With First Kick on tap for this Saturday, there’s plenty of anticipation and optimism surrounding the 2011 Philadelphia Union. There are also a number of uncertainties, some that will become more concrete in short order and others that will take the entire season to unfold.
It'd be wise to expect the unexpected, but that doesn't stop us for asking the questions in the first place. So here's a look at five that will dictate the season for the second-year Union.
Is the backline deep enough?
On paper, the answer to this question is no. Only five players on the roster are listed as defenders, with a presumed starting lineup of (left to right): Jordan Harvey, Carlos Valdés, Danny Califf and Sheanon Williams. Colombian Juan Diego González is ready to step in if a starting center back can't go, but what about one of the wing backs? Or what if two defenders are unavailable at any point during a long 34-match regular season?
That’s where the technical staff has gotten a little creative. Both Michael Farfan and Ryan Richter have seen time at wing back in preseason, which isn’t to say that either or both are destined for a full-blown position change. But it does prove that they’re versatile, increasing their odds of earning playing time and improving the club’s overall depth.
Not to mention, don't forget how comfortable Amobi Okugo looked along the backline during stints with the U-20 US National Team and Generation adidas in the offseason.
How dangerous will Carlos Ruiz be in 2011?
There are essentially three options here. The first is one Union fans don’t even want to think about: Ruiz failing to live up to his ability for one reason or another, much like in 2008, his last season in MLS. The second is Guatemala’s all-time leading scorer settling in nicely as the club’s second or third scoring option, putting away 5-9 goals while showing glimpses but not all of his immense potential.
Then there’s option C: the two-time Golden Boot winner emerges as one of the league’s premier attacking threats once again. If Ruiz is able to challenge for the club or even league lead in goals scored, not only will Philadelphia’s attack be more diverse, it could be one of the best in MLS.
(Of course there’s the tantilizing fourth possibility of Ruiz recapturing his unstoppable 2002-2003 form, but let’s not get greedy here.)
Will the club’s new faces integrate relatively seamlessly?
If there’s a risk heading into 2011, it’s that team cohesion might not match that of others clubs who have had their core in place for longer. Despite reports out of Union camp that the club has quickly developed a tight-knit bond, there’s no substitute for time and match experience.
Will 10 new players on the roster be able to find their roles quickly enough? Will there be an adjustment period with at least four of the additions – Ruiz, Valdés, Brian Carroll and Faryd Mondragón – likely to crack the opening day starting lineup? The answer will determine where the Union fall in the standings come season’s end.
How will a crowded midfield shake out?
Good problems are really just decisions that need to be made. This is one of them. Nine players on the roster are vying for time in Manager Peter Nowak’s midfield, but only four will earn starting spots if the club uses some variation of a 4-4-2, the club’s preferred shape in 2010. For the sake of argument, let’s discuss seven who have a legitimate claim when the opening whistle blows this Saturday in Houston (TV: 8:00pm, 6abc).
Here's a challenge: Name three of seven who shouldn’t be out there between Carroll, Justin Mapp, Roger Torres, Amobi Okugo, Kyle Nakazawa, Stefani Miglioranzi and All-Star Sebastien Le Toux.
last player on this list, who will likely line up as a
right-sided attacking midfielder with Ruiz and Danny Mwanga up top, is
a lock for one of the four spots. Four-time Supporters’ Shield winner
is a near certain starter as a defensive midfielder.
Justin Mapp proved he deserves starter’s minutes over half a season with
so let's say he receives the nod on the left.
But then what? The final spot is anyone’s guess. Much will depend on the club’s formation against the Dynamo, and no one will really know until lineups are released about an hour before kick off.
How much can (and should) the Union improve?
most loaded question of the lot. Yes, there will be a quantifiable
win-loss total to compare with last year’s 8-15-7 mark, but what’s an
improvement? Is the marker for success in Year Two a spot in the 10-team
Cup playoffs? Who would be fully satisfied with an early exit in
play, or any exit for that matter?
At this point, before a minute of the 2011 season has been played, it’s difficult to create an accurate barometer with which you could measure Philadelphia's success. We’ll have to see what the new-look Union look like in the flesh before applying any sort of meaningful expectations, and even then we’re in for some surprises.
But isn’t that precisely why this is so much fun?