After their most ambitious offseason in franchise history, the Philadelphia Union begin their fifth season Saturday with a tough road game against the Portland Timbers at Providence Park (10:30 p.m, Comcast SportsNet).
And with perhaps more talent on their roster than ever before, there’s no question the stakes have been raised.
But will the Union be able to make the playoffs for just the second time?
How will the marquee acquisitions of Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueira, Cristian Maidana and Austin Berry mesh with the returning core of mostly young players?
Who will surprise? Who will disappoint?
CSNPhilly.com soccer writers Dave Zeitlin and Ryan Bright break it all down and offer their predictions for what’s shaping up to be an exciting 2014 season:
DZ: Jack McInerney – If 2013 was McInerney’s breakout season, 2014 could be the season he puts it all together. Everything seems to be falling into place for the 21-year-old striker. For the first time in his career, he has a talented midfield behind him to play in through balls and crosses. He should be able to learn and mature from the mental lapses that caused an uneven but still highly productive 2013 campaign (he finished with 12 goals, despite an epic four-month scoring drought). And early injuries to fellow strikers Conor Casey and Antoine Hoppenot paved the way for him to shine in the preseason and secure his place in the starting lineup. Expect at least 15 goals from Jack Mac as he chases the MLS Golden Boot title and emerges as one of the league’s most prolific players.
RB: Jack McInerney – With his breakout year behind him and a taste of potent goal-scoring success still in his mouth, McInerney stars up front for the Union in 2014. Much of his production will come from the Union's massively upgraded midfield, which not only got better in possession but became more creative, allowing for McInerney to work much less for a greater return.
DZ: Cristian Maidana – While Maurice Edu could be a game-changer in the central midfield and Austin Berry is a near-perfect solution at center back, Maidana is perhaps the player poised for the biggest year. Quite simply, Maidana brings an element to the team that the Union have rarely before had: a dynamic attacking presence on the left side of the field. Maidana also has the ability to play as a central midfielder, making him one of the most versatile players on the club and allowing manager John Hackworth to tinker with his formations. And the Argentine’s ability on free kicks could lead to a lot of goals and assists.
RB: Austin Berry – On a team full of talented newcomers, being the top one doesn’t come easy. But playing an absolutely crucial position for the Union, Berry will step in and take the award. The trade from the Chicago Fire wakes up the young center back, who will gel seamlessly with Amobi Okugo and log heavy minutes in front of Zac MacMath. With his size, he’ll even chip in a bit offensively.
DZ: Zach Pfeffer – Despite the influx of so much new midfield talent, there are still a few returning players hoping to crack the rotation. One of them is someone who first joined the Union three years ago, has international experience with the US youth national teams and who recently returned from a one-year training stint with a premier club in Europe. Yes, I’m talking about Pfeffer, one of the youngest players ever to sign in MLS. Still just 19, Pfeffer may be a year or two away from making a name for himself at the MLS level. But after training with the German club Hoffenheim last year, the midfielder will look to fight for a spot on the right wing, where there’s been an open competition in the preseason.
RB: Vincent Nogueira – With Edu, Maidana, McInerney and Berry all taking attention away with elevated play, Nogueira will be the biggest surprise of the 2014 – mostly because no one knows what to expect. Playing in the shadow of Edu and with Maidana hogging up all the midfield assists, it might take a while. But Nogueira’s solid play throughout the season will have him in the running for team MVP.
DZ: Brian Carroll – Carroll is the Union’s captain, an ultimate professional and, according to many of his teammates and opponents, one of the league’s most underrated players. But at 32, the 12-year MLS veteran is in the twilight of his professional career with his production starting to slip last season. And despite Hackworth’s plan to play Carroll together with Edu in the center of the midfield, the truth is there’s quite a bit of overlapping qualities between those two players. Could the Union thrive with both Carroll and Edu running the show in the midfield? Perhaps. But there’s also a chance Hackworth will learn the team is better off with Edu as the lone holding midfielder and move Carroll to a place he’s hardly ever been during his successful MLS career: the bench.
RB: Maurice Edu – Now, this isn’t to say Edu won’t have a successful season or earn his contract. But with his US national team history and coming from the English Premier League, expectations will be irrationally lofty for the midfielder, who may never be able to fulfill them. Production could be a slow build for Edu as the Union work to gain cohesion in the midfield. And if the Union stumble at all this season, it’ll be the high-priced Edu that shoulders the blame.
DZ: The goalkeeping situation – Zac MacMath has had a rocky tenure as Philly’s starting goalkeeper over the past two years, posting a lot of shutouts but also making his share of mistakes. But there’s never really been a question of benching him because the Union have never had a backup with more talent. Now, though, they might. That’s how highly they think of Andre Blake, who they traded up to make the first-ever goalkeeper to go first overall in the MLS Draft. For what it’s worth, MacMath embraced the challenge of a goalkeeper competition in camp and will head into the season as the team’s clear No. 1. But what happens if he falters early in the season? You can be sure fans will almost immediately start calling for Blake to take the reins in net.
RB: The use of Danny Cruz – He works hard, is liked by coaches and teammates and is effective in short bursts. Yet on a team that has upgraded its skill and playmaking ability in the midfield, Cruz is the ugly duckling. Hackworth likes Cruz as a player and swears that he is more effective than the eye test indicates. However, his playing time and strategic substitutions will drive Union supporters crazy. Upgrading that position will be an ongoing conversation throughout the season.
Where they’ll finish
DZ: On paper, the Union look like a playoff team. They addressed some big areas of concerns by bolstering the midfield and adding some much-needed depth, while keeping in place a talented young core that includes McInerney and fellow rising stars Amobi Okugo and Sheanon Williams. But D.C. United and Toronto FC – the teams that occupied the last two spots in the Eastern Conference in 2013 – also made some marquee offseason acquisitions, and Sporting Kansas City (the defending MLS Cup champs) and the New York Red Bulls (the defending Supporters’ Shield winners) will remain near the top of the Eastern Conference. A year after coming in seventh, the Union should finish in fourth or fifth in the East to sneak in the playoffs – but they likely won’t make it past the Eastern Conference semifinals.
RB: The Eastern Conference improves from a dismal 2013 season, which negates some of the Union’s gains. Yet, the club improves enough offensively and gains enough veteran leadership to earn some tough points, earning them the third seed in the playoffs behind Sporting KC and the New York Red Bulls. McInerney emerges as a legit No. 1 striker and the Union win one playoff series.