Photo: Courtesy of Philadelphia Union
1) Will the big offseason moves fix the Union central midfield?
By all estimations, this was the single biggest weakness in the Philadelphia setup in 2013. Even with a designated player in the midfield (Kleberson), manager John Hackworth struggled to properly build a functioning mid-layer to the Union XI. Hackworth clearly believed Brian Carroll was key link to the spine of this team, with a varied mixture centrally of Michael Farfan, Keon Daniel, Michael Lahoud, and to a lesser extent Kleberson, Leo Fernandes, and Roger Torres.
Many fans are wondering if this belief will continue in 2014. Maurice Edu and Vincent Nogueira give the Union two defensively sound CM’s that could display All-Star quality. Should this make Carroll the odd-man out?
Based on the preseason, Hackworth will likely try Edu and Nogueira playing ahead of Carroll to provide the attacking impetus from the midfield. The best case scenario is that they can provide enough punch going forward to turn the Union into a consistent scoring machine. The worst is that there is an enormous gulf between these three and the forward line. If this happens, and the same questions from 2013 about Carroll will reappear.
2) Which Jack Mac will we get in 2014?
The up and down campaign of 2013 could be boiled down this: “As McInerney went, the Union went.” Looking back, it was actually quite amazing that the team held on in the chase for a playoff spot as long as they did with Jack Mac in a colossal slump for most of the second half of the season.
With the talent that has been brought in around him, McInerney shouldn’t suffer from a dearth of chances. If you followed @TheUMatchday during the preseason, the opportunities were there for the taking, and McInerney made the most of a couple of those chances.
In a contract year, big goals will equal big money (and possibly some looks from overseas). But that adds pressure. McInerney’s early production, plus his inclusion in the 2013 Gold Cup roster, seemed to intensify the focus on him and his production stumbled. How he handles the added weight of playing for his next contract will play a huge part in the success the Union enjoy.
3) How much leash does MacMath actually have?
Admit it: On Draft Day, the last position you thought the Union would take was goalkeeper, right? Lo and behold, a trade later, and Andre Blake is sporting the blue-and-gold scarf while shaking Don Garber’s hand.
Hackworth has deflected criticism from Zac MacMath over the last season and a half, as a good man manager should do. But MacMath had some struggles midseason in 2013, and while he turned things around after the infamous Dallas game, there wasn’t a lot of competition to lay claim to the starting spot.
Now, there is.
MacMath should become a long-term, serviceable starter in MLS. He might even win a cup or three. But Blake is a hot commodity, and Philadelphia can’t afford to have him and all his promise languishing on the bench.
One option that could be interesting is an intraleague loan. If Brian Holt is good enough to be MacMath’s backup, Blake could be sent out to a team needing a starter.
Whatever happens, the pressure is squarely on MacMath to eclipse some of the gaffes of the past.
4) Is Cristian Maidana the answer on the left?
This may be a trick question, one where the answer is “Yes,” but not exactly like everyone thinks he will.
Most of us have seen little of Maidana playing, but some reports suggest that he is a better central playmaker than a wing player on the left. If this proves to be true, this may create many headaches for the Union’s opponents. Guys like Brad Davis are clearly looking to beat the right fullback on a deep run in order to cross, and presumably Maidana can do just the very same. But if that same guy can also cut it back, and play a through pass to an angling forward? Well, that’s all kinds of dirty.
With Hackworth seemingly content with Fabinho at left back, such a scenario is what opponents may very well face with Maidana. While the Brazilian left back’s crosses have sometimes lacked quality, he has demonstrated the ability to put crosses right on the money. If he does so with greater consistency, it will keep the opposing fullback honest and might force a defensive midfielder to cover Maidana cutting to the middle. The result? Space for guys like Nogueira and Edu to sneak behind and terrorize.
Whether this all comes to fruition depends on the veracity of what’s been reported.
5) Can the Union continue to rehabilitate their public image?
It’s tough to recall a time — perhaps not since the 2011 season when Colombian giants Faryd Mondragon and Carlos Valdes joined the team — when there’s been this much excitement heading into a new season for Philadelphia.
Since then, it’s undeniable that the team’s image has taken some hits among supporters. From dismantled rosters to unused designated players, not to mention some downright ugly soccer on the pitch, it’s been a rough ride.
The good news is that the team is striving to regain some of that lost credibility. For instance:
- Hackworth laid out some initiatives heading into the offseason, and it appears the team has delivered in striking fashion.
- Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz has candidly discussed past mistakes and some of the inner workings of the team.
- It appears the team has begun to rekindle warm feelings with the City of Chester government.
- There is talk of training grounds being build on the PPL Park premises.
Is everything hunky-dory? Probably not, but you have to start somewhere. These are all indications that the team is concerned about their image, both with fans and the community and, more importantly, doing something about it. That’s a welcome change, and a step towards this team becoming a world class organization.
It’s your turn
So those are my Five Burning Questions that the Union have to answer heading into the 2014 season. What about you? If you have a suggestion for this list, leave a comment below. If we get enough good questions, we’ll run a followup on Friday or next week.