Union could surprise in inaugural season
2009 record and finish: Expansion team; first year in MLS.
Key additions: GK Chris Seitz , D Danny Califf, D Shavar Thomas, M Fred, F Sebastien Le Toux, F Alejandro Moreno
1. Sounders 2.0?
Poor Philadelphia. Despite the fact that the Union are moving into a stadium of their own by the middle of the MLS season and they have an exciting young core, anything short of the playoffs will be seen as a failure in light of Seattle's record last year. Because the Sounders had such success -- leading the league in attendance, winning the U.S. Open Cup and being only the second expansion team in league history to make the playoffs in their inaugural year -- external expectations on the Union are high. In a city that booed Santa Claus, the Union will face scrutiny like few other MLS clubs.
However, the comparisons between the Sounders and Union end there. Unlike Seattle, which had a core in place as it transitioned from the USL to MLS, Philadelphia is building from scratch and faces a longer haul. It needs to develop depth and talent overnight and doesn't have the benefit of seasoning players in the USL. The pieces are coming into place, but this might well be a foundation year for the team as coach Peter Nowak begins to establish the franchise on solid footing.
2. Who unites this midfield?
He has only one name, and as the Union midfield stands right now, he may be the only name worth remembering. By way of D.C. United the past three seasons, Brazilian-born Fred is clearly the midfield engine for the Union. Smooth on the ball and tough to stop when he gets a full head of steam toward goal, the 30-year-old has struggled with injuries the past two seasons, limiting him to just 23 appearances last season. He will be counted on to provide a spark from the middle of the field and create opportunities.
Those who will complement Fred remain to be seen. Stefani Miglioranzi has experience in both MLS and abroad, but like Fred had injury concerns over the past few seasons. Amobi Okugu, a rising star for the youth national teams and a first-round pick in January's SuperDraft, might be a factor in the starting 11 immediately. Despite his youth and inexperience, the 18-year-old Okugu has played with poise in the preseason and appears destined to be an eventual star for the team. Selected in the expansion draft, the versatile Nick Zimmerman saw sporadic action for New York last year and could be penciled in on one of the flank positions for Nowak. Draft pick Toni Stahl is a physically impressive specimen who has an MLS-ready body and might be called on early to provide depth as well.
3. What do they have to prove?
The Union's brass has a bit of a chip on its shoulder, which fits in with a city which inspired the Rocky movie series and embraced the underdog story of Vince Papale. CEO Nick Sakiewicz comes to Philadelphia as part of the ownership team, a two-time MLS Executive of the Year who saw his general manager role with New York peter out in 2005. He hired Nowak, an MLS veteran with oodles of international experience at the highest levels of European soccer. Nowak won an MLS Cup with D.C. United in 2004 as a first-year head coach but his hard-charging ways made some enemies within the club. He left RFK Stadium in 2006 for a coaching position with the U.S. national team, becoming a close associate with U.S. coach Bob Bradley.
Now, Sakiewicz and Nowak have a chance to redeem themselves in MLS, and they've set about their roles in very different ways. Sakiewicz has a soccer-specific stadium in place (the first time a domestic MLS team will move into its own home in its inaugural season), and has pieced together some of the most impressive corporate sponsorships in the league for his Union team. Philadelphia is already among the top seller of season tickets in the league, topping the 10,000 tally.
Nowak has built a squad in his model, a hard-nosed group of players with a little guile and intrigue. He will be counting on veterans such as forward Alejandro Moreno and back-line anchor Danny Califf, but the rest of the unit is very much in the works. If the Union make the playoffs, and Sakiewicz is confident they can do this, it will be due to an exemplary coaching effort from Nowak. A postseason-bound Union would give Nowak Coach of the Year honors for sure.
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Biggest X Factor: Sebastien Le Toux
While everyone in the league knows that former D.C. United midfielder Fred is going to be the flair in the midfield, it could well fall to the feet of LeToux to be the spark of the attack. His one season in MLS with Seattle showed a player with poise and creativity, even if the Sounders did struggle at times to push the ball into the back of the net.
If the Union hope to have a chance at sneaking into the playoffs, then Le Toux will need to improve on his one goal and three assists from last year. He has good vision and while he isn't a true playmaker, he should figure to be a suitable complement to Moreno up top. Consistency is key and LeToux will need to find the right balance of holding possession, but also playing a quick ball to create opportunities as the Union must capitalize on their chances to succeed as an expansion team. If Le Toux can drop back into the midfield and relieve some pressure off the shoulders of Fred and Moreno, the attack could be a lot more fluid.
Breakout player to watch: Chris Seitz
Since being Real Salt Lake's first-round pick in the 2007 SuperDraft, not a whole lot has been heard from Seitz, who has seen sporadic duty behind RSL's Nick Rimando. Now with the Union, Seitz, who has progressed steadily through the youth ranks of the national team, has the opportunity for steady play. At 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, Seitz is the most physically impressive presence in goal this side of Zach Thornton. Yet for his strength and size, Seitz moves very well and has outstanding feet.
Seitz figures to be tested with an unproven midfield and a still jelling defense in front of him. He will be pushed by Brian Perk, a draft pick out of UCLA who has shown veteran poise in preseason training. While the numbers may not be gaudy, Seitz will have an opportunity to prove himself as a starter this year.
Only three of the eight playoff teams last year hailed from the Eastern Conference, so Philadelphia has a chance at replicating Seattle's superb debut in 2009 if they can win in conference. The back line, headlined by national team defender Califf, appears to be the team's strength.
Nowak will need to solidify the midfield and people within the organization are bantering that he will make a move or two to deepen the talent in the middle of the field. Outside of Fred, there isn't a player who can impact the game on a consistent basis. A proven ball-winner to help destroy and win balls is crucial, as is the development of a wide player who can deliver good crosses and perhaps some pace down the flank. Right now, the Union lack both and this could well hamper their postseason dreams even at the early stages of the season.
Nowak can rely on veteran MLS striker Moreno to bring his international savvy and bag a few goals. The Union are also very high Jack McInerney, a youth national team prospect who has a lethal foot and can shoot well from distance. The Union hierarchy believes the youngster is very close to being ready for the MLS level, and McInerney's ability to bag some goals would be an asset to the team.
As for the possibility of bringing in a big name, Sakiewicz is on record as having said that you don't need a designated player to win in MLS -- a point which current MLS Cup holders Real Salt Lake will embrace.
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and writes for the New York daily paper Metro. He can be reached at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com .