By THOMAS FLOYD
Very few things went right for the Philadelphia Union in 2012. Star Sebastien Le Toux was dealt under odd circumstances. Coach Peter Nowak’s tenure came to a messy end. Goals were few and far between. And a playoff team plummeted to near the conference cellar.
So when it came to getting the franchise back on track, reacquiring Le Toux — whose season didn’t exactly go according to plan either — was a natural first step. Add veteran Conor Casey as a true target forward to last year’s emergence of Jack McInerney, and it seems like a safe bet that the Union will improve upon the team’s woeful 37-goal haul.
“We’ve improved dramatically our attack,” coach John Hackworth said. “We have different roles and players that can play different styles now, and I think that’s going to be really important over the course of a long season where you need to have some versatility. You need to be more than a one-trick pony in order to be successful in this league.”
Here is a closer look at the Philadelphia Union ahead of the 2013 MLS season:
PHILADELPHIA UNION SEASON PREVIEW
2012 FINISH: 10-18-6, 36 points (eighth in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: M/F Sebastien Le Toux, F Conor Casey, D Jeff Parke, F Aaron Wheeler
KEY LOSSES: D Carlos Valdes, M/F Freddy Adu, M Gabriel Gomez, F Josue Martinez, M Zach Pfeffer, D Porfirio Lopez
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Sebastien Le Toux. After compiling an astounding 25 goals and 20 assists in two season with Philadelphia, the Frenchman totaled just five goals and two assists while splitting the 2012 campaign with Vancouver and New York. If a return to comfort and stability gets Le Toux going again, the Union are a much more dangerous club.
THE PRESSURE IS ON: Michael Farfan. The likes of Le Toux, Casey and McInerney won’t be too productive without service, and that is where Farfan comes in, possibly playing at the top of a 4-3-3 midfield triangle. Said Hackworth: “I don’t want to put too much pressure on Michael, but our expectations are that he is going to get better and better. If he does that, he’s probably one of the unsung heroes in the league in terms of being a very attacking-minded midfielder.”
Based off preseason, the expectation within the Union locker room is that Le Toux will fit right back in. In midfielder Brian Carroll’s words, “It seems like it wasn’t that long. He’s the same old energetic, fun personality to be around, and it’s great to have him back in the squad to help us out this year.”
Perhaps flying under the radar amid the additions of Le Toux and Casey is centerback Jeff Parke, a U.S. national team pool player with more than 200 MLS matches on his resume. Acquired in a trade with the Seattle Sounders, Parke gives the Union a reliable presence to replace loaned-out All-Star Carlos Valdes. And he’s a native of the Philly area, to boot.
“We wouldn’t have done [the loan] if we didn’t have Jeff lined up,” Hackworth said. “We will definitely miss Carlos, but having Jeff already in the short amount of time he’s been here has been fantastic. He’s a good pro, he gets what this franchise means to this city, he understands the fans here. So his experience, his leadership and his local knowledge, just knowing the culture, has already rubbed off on most of the guys.”
While defender Bakary Soumare and midfielder Michael Lahoud were with Philadelphia last season, both players just spent their first full preseason with the club and could be poised for more meaningful contributions this year.
But if the Union are going to find success in 2013, the continued development of the club’s youthful nucleus will be key. With Freddy Adu not in the organization’s plans, even more responsibility for Philadelphia’s future falls on goalkeeper Zac MacMath (21 years old), fullback Sheanon Williams (22), defender-midfielder Amobi Okugo (21), Farfan (24) and McInerney (20).
Even though these players all are entering their third or fourth year in the league, that still is a lot of raw talent being relied on for major roles.
“There’s no telling how far they can come,” Carroll said. “We still need to come together as a team and have that hardworking togetherness mentality. And hopefully that can find that core young group of players’ talent really coming to fruition and continuing to grow.”
To Hackworth, tempering expectations for those players is key. He fully thinks his team can compete for a postseason bid, but increased consistency will be necessary. Whether the youthful Union at this point are capable of performing game in, game out, remains unknown.
“A lot of people want that kind of development to happen overnight; there’s a recipe for it, a shortcut.” Hackworth said. “And there is no shortcut to development. It’s experience. It’s motivation and dedication. We’re still a young club in that regard.”