(Published at the Philly Soccer Page on Tuesday, March 23, 2010.)
Now that we know Philadelphia will actually play this season, thanks to Saturday’s labor deal, it’s time for a season preview. The Union are as close to a blank slate as a major professional soccer club can get. They’re not just a Major League Soccer expansion team, but they’re one that has trained largely away from home and with relatively little info for the public. Still, we have a bit to go on, so let’s take the shot.
The back line and goalkeeper.
This could end up as one of the league’s best defenses. The Union sport an experienced defense with three players (Danny Califf, Michael Orozco and Shavar Thomas) who have played for their senior national teams and a fourth, Jordan Harvey, who started regularly for his MLS club last year. Califf and Orozco have proven themselves in foreign leagues (Denmark and Mexico, respectively). These guys are proven at this level. Whether Union manager Peter Nowak plays a three-man or four-man back line, this should be a team strength.
Likewise, 22-year-old goalkeeper Chris Seitz may be the best American goalkeeper prospect since Brad Guzan, who’s now with Aston Villa. The 2008 Olympian has uncommon size (6-3, 236) and, according to many, limitless potential, but he hasn’t seen the field much in the regular season. Last year, he started four matches for Major League Soccer champs Real Salt Lake, allowing five goals and making 13 saves, and he has let in few goals in the pre-season. Also, you can’t underestimate the importance of having his college goalkeepers coach at Maryland, Rob Vartughian, doing the same job for the Union.
The question is depth. The Union have it at goalkeeper, with young Brad Knighton and rookie Brian Perk waiting in the wings.
But on defense, the Union have only five defenders on the roster. If they sign trialist Radanfah Abu Bakr, a 6-4 center back from Trinidad to make it six, that’s still not many defenders for a team that could play some four-man back lines. This could be a giveaway that Nowak will go with his oft-preferred 3-5-2, but it also could mean he’s watching the waiver wire for players cut from other MLS clubs.
Untested Costa Rican Dave Myrie is likely the second-choice right back, while Orozco could end up playing every back line position at some point. Rookie defensive midfielder Toni Stahl has also seen time at center back in the preseason. Overall, this seems a thin group, but their versatility could make up for it.
Who will score the goals?
The Union lack attackers who have proven they can score regularly at this level. Forward Alejandro Moreno scored the most MLS goals of any Union player last year: Four. If Moreno can return to his 2008 form, when he scored nine goals in more playing time, that’s a big answer.
Sebastien Le Toux will likely start at the other forward spot after splitting time at forward and midfield for Seattle last season. The Frenchman scored 24 goals in two USL seasons but netted just once last year for Seattle. Can he score more given more time at forward? Can rookie first rounders Danny Mwanga and Jack McInerney, along with second-year striker Nick Zimmerman, find the net if Le Toux can’t?
Well, that’s why we call them question marks. We don’t know yet. Eventually, Mwanga and McInerney may be impact players, but I wouldn’t bet the house on a couple of teenagers lighting up MLS in their first season.
Will Philadelphia Union play a 3-5-2, 4-4-2, both or something else?
The roster makeup makes it look like Nowak will go 3-5-2 more often than not. That said, three roster spots remain unfilled (though attacker J.T. Noone has likely won one of them), so things could change.
Nowak has indicated he wants the option to play both, and if so, that’s probably a smart approach. Too often, athletic coaches try to force their players to fit their system, rather than tailoring their system to fit the players. Nowak seems to be keeping an open mind. We probably will see one more than the other, and, unless Nowak isn’t nearly the soccer intellect most give him credit for, it will be the one that works better.
Is this team too young to win now?
With four teenagers and several others under age 23, this sometimes looks like a team built to win tomorrow, not now. You have experienced defenders who can keep you in games by keeping the ball out of the goal and young attackers with extraordinary potential, but who may not be ready to seriously contribute yet. They’ll win some games this year, but don’t expect them to be the Seattle Sounders. This is a different team in a different environment built with a different mindset.
In two seasons though, this could be the most exciting attacking team in MLS.
Helbert Frederico Carreiro da Silva, aka Fred.
Right now, Fred looks like the club’s best playmaker, the guy the Union need to create goals. The Brazilian from Belo Horizonte has done it before in the Australian league, and he’s shown his talent with D.C. United. Too often though, injuries have cut short his playing time. If that happens with the Union, there’s no proven replacement at attacking midfielder. (There are plenty of unproven replacements, however, like Colombian teenager Roger Torres.)
The Union could have trouble scoring goals, much as the Seattle Sounders did last year in their first season. The Union failed to net in either of their last two friendlies, losing to 2-0 to FC Dallas and 1-0 to the second division Tampa Bay Rowdies. Fred needs to stay healthy. Without him or another addition of his ilk, those Union forwards could get pretty bored up front.
That said, don’t be shocked when Fred’s not in the lineup Thursday. He has a one-game mandatory suspension to serve, stemming from a game last season.
Young player to watch
Chris Seitz is the obvious one, because he’ll be starting in goal. But if I had to pick one field player to follow, I’d say keep an eye on Shea Salinas. He’s quick, and he’s a winger, two things that, in combination, can be awfully exciting. There are few things more fun than watching a winger break a few ankles on a mad attack down the sideline.
Potential roster moves
Two days before opening day, the Union roster still has three openings, with a final roster deadline of 5 p.m. on Wednesday. Slot Temple University attacker J.T. Noone in at one of them after a good preseason. One of the others could go to Abu Bakr, but the last roster spot looks wide open.
With the new MLS labor deal including guaranteed contracts for more players, you could see some big names cut down before Thursday. The Chicago Fire stunned many Monday by cutting loose a stellar goalkeeper in Jon Busch in a move that was probably salary-related. Who else will become available? Your guess is as good as mine.
Also, take note of D.C. United’s release of former U.S. international Danny Szetela. He flamed out in his European foray and the former Columbus Crew player has probably hit rock bottom. Szetela has the talent. It might not be a bad idea to fill your 24th roster spot with a guy who many might forget is just 22 years old. He’s from New Jersey, and the opportunity to play close to home could be what he needs.
Then, there’s always the question of Europe and the big signing, as PSP’s Ryan Pine considered last week. Raul and Thierry Henry are most often mentioned as the potential imports to New York, but the fact is that New York can only afford one of them. Just down I-95, Philadelphia could look awfully attractive.
That said, I wouldn’t bet on either of those guys. Nick Sakiewicz, Nowak and company have surprised with many of their roster moves, as they’ve adeptly manipulated the MLS player acquisition system. I suspect there’s someone out there that nobody’s mentioned who will suddenly emerge after the European seasons end, much as Cuauhtémoc Blanco did for the Chicago Fire in 2007. So far, Blanco is the gold standard when it comes to MLS designated players, and an attacker like him who can create goals and excitement may be exactly what the Union need.
Predicted finish: 5th place, Eastern Conference.
Columbus and Chicago have been the class of the Eastern Conference, but Chicago lost several key players in Blanco, Busch, forward Chris Rolfe and defender Gonzalo Segares. Both still have enough talent to finish in the top half. Meanwhile, New York looks much improved, with Estonian midfielder Joel Lindpere looking he could be one of the league’s best pickups. Don’t be surprised see all three in the conference’s top half. (Then again, New York looked good in the 2009 preseason too, and we know how great that turned out.)
The other clubs are full of holes. The New England Revolution have Shalrie Joseph and a cast of nobodies. D.C. United improved their goalkeeping situation with Troy Perkins, but not much else. The Kansas City Wizards could be a mid-table team, or they could own the basement. Toronto has some midfield talent, with Dwayne De Rosario and Julian de Guzman leading the way, but someone has to score goals.
Philadelphia could finish as high as third or as low as – well, as low as last. I’ll slot them in at 5th in a weak Eastern Conference, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they made the playoffs.
What do you think?
Where do you think the Union will finish? Does his club have a shot at making the playoffs? What do you think their biggest strengths and weaknesses are? Or do you even care, and are you just giddy to get a team? Weigh in via our comments below.
(Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Union.)