The Philadelphia Union’s preseason is about to heat up.
With the start of the regular season less than a month away, the Union wrap up their first of two trips to Florida with an exhibition game against the New York Red Bulls tonight at Jacksonville’s EverBank Field (6 p.m., live stream at newyorkredbulls.com).
And for manager John Hackworth, the game will serve as an important indicator as to how his team's players – including recent midfield acquisitions Maurice Edu, Cristian Maidana and Vincent Nogueira – are meshing with each other as well as handling the 4-3-3 formation that’s being implemented.
“It’s nice to have all of the players in camp finally with Vincent Nogueira arriving on Sunday,” Hackworth said. “We’re already trying to get him integrated into the group a little bit.
“From a tactical perspective, we’ve been working on a new kind of system. We’re trying to get the players aware of all of those roles and responsibilities. This is probably our first true test.”
The game will also be a test for many of the draft picks and trialists trying to make the club.
Calling the preseason battles “more real” because of how much deeper the team is this year, Hackworth said there will be some cuts before the team returns to Florida next Tuesday for the final phase of the preseason – a two-week stretch that includes four games at the Disney Pro Soccer Classic at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando. There will then likely be more cuts before the league’s March 1 roster compliance deadline, a week before Philly’s regular-season opener in Portland.
“You look at the number of roster spots we have open and available and there’s only a few of them,” Hackworth said. “So the guys that are on trial and the guys that were our draft picks, they have a tough job.
“Unfortunately, we’re going to have to make some tough decisions. But there are good competitive battles and it’s been healthy for the individuals and the team. ”
Making it even tougher for the players seeking a contract – a group that includes Union original Fred and Villanova alum Mike Seamon – is that the Union will still likely add one more player to their 30-man roster.
With the Union shorthanded on defense following the recent trade of Jeff Parke and D.C. United and loan of Carlos Valdes to Argentina’s San Lorenzo, Hackworth said the team is in the market for a new center back with one of their targets being English Premier League veteran Zat Knight of Bolton.
“Truthfully, we have been in some conversations [with Knight],” Hackworth said. “But at the same time, we are looking at a lot of different countries and have vetted out many different center back options. I probably talked to Zat’s agent a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know what’s being reported out there but that was a conversation we had a while ago.”
Hackworth indicated that he likely won’t make any acquisition until after the next couple of preseason games to at least get a better look at the team’s current options to start alongside Amobi Okugo at center back – 23-year-old Ethan White (who came over in the Parke trade) and rookie draft picks Kevin Cope and Richard Marquez.
But a move is almost certainly coming.
“We still think we need to add a potential center back to our roster,” the Union manager said. “However it’s been a good battle with players playing well at center back so for sure. There have been some pleasant surprises out of that group.”
Things seem much more certain at every other position on the field – even at left back, which has been a tough spot for the Union to fill over the past couple of years. Hackworth said that left-footed Brazilian Fabinho – who came over in the middle of 2013 season – is currently battling rookie draft pick Robbie Derschang at that spot with Ray Gaddis returning to his natural position at right back.
But the Union also know Gaddis can play left back if needed, as he did for much of last season.
“It’s one of those little battles where we do feel that, compared to last year, we’re in much better position and have greater depth,” Hackworth said. “You can play a first team, second team and third team and really have guys who have played the position and are comfortable there.”
As for integrating the new players into the lineup, that hasn’t been as difficult as some might think because the Union still have a large foundation from last season.
And many of the returning players have been setting the tone so far, with 2013 leading scorer Jack McInerney scoring in a 1-1 tie with the New England Revolution last Tuesday and super sub Antoine Hoppenot netting a hat trick in Philly’s 9-1 blitzing of the University of North Florida in Saturday’s scrimmage.
“I would tell you that it’s not this perception that there’s this big change,” Hackworth said. “The real big change is that we have some players in our camp right now that can execute the kind of system we’ve continually tried to build. We have a really good foundation of players – guys that are coming back that are part of our core group.
"And having them come back into what is now my second full preseason, they know exactly what we’re trying to do. They know the plan, they know the progression, they know the standards and they know the amount of work that has to be put out. All of those things make our coaching staff’s job much easier.”