Philadelphia Union 2014 Season Preview: 4 Things to Watch for This Season
The Philadelphia Union's faith in goalkeeper Zac MacMath will be the club's story to watch in 2014, but what additional storylines will complete your season preview?
In part six of our 19-part series, we will take an in-depth look at the most intriguing plots surrounding the Union this season. The number and player to watch, as well as the match that should immediately be circled on your calendar, will be delved into with great detail.
Read on for your comprehensive guide to 2014.
Note: Unless otherwise mentioned, credit all statistics to Squawka. All data collected is licensed from Opta Sports.
Before we preview the coming year, here is MLS's complete list of offseason acquisitions and departures that helped mold this season's version of the club.
|M||Corben Bone||MLS Re-Entry Draft Stage 1|
|D||Ethan White||Trade from D.C. United|
|M||Christian Maldana||Free Transfer|
|GK||Andre Blake||MLS SuperDraft|
|M||Maurice Edu||Loan from Stoke City|
|M||Vincent Nogueira||Transfer from Sochaux|
|GK||Brian Holt||Free Transfer|
|D||Austin Berry||Trade from Chicago Fire|
|M||Michael Farfan||Transferred to Cruz Azul|
|D||Jeff Parke||Traded to D.C. United|
The Story to Watch: Competition Brewing?
Read any MLS SuperDraft recap. Each points to the Union being big winners in 2014.
Part of that has to do with the club's decision to trade up to the No. 1 overall spot and select goalkeeper Andre Blake. In the immediate future, the 23-year-old's role will be that of a backup for current keeper Zac MacMath.
But even with no imminent threat on the horizon, MacMath admitted to being a bit surprised by the move according to Dave Zeitlin on MLS' official website:
I was a little bit surprised, but obviously I understand why they picked him. He's a very good goalkeeper with a lot of potential and someone that's going to push me. That's the whole point of drafting him. I'm already working with him and it's going well.
That, however, was said publicly. According to ESPN's James Tyler, MacMath had an intense discussion with his agent behind closed doors just moments after the selection.
So, should the 22-year-old be wary of losing his starting role?
In 2013, MacMath finished third in clean sheets (12) behind Donovan Ricketts (13) and Jimmy Nielsen (13). His 68.7 save percentage ranked him in the top 10 amongst goalkeepers with a minimum of 40 saves.
But there are some weaknesses that the young American must correct in order to solidify his ground.
No keeper in 2013 failed to claim more crosses than MacMath (4). His 95 percent success rate ranked him 17th amongst starting MLS goalkeepers with at least 20 starts. That weak link was reflected further by the five corner-kick goals—second only to Michael Gspurning (6)—he conceded last season.
One of the five farcically came off his own hands.
Enjoy the video above.
MacMath's distribution can also use some polishing. He ranked 15th amongst starting goalkeepers with 54 percent accuracy from the position. That percentage is alarming considering the average length of his passes (51 yards) was the league median.
As troubling as those numbers sound, however, all signs still point to MacMath being the starter come Week 1. But make no mistake: Legitimate competition is now present at Philadelphia's training grounds.
A sluggish start could ratchet up the pressure and lead to a change.
The Number to Watch: 100 Percent
No one fell off a cliff quite like Jack McInerney did in 2013.
Not even Wile E. Coyote.
The 21-year-old got off to a scintillating start last season. In his first 14 appearances, McInerney was responsible for 10 of the Union's 19 goals. But the young American's form tempered as the summer heat arrived. In his final 17 appearances, McInerney scored just twice.
Two impotent goals in 1050 minutes.
Fortunately for McInerney, they did come in the final three matches of the season. A preseason goal in a 2-1 loss to the New York Red Bulls proved that not even an offseason was enough to interrupt his confident run of form.
In an interview with Andy Jasner on MLS's official website, McInerney is optimistic about his progress. But even he is aware there's still work to be done:
Absolutely, that's the case. I feel like I've experienced quite a bit in my time in the league. Last year was good because I went through the whole season and learned a lot about myself. It was good in many ways. In a long season, there are always going to be challenges. I felt like my game improved and I know there are so many things I can improve upon.
One of the areas the young forward can "improve on" is his outside game.
Of the top 15 goal scorers last season who appeared in at least 20 matches, McInerney is the only one to score 100 percent of his goals inside the area.
There's your number to watch...100 percent.
Each of his 28 attempts from outside the box failed to beat the keeper.
Obviously, distance is not currently part of McInerney's game. It isn't a part of Chris Wondolowski's, either. But even he was able to strike one from outside the box in 2013. The truth is: Sometimes creative luck can go a long way in preventing ridiculously long stretches of scoreless football.
Especially when opposing sides are bearing down on you inside the area.
Besides, "chicks dig the long ball."
The Player to Watch: Maurice Edu
It took them a while—no thanks to MLS headquarters—but the Philadelphia Union finally landed their man.
Maurice Edu returned to MLS as a designated player via the allocation order, a process Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley were able to forgo. Apparently, not all U.S. men's national team players are created equal.
A league spokesperson attempted to clarify the confusion on MLS's official website:
As with most aspects of the business, the league, in consultation with the clubs, reviews the roster rules on an annual basis and reserves the right to modify them prior to each season. The amendment to the assignment mechanism for Designated Players will be reflected in the 2014 roster rules that will be released prior to the start of the season.
Comissioner Don Garber wasn't joking when he said the league would basically make it up as they went along.
But with the administrative perplexities now out of the way, head coach John Hackworth can return to the tactics that will make this move for Edu a successful one. The first step: Finding the perfect position for a player looking to make a last ditch effort at a World Cup roster spot.
It won't be easy.
Edu's versatility has left many coaches bewildered in his utilization.
Should he be featured in a more advanced role? Should he serve primarily as a box-to-box, central midfielder? Should he replace Brian Carroll as the club's preferred defensive midfielder? You'd be hard pressed to find a coach who would bench a captain that ranked sixth amongst midfielders last season with 90 interceptions.
What options are left?
Fortunately for Coach Hackworth, the armchair analyst Matthew Doyle provides one:
If there's one thing standing between this team and a playoff spot, it's "Who plays next to Amobi?" Edu could—even should—be the answer. Philly would immediately end up with one of the most mobile central pairings in the league, and easily the most skillful on the ball. The solution to their possession issues doesn't necessarily have to start in the midfield; with a pairing of Okugo and Edu, it could start from the backline as Hackworth's squad transforms into a team that builds everything from back-to-front.
In theory, Doyle's solution would've been the most effective early on.
But in a surprise move, the Union acquired center-back Austin Berry from the Chicago Fire in exchange for allocation money. Berry—the 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year—will serve as an upgrade and immediately fit in beside Amobi Okugo.
So the question remains for Edu: Where does his versatility play in 2014?
The Match to Watch: Philadelphia Union vs. New York Red Bulls
The entire offseason centered on one goal for the Union: Making the playoffs. Success or failure could boil down to a string of results in the month of September.
In a span of five weeks, Philadelphia will face the reigning Supporters' Shield champion, the club that eliminated said champion in the first round of the 2013 playoffs, a revamped 2012 playoff participant and the most expensively rebuilt roster in league history.
Fortunately for Philadelphia, three of those five matches will be at home.
But the only match in September that will be broadcasted as a nationally televised home game comes on the 13th against the Red Bulls—the club's biggest rival. The Union, however, will have to start capturing more results against the New York-based club for this to be considered a true rivalry.
There's nothing intense about one-sided results.
Philadelphia enters 2014 with 10 all-time meetings against the Red Bulls. The club has just three victories in comparison to New York's six. Even worse, last year's scoreless draw in Week 25 was the first time the Union ever captured a point at Red Bull Arena.
They'll look to capture more than that before a home crowd in a pivotal September showdown.
Eduardo Mendez is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist and analyst for Opta Sports. Follow him on Twitter for more insight on a variety of sports topics. Follow @Mendez_FC