Soccer? While the league will not play any games during the group stage, there will be several games missed by MLS players who will be on World Cup rosters. How many games might Graham Zusi and Matt Besler miss for Sporting Kansas City, Tim Cahill for New York, Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez for Los Angeles? How those squads and others fare without their key players will go a long way towards where they will finish in the standings.
Will the “Big 3” help Toronto FC make the playoffs for the first time in their history? Michael Bradley, Jermain DeFoe and Julio Cesar are all expected to play a part in Brazil, with Julio Cesar's team, Brazil among the heavy favorites to win the tournament. Toronto easily spent the most money in the offseason. Many feel this is the most improved team on paper, in the league.
What kind of an impact will Clint Dempsey have in Seattle? The Sounders clearly expect more from Dempsey than we saw last year in both Tottenham and Seattle.
For certain, they are expecting more than we have seen lately from Clint, during his loan stint with Fulham and his recent time with the U.S. National Team. If the Sounders are to contend for an MLS Cup, they will need a big year from Dempsey, who will also miss time because of the World Cup.
What can we expect in this rebuild of a year for Chivas USA? With MLS buying the club and looking to sell to someone who will keep it in LA, what kind of a year will this franchise have in their last year under the Chivas name?
Does Real Salt Lake take a step back with Jason Kreis leaving, or does his longtime assistant Jeff Cassar keep the ship on its course?
So many questions, so many story lines as we get ready for another MLS season.
It all begins on Saturday with the Union at Portland. Caleb Porter's side won the west last year, and they could be an even better side in 2014.
We'll have the game for you on The Comcast Network starting at 10:30 p.m.
Read JP Dellacamera's past Play-by-Play Plus columns by clicking the link.