By JOEY SAMUEL
In 2011, the Philadelphia Union earned their first playoff berth in what was a breakout season for the club in its second year of existence. In 2012, the Union will look to go even further, but this time with an even younger squad.
Philadelphia let go or traded a number of veteran players with years of experience in Major League Soccer and abroad this offseason. Players like Justin Mapp, Stefani Miglioranzi, Veljko Paunovic, and Faryd Mondragon have made way for younger counterparts. And most surprising of all, star forward Sebastien Le Toux was dealt to Vancouver despite being the face of the franchise for its first two years in the league.
To replace the veterans let go, Philadelphia brought in several talented young players, many of which hail from South and Central America. Fulfilling the lofty expectations for the 2012 season now rests on the shoulders of the young nucleus of the team, players like Danny Mwanga, Sheanon Williams, Zac MacMath and Freddy Adu.
"There's a lot of new faces. It's a young team," Adu said. "I know some of the other guys, the newer guys. They look up to the guys that have been around, and we have to set an example for them."
Here is a closer look at the Union heading into the 2012 MLS season:
PHILADELPHIA UNION 2012 MLS SEASON PREVIEW
2011 FINISH: 11-8-15, 48 points (third in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: F Josue Martinez, M Gabriel Gomez, D Porfirio Lopez, F Chandler Hoffman, F Lionard Pajoy, D Chris Albright
KEY LOSSES: F Sebastien Le Toux, M Justin Mapp, M Stefani Miglioranzi, F Veljko Paunovic, G Faryd Mondragon, M Kyle Nakazawa
The starting XI for Philadelphia will be significantly different than most lineups put on the field throughout 2011. First of all, captain and starting goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon is gone after just one season, in which he shored up what was a disaster position for the team in 2010; Mondragon had even earned the start in goal for the MLS All-Stars against Manchester United.
Now that the Colombian has headed back to his native country to play for his hometown team Deportivo Cali, the reins have been handed to Zac MacMath. The U.S. Under-23 international started seven games last year while Mondragon battled an injury, and his strong performances during that spell almost certainly made it easier for the Union to allow Mondragon to return to Colombia.
"The burden is big, but I think he will handle it without any problems," Union manager Peter Nowak said. "And there's not going to be any speculation about who's No. 1. I think it's important for him to know the whole team is behind him."
The Union have gotten deeper at defense, losing only Colombian center back Juan Diego Gonzalez, who was missing in action for nearly all of 2011. They added Costa Rican left back Porfirio Lopez, shoring up a position of weakness for the Union from last year.
As 2011 came to a close, Gabriel Farfan was playing left back, despite being a midfielder by trade. Now the team has a solid starting-quality player to slot in alongside other starters Danny Califf, Carlos Valdes, and Sheanon Williams. Philadelphia also added long-time league veteran right back Chris Albright, who returns to his hometown.
Philadelphia doubled down on many of its midfielders from 2011, retaining Freddy Adu and securing Roger Torres to a long-term deal. Justin Mapp was acquired by the Montreal Impact in the Expansion Draft, but his absence will be filled comfortably by Michael Farfan, who came on strong late last season to become a potential Rookie of the Year candidate by year's end. Gabriel Farfan will also be free to play on the wingswith Lopez slotting in at left back.
In the center of midfield, Brian Carroll and rising star Amobi Okugo will now be joined by Panamanian Gabriel Gomez, signed in the offseason from Indios de Ciudad Juarez in Mexico. Gomez, hailed by pundits for his strong performances in the 2011 Gold Cup, could play alongside Carroll, or could force him out of the starting lineup altogether depending on formation choice.
The forward position will be, without a doubt, the most changed for Philadephia heading into 2012. Sebastien Le Toux is gone, as are his double-digit goals and assists totals. That won't be an easy hole to fill by any means.
But the Union thinks they have a pair of gems in 21-year-old Costa Rican Josue Martinez, who chose Philadelphia over a few European suitors, and 30-year-old Lionard Pajoy, who scored 13 goals in the Colombian league last year. While Martinez has huge upside, Pajoy appears more ready to make an instant impact.
"We saw him many times and talked to him many times during our stay in Colombia," Nowak said of Pajoy. "I think he’s a guy who brings not only character but also a mentality to the game. He's very physical, and very fast as well. He can change the game with everything, because he's a different option."
Those two new forwards could start together up top, but it's more likely that one of them will pair up with Danny Mwanga, who, after serving mostly in a super-sub role in 2011, now emerges as a key part of the Union offense this season. Jack McInerney will also see an increased role in 2012, and the team will also count on Chandler Hoffman, its first-round pick in this year's SuperDraft, to chip in as well.
For the Union in 2012, the ability of its young core to handle the pressure of a full season without important veterans like Le Toux will be the key factor in how much success the team finds. Also key will be how the club fills the voids during Olympic quailfying and the Olympics — should the United States make it there — with a number of Union youngsters poised for U.S. U-23 roles under Caleb Porter.
"For us, it doesn't matter that we're a young team," said Adu, one of the players who could miss a good chunk of the summer while competing in London. "We have veteran players. We have players that have been around and that have a lot of experience, and so we have a pretty good core."