CHESTER, PA - SEPTEMBER 17: Zac MacMath #18 of the Philadelphia Union shouts at his team during their MLS soccer game against the Columbus Crew, September 17, 2011 at PPL Stadium in Chester, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)
It might not be totally obvious, but left back Porfirio Lopez may end up being the most significant offseason acquisition, writes Brotherly Game's Scott Kessler.
2011 record (finish): 11-8-15 (exited playoffs in Eastern Conference semi-finals)
Key additions: Gabriel Gomez, Josue Martinez, Porfirio Lopez, Lionard Pajoy
Key losses: Faryd Mondragon, Sebastien Le Toux, Justin Mapp
Projected starting XI: 4-4-2 (4-2-2-2); Zac MacMath (GK), Lopez (LB), Danny Califf (LCB), Carlos Valdes (RCB), Sheanon Williams (RB); Freddy Adu (LM/LCAM), Gomez (LCM/LCDM), Brian Carroll (RCM/RCDM), Michael Farfan (RM/RCAM); Pajoy (LS), Danny Mwanga (RS)
Bold prediction: Not a single Union forward or striker will score double digits this season. Union fans are used to Sebastien Le Toux scoring at least 10 goals a season, but only Pajoy has scored double digits in a professional season out of the five strikers on the team's roster. Additionally, Mwanga and McInerney are the only MLS veterans in the group, despite both being under the age of 22. A well-balanced attack could finally bring consistency to the Union offense, but none of the team's strikers will lay claim to a goal scoring haul close to either of Le Toux's two seasons in Philadelphia.
Biggest fear: A central defensive injury is the scariest situation that could occur during the 2012 MLS season for the Union. Philadelphia is the thinnest of any team in MLS at the center back positions, currently claiming no natural players behind Califf nor Valdes. Last season the team utilized Williams in a center back role and seemingly refused to use Juan Diego Gonzalez, highly paid back up centerback, whenever possible. If either Califf or Valdes pick up a significant injury, Gomez, Albright, Lopez, Okugo, Greg Jordan or Williams could fill in, but none of them have played in central defense consistently at any points in their collegiate or professional careers. How long the Union can stay lucky with the injury bug will determine how well the team performs this season.
Porfirio Lopez is somewhat of an unknown commodity in MLS, something that potentially impacts the entire Union season. The left back previously spent time in both China and Costa Rica, but until last year he had done little of note outside of those countries.
Lopez started to be noticed outside of Costa Rica due to his good form and high level of play for Alajuense in 2011-12. A 1-0 Alajuense victory over the LA Galaxy in the CONCACAF Champions League gave Lopez his first exposure to MLS players and technical staffs, which most likely alerted scouts, such as the Union's Diego Gutierrez, to his existence.
The 26-year-old later played against new teammate Josue Martinez in the Costa Rican league semi-finals, helping Alajuense defeat Deportivo Saprissa and advance to the finals, where they claimed the 2011 championship. While his recent form reads well out of Costa Rica, Lopez's status as an MLS rookie leaves a lot to be left up to faith and hope.
There's a question of whether or not foreign players can properly translate their styles of, playing into MLS. Fellow Costa Rican Alvaro Saborio made the transition amiably, becoming a Designated Player for Real Salt Lake and one of the better strikers in the league, but he's not always the standard. Players like Mista have come and gone with high expectations after playing well outside of MLS, failing to make an impact worthy of their salaries or hype.
Lopez comes in without hype, yet he is not without intangible problems. Union fans have wanted not only consistent offensive and defensive play out of the left back position for two years, but also a natural left back to properly replace former starter Jordan Harvey (traded to the Vancouver Whitecaps midseason last year). Lopez's available game film shows a quick, fast, smart and physical player who enjoys moving forward and covering back at all times. Head coach Piotr Nowak's tactical system has demanded a lot out of the fullbacks that Philadelphia has used in the past two years. David Myrie and Cristian Arrieta both flamed out at the right back position, the former due to a lack of playing maturity and the other because of a lack of speed to track back or defend. Harvey was sold because the Union were called up by the Whitecaps and given a Marlon Brando in "The Godfather" type of deal. However, the Union were willing to part with the Expansion Draft selection because of his inability to produce offensively, and his slowly degrading level of defensive play.
Lopez appears to have the skill and form to fulfill the needs of Nowak's system and avoid the fate of the previously mentioned fullbacks, though he is untested in the physical and fast paced world of MLS. His ability to properly transition to MLS will help to continue Califf's good form and enable MacMath to manage the rigors of being a first year starter.
- Scott Kessler, Brotherly Game