After entering the league in 2010, the Philadelphia Union reached the playoffs in their second season only to backslide down the standings last year. A 2-7-2 start cost head coach Peter Nowak his job; assistant coach John Hackworth was installed as the new manager, finishing the year 8-11-4 to leapfrog the New England Revolution for 8th in the Eastern Conference. The 18 total defeats between both coaches were the most incurred by the Union in their first three seasons of existence.
Returning to the City of Brotherly Love is Sebastien Le Toux, the French forward who was the team’s leading scorer in 2010 and 2011. Le Toux spent last season between Vancouver and the Red Bulls, part of separate trades that sent him across the continent and back again. He was returned to the Union in December in a sign-and-trade by New York. If the Frenchman and last year’s leading scorer, young Yankee Jack McInerney, can find synergy in the attack there is definite goal-poaching potential in Philadelphia.
But while the team rallied after Nowak’s firing, how will they respond in their first full season under Hackworth? Will the new additions mitigate the recent loss of talent? Is this team ready to push for a playoff berth in the ultra-deep Eastern Conference?
Philadelphia’s preseason action all occurred at the Disney Pro Soccer Challenge in Orlando. The team struggled through a 1-1 draw with USL Pro side Orlando City, only a late equalizer from Supplemental Draft selection Leo Fernandes preventing the ignominious defeat to the lower-division club.
The Union were less fortunate in their next match, a 4-0 drubbing by the Columbus Crew. Chase Harrison got the start in goal for Philadelphia in that contest, looking overmatched against a tough Crew attack. The match showed the gulf that still exists between the Union and other Eastern Conference playoff contenders; last season Columbus finished one point out of a playoff spot and 16 points ahead of Philly in the standings.
In between group matches in Orlando, the Union traveled to Jacksonville. Taking on the Montreal Impact, Philadelphia managed a scoreless draw against one of the sides with which they will battle to improve in 2013.
The group stage of the round-robin opening round concluded with a resounding result, the Union pitching a shutout against Toronto FC. Antoine Hoppenot had a goal and an assist, midfield maestro Roger Torres had another goal and the insurance was piled on by Matt Kassel in the second half of a convincing 3-0 performance.
Philly would notch a 1-1 draw in a scrimmage against D.C. United; three days later the Union dropped their third-place match in the Disney Pro Soccer Challenge to a United side playing more of its starters, falling 2-0 to goals from Dwayne De Rosario and Lionard Pajoy. The result wrapped up a 1-2-3 preseason for Hackworth’s squad as they returned to Pennsylvania to prepare for the season opener.
ROSTER OUTLOOK FOR 2013
The goalkeeper situation in Philadelphia centers around Zac MacMath, the team’s fifth overall pick in the 2011 SuperDraft. After seven starts in his rookie campaign, MacMath was undefeated (3-0-4) with 1.07 goals against per game. The young keeper suffered a sophomore slump after taking over the starting role, finishing the year with 17 of the team’s 18 losses. He will be spelled by one of two backups: either Chris Konopka, signed last season from the MLS Goalkeeper Pool, or former Real Salt Lake draftee Chase Harrison.
On the back line, longtime MLS veteran Jeff Parke arrived in an offseason trade. Selected as the defender of the year last season by the Sounders, Parke should help shore up the central defense and make MacMath’s job easier. He will likely start alongside Malian anchor Bakary Soumare, who arrived from French side Boulogne last season. The flanks will be patrolled by Raymon Gaddis and Sheanon Williams, a pair of 23-year-old fullbacks that solidified their spots last season. Also in the mix is Chris Albright, the former U.S. men’s national team defender entering his 14th MLS season. Beyond that the team will likely need to work on filling out its depth via trade or trialists, with midfielder Gabriel Farfan offering the possibility of filling in at left back.
The midfield beyond Farfan represents perhaps the deepest and strongest unit for the Union. Colombian dynamo Roger Torres is the catalyst for the offense, helping control play throughout the pitch. Michael Lahoud, Chivas USA’s first-round SuperDraft selection in 2009, joined the team last season and should have an even greater impact in 2013. Amobi Okugo affords Hackworth a strong defensive midfield option, while Farfan’s twin brother Michael offers another central anchor. If Gabriel isn’t pressed toward the defense, he could start on the left wing as well. Homegrown players Zach Pfeffer and Jimmy McLaughlin will contend with Trinidadian signee Keon Daniel, 2012 SuperDraft selection Greg Jordan and August addition Daniel Cruz for time in relief.
The attack is led by Le Toux and McInerney, both of whom have proven as former team leaders in scoring that they know how to find the back of the net. 2010 MLS Cup MVP Conor Casey also joined the team in the offseason via the Re-Entry Draft, and though the 31-year-old has suffered ACL and Achilles tendon injuries in his career he too has a nose for goal. 2012 draft picks Chandler Hoffman and Antoine Hoppenot will contend with Homegrown player Cristhian Hernandez for playing time, all representing the potential future up front for the club.
Philadelphia certainly has the pieces on paper to put together a stronger season, but whether they can bring it all to fruition on the pitch is another question. They will have to contend with a slew of hopefuls in the Eastern Conference if they hope to return to the postseason after a year’s absence, and it will fall upon Hackworth’s shoulders in his first full season as an MLS head coach to get the most out of this year’s roster.