What lies ahead for the Philadelphia Union?

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By IVES GALARCEP

It hasn't exactly been a good week to be the Philadelphia Union.

Yes, Sheanon Williams scored a dramatic late equalizer for the Union in the team's recent draw against Toronto FC, but given the fact Philadelphia is essentially out of the playoff race, that comeback felt very much like a case of "too little, too late."

In that same week we have seen the Union miss out on forward Marcus Tracy, just the kind of forward project the team could have used. New developments emerged in the increasingly ugly legal battle between the team and former head coach Peter Nowak. Then last night Union fans had to watch Danny Mwanga show off some flashes of brilliance in scoring two goals for the Portland Timbers.

No, it hasn't been a good week at all.

Union fans will be hoping to enjoy a respite from the disappointment tonight when Philadelphia takes on rival D.C. United at PPL Park. The Union will be looking to play the role of spoiler against a D.C. side locked in a fierce battle for the final playoff spot in the East.

Beyond tonight, and the rest of this season, Union fans should start thinking about the future and about just where the third-year club stands as it heads into a new era. The John Hackworth era.

Hackworth has been named the team's permanent head coach and will head into the off-season looking to make the necessary adjustments to a team that is sorely lacking some veteran talent, but also a team that boasts the best collection of young talent in MLS.

Here is what lies ahead for Hackworth and the Union, and what the team needs to do to get ready for a rebound year in 2013:

 FIND A QUALITY VETERAN FORWARD

Hackworth has talked a lot about Jack MacInerney and about wanting to give him his chance to grow and develop. He is certainly a talented young forward, but if the team is counting on him to lead the line in 2013 then next season won't be much different than this season.

The team needs a reliable goal scorer, a veteran who can trouble defenses and mentor young forwards like MacInerney and Chandler Hoffman. Finding such a forward is likely going to require some financial muscle (no, not million-dollar DP money, but more money than the team has been known to spend).

Teams like Columbus (Federico Higuain), Real Salt Lake (Alvaro Saborio) and Seattle (Fredy Montero) have struck gold with forwards in Latin America, while the Union (Lionard Pajoy) are still looking for that gem of a forward. Whether he comes from Latin America, or Europe, or even from within MLS, the Union have to make landing a quality forward their top priority.

What the Union manage to bring in at forward this winter will tell us quite a bit about just how committed the team's ownership is to revamping the Union. There is a sense building around the league that the Union are becoming a team that looks to spend less than most. The team's off-season activity will tell us plenty because it is going to take money to help the Union make the necessary upgrades to really improve and be a strong team in 2013.

KEEP ADU AND FARFAN, UNLOAD TORRES AND GOMEZ

Freddy Adu has faced a ton of criticism for his production, or lack thereof, this season but the reality is he has been setting up chances at a regular rate, only to have those chances wasted on a consistent basis. On a team with quality forward, Adu would have somewhere between 10-14 assists. On the 2012 Union he has managed just one despite being among the league leaders in chances created. He is a costly, but worthwhile piece to build around, but only if the team is serious about revamping the attack with a quality forward or two.

Michael Farfan has enjoyed a solid second season and, along with Adu, gives the Union some creative pieces to a midfield with some promise. The team can certainly use some fresh wide midfield options, and the recent addition of Danny Cruz does help in that regard, but the Union still lack a truly dangerous wide option on the roster.

As far as players the team can look to move, Roger Torres and Gabriel Gomez are at the top of that list. Torres is a fan favorite, and his quickness and skill has produced flashes of brilliance before, but he has had several years to show he could be a starter-worthy option and he has failed to do so. Gomez is a player who has been particularly disappointing because his form for the Panamanian national team in recent years seemed to suggest he could be a real impact player for the Union. He has had his moments, but has struggled badly to find consistency. There is always a chance that a player like Gomez can see a boost in quality in his second year in the league, but the Union will have to decide whether he is worth keeping around. Based on 2012, they should look to let him leave.

KEEP SOUMARE

One of the more disappointing additions to the Union has been Bakary Soumare, who has had his arrival stunted by struggles with his surgically-repaired knee. The Union paid a steep price to land the former Fire centerback so getting rid of him doesn't make much sense even with Carlos Valdes and Amobi Okugo firmly entrenched as starting centerbacks.

So why keep him? When healthy Soumare is a dominant centerback, and as well as Okugo has played since moving to centerback, the sense in Philadelphia seems to be that it isn't a permanent move just yet. He is still a highly-regarded midfield opion, so keeping Soumare means keeping open the possibility of having Okugo develop into a central midfield anchor.

Where Okugo plays in 2013 is an interesting question because if Hackworth believes that veteran Brian Carroll is slowing down, he might have to seriously consider starting Okugo in defensive midfield to start the 2013 season, but he can really only do that if Soumare is still on the team, and healthy.

ADD SOME EXPERIENCE TO THE COACHING STAFF/FRONT OFFICE

The Union handed Hackworth the coaching job for 2013, so now it will be up to him to construct a coaching staff as well as build a front office. He has full control of the team and based on what is coming out of Philadelphia, it sounds like the basic structure for the team's front office and coaching staff is rounding into shape.

Hackworth's current lead assistant, Rob Vartughian, is being primed for the role of technical director. He doesn't have front office experience in MLS, but has picked up many of the kind of duties that job carries for the past few months. The Union will be hoping Vartughian can duplicate the front office success of another former goalkeeper in Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerwey. When Lagerwey joined RSL he didn't have front office experience either, but all he has done since is become one of the best, if not the best general manager in MLS.

Hackworth isn't exactly an inexperienced coach, having had experience in college, with the U.S. Under-17 national team and as an assistant with the U.S. national team. The 42-year-old has had a chance to run the team this season, and gain experience that way, but he will head into his very first off-season as the head coach of a professional team and what he does this winter will determine whether the Union become a playoff team again in 2013, or take a step back and continue to struggle.

With Vartughian picking up on a technical director role, Hackworth will need to add one or two coaches to his staff, and it will be interesting to see if he adds a more experienced assistant to the staff. Former Chicago Fire standout Jim Curtin has been mentioned as a potential assistant, but it remains unclear whether Hackworth plans on adding someone with some more experience.

The job of rebuilding the Union won't be easy, but it isn't as much of a make-over as you might expect for a team that has had so much upheaval, and so many bad signings this year. The team still boasts some quality young talent with players like Adu, Farfan, Okugo, Sheanon Williams and Zac MacMath, but it will be up to Hackworth to find the right select veterans to fill the team's most glaring needs and give the squad some sorely-needed leadership.

If Hackworth brings in a quality forward or two, if Soumare returns to health and top form, and if Okugo plays as well in midfield as he has at centerback, the Union will jump right back into the Eastern Conference playoff conversation in 2013.

Those are a lot of "Ifs", and it will be up to Hackworth and his staff to find answers to those question marks. If he doesn't, the Union could find itself searching for a new coach yet again a year from now.

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24 Responses to What lies ahead for the Philadelphia Union?

  1. Pastore says:

    They need to find an entire Offense after the vengeful Nowak sold all their players.

  2. Paddy Megroyn says:

    Good post, Ives.

    The Union could add some size to their roster as well as some MLS proven players. There’s just not enough depth on this roster and it shows how few options that Hackworth has to change things up.

  3. Joe Beck says:

    Couldn’t agree more with your analysis of the midfield and who should stay / who should go.

  4. iToddyC says:

    I concur, with the exception of getting rid of Torres. When healthy and in form, he is an asset. The upside to a healthy Union team next season w a few additions (with an already decent bench) could be very productive/solid:

    –MacMath–

    Williams — Soumare — M.Farfan/New — Valdes

    G.Farfan — Torres — Okogu — Adu

    –McInerney/New –New signing

    Solid young talent/veterans on the bench including:

    Cristhian Hernandez
    Chandler Hoffman
    Zach Pfeffer

    DOOP!

  5. Hunter says:

    They’ll hopefully try to resign LeToux now that Nowak’s out of the picture. I would’ve liked to see them try to go after Sapong, but now that he’s showing what he can do with playing time at Sporting, I doubt they’d give him up.

    I’m not sure about losing Torres because I like him off the bench better than Hoppenot, but Gomez should probably go to provide Okugo with more time in his preferred holding midfield position and to add more height on their set pieces with Soumare. Most important of all, they must keep Valdes from getting away. He holds the entire defence together and is probably will be the highest profile player on the team as a regular on the Columbian National roster.

  6. Where are all the Union fans? says:

    I would add finding another keeper to the shopping list and I would keep Torres, but other than that I agree with nearly every other estimation. Great article.

  7. dawwilly says:

    I would love to see Adu on a team like the Sounders. He would work so well with Eddie Johnson and Montero. He has given so many gifts to guys like Pajoy this year that you wonder if Pajoy could even score against an unguarded net. I think these lack of stats play into Klinsman’s head of keeping Adu out the national team picture. For all the criticisms Adu has received, we have very few other midfielders who can play a long pass like he did in the Gold Cup. That is type of midfield play that are forwards like Altidore need to be successful. Without the evolution you are going see the U.S. struggle qualify for the World Cup Brazil. People will say that is shocking thing to say, but to anyone who pays close attention to the U.S. men’s team knows in the back of their head that struggling in the Hexagonal is going to be a reality for the U.S.

    By the way good, though provoking piece Ives. The site gets better and better.

  8. Dulliwhig says:

    You make some good points, but I think Torres should stay. He has a unique skillset that is hard to come by in this league. He hasn’t had much of an opportunity this year, he needs a chance to shine. Also, projecting Adu out to so many assists is a bit of a stretch, but the central message of the need of a striker is right on point. Many of those chances come from the fact that he takes the majority of our set pieces.

  9. MP Stewart says:

    Do you have M. Farfarn positioned as a center back?

  10. Great content, I’m waiting for more usefull informations.

  11. Unionfan says:

    Why I want to know is why isn’t okugo on the mls 24 under 24 list

  12. BFT says:

    I agree with most of this article. The Union do badly need an experienced, quality forward, and that needs to be their #1 priority in the offseason. Gomez has been a big disappointment and should be shown the door with our best wishes. Keeping Adu, Farfan and Soumare are all no-brainers to me, I don’t see any of them going anywhere (Farfan especially, Union would be insane to move him, I think that has about a 1% chance of happening)

    The one thing I disagree with is getting rid of Roger Torres. Though he hasn’t yet shown enough yet to be a regular starter, he has at least shown he can have an impact off the bench with his creativity and quickness. The guy’s only 20, he’s got time, no need to give up on him yet.

  13. MLSfan says:

    At least they’re not TFC

  14. Chief Hung Like A Bear says:

    That stuff with Nowak and the Union is a total mess.

    But it seems pretty certain that Piotr’s days coaching in the United States are pretty much done.

    No team in MLS is every going to hire him again.

  15. Chief Hung Like A Bear says:

    Also, what the Union need to do on the field is be patient and stay the course and just tweek here and there.

    They have a core of good, young players who will obviously get more experienced. Between Okugo, Willaims, Adu, JackMac, the Farfans (I think Gabe’s the best LB in MLS), etc…. there is a lot of talent there. Let them come of age together and you could have something pretty strong.

  16. Ski Fast! says:

    The Union’s troubles start with the front office. Ives brings up the point that this offseason will really show how committed the ownership is to winning, but it’s something I’ve already been saying the past couple of transfer windows when they’ve come up very short. Though Adu technically counts as a low-end DP salary, the Union have showed little interest in spending any of their own cash beyond the salary cap for quality players. As a supporter of the club, I do not have very high hopes this offseason for them spending much outside of the type of signings they’ve made the first three years.

    The Union’s problems on-field go well beyond needing a reliable striker who can put the ball in the back of the net. The biggest problem the Union have is that they do not even create many scoring chances to begin with. There is no positive dynamic going forward in their attack. Not enough fluidity, not enough combination and smart off-the-ball movement. When they get into the final third, their thinking becomes very slow and they lack the creativity needed to create spaces against a compact defense. The club desperately needs creative midfielders with the technical ability to maintain possession and pass the ball around in tight spaces. A star forward cannot score if he doesn’t even receive the ball. Freddy Adu actually is the most creative player on the pitch, and many times give the squad a dimension they do not have from any other player. Calls for the team to get rid of Adu are, in my opinion, not wise at all. The kid actually needs better players around him.

    I’m afraid the philosophy right now of relying on (cheap, but potential-rich) youngsters is not maturing quick enough to produce an affective side with enough quality to compete for championships. If the Union have another year next season like they did this one, they will see their healthy fan base start to leave considerable numbers of empty seats. They better do something to maintain the momentum of fan support they began the club with; Year Four will be ever critical for that.

  17. Rlw2020 says:

    When is SBI going to buy the team

  18. Brandon Snodgers says:

    Can’t like this post enough. Well done, Union fan.

  19. Ryan says:

    “There is a sense building around the league that the Union are becoming a team that looks to spend less than most.”

    Nothing wrong with that if you can spend less and still win – but absolutely nothing the Union have done points to them knowing how to do that. And in a city where the other teams spare no expense and contend every year, that will ultimately be DEATH in terms of fan support and interest.

    Maybe this ownership group takes strong attendance numbers for granted (16k last night for a terrible team on a school night) but that won’t continue forever at this rate. And you look at their business plan and wonder if they know anything about the market they’re in, or whether they should have even bothered getting into MLS in the first place.

  20. Ski Fast! says:

    I wish Comcast would…

  21. jphubba says:

    Hackworth inherited a peculiar roster — full of similar smallish, quick, technical players but one reason the Union have not generated scoring chances this year is the increasingly negative tactics Hackworth has adopted. With each passing game, it becomes more evident that he is trying to avoid losing rather than trying to win.

    The most likely outcome is that the Union will follow a well-trod path in MLS. They will give up on most of their young technically adept players and replace them with the more thuggish types that populate other MLS teams. (Tolerating weak officiating has shaped MLS tactics and rosters and not in a good way). Some of the young quick skilled players will then go on to fame and fortune elsewhere. I would not be surprised at all if they tried to trade Adu if only because he is one of the few players of proven ability on the roster and Hackworth has already gone out of his way to alienate him.

  22. Andy says:

    Why would you move Okugo from CB? He’s been one of the best in the league since his move…

  23. The Imperative Voice says:

    Far as forward goes, this was a decent team even as a first year outfit when it had LeToux and Ruiz. Since then….so sign two good veteran forwards. Their GA is low enough where if someone punches some goals in they will win games and rise up the table.

    I actually think they need to reset to the young team concept of the expansion year. Retire Albright, retire Carroll. Cashier the older Latin players and trade Freddy. Try and accumulate some 2013 draft picks and sign some young foreign players. The strength of the team used to be it was young and speedy and had veteran goalscorers to finish runs off.

    Danny Cruz has never turned the corner from junior to senior play, still as hustling and sloppy as ever. Mistake.

  24. Esteban de la Sexface says:

    A decent goalkeeper is desperately needed. Even though Philly hasn’t played well most of the season, a non-crap goalie would see them with a real chance at making the playoffs this season.