The Philadelphia Union are about to embark upon their fifth Major League Soccer season, one which proceeds numerous off-season roster changes. Hope springs eternal, as the cliché goes, but here are the five points that bare watching with a bit of trepidation.
The center backs: The team has gone from Carlos Valdes to Jeff Parke, and now to, presumably Austin Berry. Union acquired Ethan White in a draft day trade, though the fourth-year pro seems slated to be depth at the outset. If that sounds like a regression, you and are reading this the same way. I've found that a critical aspect of any good central defensive pairing is continuity. It allows players to understand how to work with each other, and in this case, work with Amobi Okugo.
Talent, of course, trumps all. If Berry were to find his 2012 Rookie-of-the-Year form, then this becomes less of a worry. It concerns me that Chicago were willing to part with a young player who had shown promise, therefore it should concern Union fans, as well.
MacMath as the starter? That gasp heard around the Delaware Valley in the early afternoon of January 16th was caused by Union trading for the first overall selection and taking a goalkeeper, Andre Blake. The SuperDraft is not like the entry drafts in the NFL or NBA where the first round picks are all expected to make immediate impacts. However, when a team trades up to select someone first overall, that means something. Zac MacMath has been named the starter going into the season, so there is no change there. Yet. Young goalkeepers are prone to mental errors during the course of a match, and we've all seen evidence of his errors. I wonder how it will sit with Zac that his club would make such a move. Will it motivate him to see some quality competition who isn't a veteran journeyman brought in expressly as a mentor? Or will it cause him to see writing on the wall and press so hard to keep his position that his propensity to make mental mistakes becomes exacerbated?
Jack McInerney's consistency? Jack got a call-up to train with the U.S. National Team on the strength of his 10 goals in 14 matches start to the season. His second half of the season saw him feature in 17 matches, but only find the net twice. This is where the concern comes from. Which striker is he? The one that set the early pace for the entire rest of the league to follow, or the one who became an afterthought once brought back down to earth coming back from his national team sleepover? Forwards are always in the spotlight since it's their responsibility to get themselves on the score sheet and in the television highlights. The fortunes of this club lie at the feet, and occasionally the head, of McInerney.
The new midfield: Tacit to McInerney's success this season will be the play of the retooled midfield. Much ado was made of the acquisition of former U.S. international Maurice Edu. He'll certainly add quality to the side, as should other newcomers Cristian Maidana and Vincent Nogueira. Again, with the continuity talk. I'm all for bringing in players who are of better quality, or still have the capacity to grow. However, with all of these changes being made at once, I'd expect many a bumpy road. The main issue I foresee here is getting all of the players on the same page: getting the new editions acclimated to the side, and getting the holdovers used to what the new crop can offer. The fact that Carroll will continue to be involved will put more strain on the other central mid or mids to play both ways, so the fluidity of play will be an issue.
The Right Wing: When I type "right" I imply both direction and as a matter of correctness. This group of players has been upgraded in the midfield, which was sorely needed. Now, it is incumbent upon Coach John Hackworth to make the correct selections. Danny Cruz is a Hackworth favorite because he has a tremendous work rate. He is despised by some in the fan base for his lack of skill with the ball at his feet. Sebastien Le Toux is the franchise's all-time leading scorer who upon his return from a one year exile re-invented himself as a winger, notching 12 assists last season. Noguiera or Maidana could be deployed on this wing simply as a way to have them on the field with some roster congestion in the central positions. The choice of Cruz would suggest Hackworth wants to focus on defensive coverage, which is what I expect to have happen.