By Ridge Mahoney
Like many observers, defender Jeff Parke wondered what the heck was going on as he watched the Philadelphia Union implode in 2012. "Last year was a setback, even from me watching from the outside," says Parke, the former Sounders defender traded to his hometown team during the offseason. "I was just like, 'Man they’re tearing their team up, for some reason.'"
A purge of players – Danny Califf, Sebastian Le Toux and former No. 1 SuperDraft pick Danny Mwanga were traded -- and run of bad results punctuated by brutal training sessions prompted the departure of head coach Peter Nowak. Former assistantJohn Hackworth sorted through the rubble as the Union finished eighth at 10-18-6 (36 points), and missed the playoffs by 17 points.
The Union had won only 11 games in 2011, its second MLS season, yet reached the playoffs by tying 15 of 34 games. The drastic drop last year amid front-office upheaval soured the fans’ view of management, so there’s a rebuilding effort underway off the field as well. As he tries to guide Philly back to the postseason, Hackworth has decreed that Freddy Adu’s future lies elsewhere, and he’s placed a lot of trust in young players: forwards Jack McInerney (20) and Antoine Hoppenot (22) midfielder/defender Amobi Okugo (21), midfielder Roger Torres (21), defender Sheanon Willliams (22), and keeper Zak MacMath (21). Older veterans fill many slots, so the traditionally successful mix of youth and experience seems to be in place.
Hackworth is giving Torres a crack at establishing himself as the team’ s playmaker, and the coach expects Parke to shore up the middle, which has been weakened by the loan of dependable Colombian centerbackCarlos Valdes to Independiente of Sante Fe. Former Fire defender Bakary Soumare played only one league match for Philly after returning to MLS last June and needed surgery to correct a minor knee problem, so he’s been closely monitored during the preseason. He played the
first 75 minutes against Montreal.
KEY PLAYER MOVES. Le Toux has returned to Philly in a trade that sent Josue Martinez to the Red Bulls, and former Rapid Conor Casey adds his bruising presence up front. Former Red Bulls’ Homegrown signing Matt Kassel is among the trialists in camp and scored the third goal against TFC.
WHY BE OPTIMISTIC? The much-traveled Le Toux relished the fan support in 2011 as he led the Union in goals (11) and assists (9), and Parke is grateful Seattle fulfilled his wish to move back home. Hackworth is counting heavily on their leadership. The talented youngsters should continue their improvement under the head coach, whose work with U.S. youth teams gave him insight as to how and when to push developing players. The Sons of Ben and other fans generate a fantastic atmosphere at PPL Park that the Union can exploit.
WHY BE PESSIMISTIC? Holding midfielder Brian Carroll labored last season, and either he needs to step up his game or the role is taken by someone else, perhaps Okugo. MacMath is developing nicely but inevitable errors committed by young keepers may cost the Union too many points in a tight playoff race. Philly closed the 2012 season with three straight losses to Eastern Conference playoff teams and finished a desultory 8-14-3 against its nine regional foes.
WHY WATCH THIS TEAM? Le Toux is one of the smoothest movers in MLS, and his gliding, purposeful runs stand out amid the more common hurly-burly charges. Many of the young American players have represented their country at the youth level and while they may not crack the senior team they can certainly take their places in the pro ranks. Okugo and McInerney took major strides last year yet still face tough competition for playing time, and the Farfan twins, Michael and Gabriel, are good players as well as a nice story.
Previous SA Confidential MLS Team Previews:
Toppled Timbers hope to bounce back with Porter
Revs revamp after rough first season for Heaps
Maligned Chivas USA sets new direction