Photo: Earl Gardner
The clock is ticking down to opening day this Saturday and, while John Hackworth’s overall plans remain a mystery, it is clear that the Philadelphia Union will need their star players to step up if they are to have any chance of a playoff run. 2010′s rookies are suddenly fourth-year professionals, and with age and experience comes increased expectations. With expectations comes pressure. Pressure can turn a much lauded signing into a punch line, earning the player a trip out of town as the team scrambles to secure a replacement. It works the other way too, with pressure inspiring players in any phase of their careers to greatness.
So who will be shouldering this burden for the Union in 2013? Let’s take a look.
Warm: Can someone crack a window?
Replacing a team captain is always tough. Jeff Parke will have the unenviable task of making Philadelphians forget the name Carlos Valdes. Still, the former Sounder and recently capped US international will receive plenty of love for his desire to move back east and play for his hometown club. But that will only last so long if he is unable to lead an organized, stout back line.
Under John Hackworth, McInerney finally showed Union fans why, despite his young age, he was drafted so high in 2010. But for strikers, soccer is a sport of “What have you done for me lately?” The additions of Sebastien Le Toux and Conor Casey have raised questions about McInerney’s place with the Union, and he will have to battle for minutes in 2013. That may prove a positive, as it will force the young striker to focus on making the most of his chances. If he rises to the challenge, McInerney could score a dozen goals or more. If not, he may hit his sophomore slump two years late.
After a year lost to injury in 2012, Torres is back and better than ever in 2013. A bright offseason already has fans calling for his inclusion in the opening day starting XI. All of this is positive for the diminutive Colombian, because he has been a player full of potential for three seasons now. Once Hackworth gives him his chance, he must grab it with both hands, or he risks quickly alienating all of those who have vehemently supported him since his arrival in Philadelphia. From that standpoint, Torres might have the most to gain in terms of ascending into the discussion of quality distributors in MLS, but he also has the most to lose in terms of fading into obscurity if he fails to bring the goods.
While there was offseason chatter about a potential veteran goalkeeper arriving in Chester to back up MacMath and mentor the 21-year-old in the process, no such move ever materialized. For the second straight year, MacMath enters the season without having had to beat out a challenger. Hackworth will hope that resting all of his hopes on the youngster so early in his career will strengthen MacMath’s resolve and help him develop veteran smarts and confidence more quickly than some of his peers. MacMath made his share of gaffes in 2012. While physical and tactical mistakes will happen with any young keeper, the Union coaching staff must keep an eye on whether the stress of expectation is getting the better of their No. 1.
Warmer: Kettle is whistling
The 2013 Union are Brian Carroll’s team. That means vocal leadership, inspired play and acres of ground covered. If Carroll is deployed as the sole holder in a 4-4-2 and the team struggles, questions will begin to surface about his lack of passing acumen going forward. The Union have been rudderless for too long and are in dire need of someone to drag this team forward, kicking and screaming if need be. Can Carroll be that guy?
Unlike others who have varying levels of expectation, Soumare really must prove just one thing: That he is healthy. He has already succeeded at a high level in this league, and it only takes one look at him to realize just how big he is. But when you are that big, knee injuries tend to linger and recovery times get stretched longer and longer. At only 27 years of age, Soumare could have a long, prolific future with the Union, assuming his knees are stable and his feet remain nimble. Until he proves that they are, that is a big assumption.
In preseason Hackworth basically handed the midfield keys to Farfan, anointing him as the team’s attacking fulcrum. Coming off a season where he made the All Star team but struggled to assert consistent attacking pressure from the center of the pitch, the Union find themselves with a whole lot riding on a young player who is still relatively new to his position. Farfan does have the out that, if things aren’t working through the center, he is still the best right midfielder on the team by a healthy margin. That doesn’t take him off the hook however, because he may be forced to lead the attack from a wide spot if the Union manager structures his midfield like an empty bucket. Either way, with no Adu or Gomez and Torres nipping at his heels, all eyes will be on Michael Farfan to become an elite playmaker, and fast.
Warmest: Pressure Chief
Sebastien Le Toux
Welcome back to Philadelphia, Sebastien. Now produce.
The 2013 Union will not be a team that guarantees minutes to anyone, let alone a forward on a team that boasts six strikers in the rotation. In 2012, while McInerney was proving his nose for goal, Antoine Hoppenot reminded fans of just how much of an impact a little guy with a lot of energy can make. Conor Casey is also in the fray to prove he still has gas in the tank, and Chandler Hoffman has shown in the reserves that, given consistent minutes, he can find the back of the net.
This team no longer exists to serve Le Toux’s constant and at times erratic running. For him to find success, he’ll have to cultivate partnerships with his fellow strikers and fall in line with Hackworth’s approach. Whether he is asked to drive through the heart of the pitch, or slide wide to the corners to create space for others, Le Toux must prove himself to be an unselfish team player.
And he must finish. Because McInerney, Hoppenot and Hoffman are all dying for the chance to prove they can.
Instead of acquiring a prolific goal scorer from abroad, or splashing their cash on a Designated Player, the Union brought their all-time leading scorer back to town. Now it is up to Le Toux to prove the move was more than a gesture to the fan base. Pressure’s on.