Photo: Courtesy of Philadelphia Union
Full credit to Philadelphia Union ownership and manager John Hackworth. After limping across the finish line in 2013, the owners opened their wallets, and Hackworth made smart acquisitions in the offseason to ensure the outlook for 2014 is far rosier.
Now that Hackworth and Co. have done their jobs, it’s time for the players to step up and turn promise into results. Here are the 10 players on the Union who have the most prove during the upcoming campaign.
1. Maurice Edu
After struggling to make his mark with Stoke City in the English Premier League, Edu returns to MLS with everything to prove. At only 27 years of age, there is no reason to suggest that Edu’s prime is behind him. If he can rediscover the form that saw him feature prominently in the 2010 World Cup, he can lead the new look Union into the playoffs. However, if he struggles to adjust… well, let’s not even speculate on that just yet. Regardless of the context of the conversation, Nick Sakiewicz put Edu’s name in the same sentence as Michael Bradley’s. Now Edu has to live up to the comparison. And should he manage to do so, it would only take one good year for the Union to see him fly up the USMNT midfield depth chart, making a potential pairing with Bradley come sooner, rather than later.
2. Zac MacMath
Just when it looked like MacMath had managed to fight through the struggles of being a young goalkeeper and turn into a legitimate MLS starter, the Union dropped another boulder on his back. At 22 years old, it is hard not to feel bad for MacMath, who has dealt with being dropped into the starting XI far too early and having the leadership of Faryd Mondragon taken away, only to be replaced by Oka Nikolov too late. Now that he has begun to establish himself, the Union have acquired Andre Blake with the No. 1 pick in January’s draft. MacMath will start the season in net, but Blake will be breathing down his back all year. One slip-up or minor knock, and MacMath may not see the pitch again for a long time.
3. Sebastien Le Toux
This could be a make or break year for the Union talisman. In 2013, Le Toux showed off his ability to swap back and forth from being an elite wide man to a frustratingly ill-disciplined player. That’s right, elite. When Le Toux sticks to the touch line, races onto balls, and smashes service into the box, he can be extremely prolific. However, when he abandons his wing and goes on a walkabout, steals space from his teammates and clanks his first touch in the middle of the pitch, he is more problem than solution for his team. If he can maintain focus and become an assist leader again, he will win his place for keeps. If not, Hackworth will quickly find himself looking for other options.
4. Brian Carroll
From captain of a straggler to captain of a contender, 2014 is Carroll’s chance to show off his leadership credentials by helping to acclimate new players and fold them in with the Union’s existing young nucleus. On the pitch, Maurice Edu and Vincent Nogueira are two of the smartest, most responsible midfielders Carroll could’ve hoped to have joined the squad. Now that they have, he needs to prove that he still belongs in the starting XI by dominating the territory in front of the back line and exercising good judgement in possession. If the Union struggle to create offense, Carroll’s limited skill set might be the easiest to sacrifice to add another attacking player to the mix.
5. Danny Cruz
Like Le Toux, 2013 was a mixed bag for Cruz. Despite living in the final third and attacking his fullback like he was shot out of cannon, Cruz was hardly prolific on the score sheet. Netting 3 times and assisting on only 2 others over 2190 minutes is not the return Hackworth will be looking for from a wide player in 2014. If Cruz works harder to be a part of the midfield play on both sides of the ball before rampaging up the wing, he will likely find himself on the end of more passes and have more free runs going forward. That could lead to great things for the winger.
6. Cristian Maidana
A year after Diego Valeri wrote his name in headlines across MLS, the Union are entitled to hope that they may have captured the next head-turning Argentine to enter the league. After stints in Argentina, Russia, Spain, Mexico and Chile, Maidana will also be hoping to show off his quality from the get-go, making himself a mainstay. The Union haven’t had a left-footed threat since Justin Mapp left town, and the table is set nicely for Maidana to assert himself. The latest player to wear the No. 10 shirt for the Union will hope to do more in it than Danny Mwanga or Roger Torres ever did.
7. Amobi Okugo
Not that the training wheels weren’t off in 2013, but with the departure of Jeff Parke, Okugo must go from up-and-coming defender to vocal team leader. New signing Austin Berry will help a lot in the air, but Okugo will have to marshal the troops, ensuring proper positioning and marking assignments. Now in his fifth year in MLS, Okugo also finds himself playing for a new contract. Whether that is in Philadelphia or elsewhere, he will be feeling the pressure to impress.
After half a season spent acclimating himself to MLS, it appears Fabinho has been installed as the Union’s left back for 2014. Fabinho must work quickly to build a relationship with Austin Berry to make sure that the qualities he possesses in attack are not canceled out by defensive lapses. Fabinho must improve his individual defending, because while his all-or-nothing style of tackling produces some eye-popping interventions, it also generates some face-palming swings and misses.
9. Vincent Nogueira
Any time a team captures the captain from a club in a top European league, it’s a big deal. When that player is only 26 years old, big turns into huge. Nogueira is that guy, and now he wears No. 5 for the Union. A smooth passer, Nogueira is the kind of smart, technical midfielder that can give teams fits, keeping the ball for himself and his team. Nogueira’s success in MLS will be largely down to his deployment in the Union midfield. He’s never lit up the stat columns with goals or assists before and prefers to function from deep in the midfield. If he is asked to take on a more offensive role, it may take the Frenchman longer than anticipated to adjust to MLS.
10. Austin Berry
Sure it was a move made necessary by financials, but Berry will be playing with a chip on his shoulder after doing nothing but serving the Chicago Fire’s cause, only to be traded to a conference rival. Berry may not have Jeff Parke’s experience, but he is an upgrade in the air and should make a positive difference for a team that tends to struggle on set piece defending.