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MLS 2011 Preview: Philadelphia Union Bolster Goalkeeping, Offense

Who do you expect to be starting at First Kick?

The Union will most likely keep the majority of their starting lineup from the last eight games of the 2010 MLS season. Goalkeeping was one of the problems for the Union in 2010 and it was also a position of change during the offseason. Chris Seitz, Brad Knighton and Brian Perk all tended the net for the Union during their inaugural season but none returned to the Union for the 2011 season. Seitz was taken by the Seattle Sounders in the Re-Entry Draft and then traded to FC Dallas only minutes later. Knighton was waived by the Union despite recording the team’s first ever shutout. In their places come Faryd Mondragon, Thorne Holder and Zac MacMath. Mondragon, a Colombian international, is a much needed veteran with European experience at a position that saw inconsistency and a lack of confidence last season. Holder is a relative unknown and wasn’t drafted in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft but he did play for a year at the University of Maryland, which is the qualifier for any goalkeeper and the Union (Seitz, Holder and MacMath all attended Maryland). He will back up Mondragon while fifth overall pick MacMath will see most of his time in Reserve League games.

A backline that seemed to have new life with the addition of right back Sheanon Williams receives an upgrade in the center with the signing of Colombian national team defender Carlos Valdes. The other three players (including Williams) remain as members of a group of only four defenders that return from a poor defensive 2010 season. Team captain Danny Califf retains his center back role and will partner with Valdes in front of Mondragon. Jordan Harvey, who played nearly every minute possible for the Union, stays at left back. Juan Diego Gonzalez-Alzate is currently the only defensive depth that the Union have as part of their roster. The 30-year-old Gonzalez-Alzate started all seven games he played in last year, before losing his starting role to the recently departed Michael Orzoco-Fiscal.

The midfield has grown stronger by addition through subtraction, along with the free transfer of former MLS MVP striker Carlos Ruiz. Losing Fred (New England Revolution in the Re-Entry Draft), waiving Toni Stahl, trading Andrew Jacobson and not retaining Eduardo Coudet have made the midfield not only significantly younger but also relieved plenty of its congestion. Sebastien Le Toux, last year’s points leader in MLS, will probably be moved out wide to accommodate having Ruiz on the field alongside Danny Mwanga. Former Columbus Crew central midfield stalwart Brian Carroll will provide needed consistency from the team’s holding midfield position, while Justin Mapp is set to continue to play on the left side, as he did after a trade with the Chicago Fire midseason. Amobi Okugo looks as though he has made major steps forward in his development from last year and could easily see time early on. Depth comes in the form of Kyle Nakazawa, Michael Farfan, Levi Houapeu, Chris Agorsor, Home Grown Player Zach Pfeffer and veteran Stefani Miglioranzi.

Ruiz, Mwanga and Jack McInerney lead the Union’s attack, which was dependant upon Le Toux to both create and score goals in 2010. Mwanga lived up to his selection as the number one overall pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, scoring 7 goals and developing a nice rapport with Le Toux. To improve the play of the forwards the Union brought in Guatemalen striker Ruiz, a prolific scorer during his time in MLS. Backing up the two is 18-year-old McInerney who showed promise in the small amount of time he had to play last year. Head coach Piotr Nowak utilized a 4-2-2-2 for much of last season and will probably do the same in 2011. Mondragon (GK), Harvey (LB), Valdes (CB), Califf (CB), Williams (RB), Mapp (LM), Carroll (CM), Okugo (CM), Le Toux (RM), Mwanga (FW), Ruiz (FW)

Which new player(s) will have biggest impact?:

Mondragon will have the largest impact on the team, while Ruiz may impact the team beyond just his typical goal-scoring ways. Mondragon gives the Union something they desperately lacked in 2010: a consistent goalkeeper. After dealing with Seitz for most of the season, Nowak made the change to back up Knighton, who managed to keep most shots out of the net. Still, Knighton was clearly not a No. 1. He was somewhat indecisive on crosses and not the most confident goalkeeper, but he was excellent on one-on-ones and did give the Union their first-ever clean sheet. The most important part of the addition of Mondragon is his ability to control a backline. If any defender, be it countryman Valdes or veteran Califf, makes a mistake Mondragon will make i be known that it is not acceptable. Union fans should look forward to a goalkeeper whose mouth is always yelling out organizational orders to the players in front of him.

Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?

The loss of Michael Orozco-Fiscal hurts the Union dearly. Though no longer a starter with the signing of Valdes, Orozco-Fiscal was important because of his ability to play the fullback position, along with being able to cover at center back. After releasing rightback Cristian Arrieta, losing Shea Salinas (a reserve rightback) and not drafting a defender in the SuperDraft, the Union were left with only six defenders on their roster. The team could not come to terms with Mexican club San Luis on either a new loan deal or a permanent transfer price for Orozco-Fiscal. That leaves the team with only Juan Diego Gonazalez Alzate to cover all four defensive positions. With the Union’s trip to Houston to face the Dynamo less than two weeks away, it’ll be interesting to see what the Union do to replace Orozco-Fiscal and get depth behind the four starters.

At what point is this season considered success?

This team is built for the playoffs but missing out on the playoffs would not be the end of the world for the Union. An improvement to close to 40 points would be satisfying, though slightly disappointing, for a 2011 season finish. Last year the Union nearly made a real push for the playoffs late but by the time that a run of good form came along mathematical elimination was close. The Union will be one of many teams that are borderline playoffs. If they do make them then the way that Nowak has built the team will benefit it for a long playoff run.

Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?

The popular name to say for this question would be Mondragon but I'll go with fellow Colombian, Valdes. It's been an interesting offseason for the Union defense and Valdes represents the direction that the team has gone in. Experienced and Colombian appear to be music to Piotr Nowak's ears.

Valdes is apparently of a high enough quality that the Union felt it was fine not to meet the asking price of San Luis to either extend center back Orozco-Fiscal's loan or to keep him on a permanent transfer. The 6'0", 176-pound Valdes will partner with Califf in the center of the Union's defense, giving the team its largest center back pairing since Toni Stahl stood alongside Danny Califf in the opening game of the 2010 MLS season.

One of the team's worst problems last season was an inability to keep major mistakes out of the middle of the defense, deep into the final third. Califf would occasionally slip up, as did Gonzalez Alzate in his starting role and it wasn't until Orozco-Fiscal was given a chance with Califf that the defense started to gain consistency (along with the emergence of Sheanon Williams as a starting right back).

If Valdes is able to help keep the backline's play consistent, then the problems of 2010 should not return and a playoff run should be expected, not questioned.

Where does Zac MacMath fit into the Union’s plans this season?

MacMath finds himself in a great place for a 19-year-old goalkeeper. Nowak chose to forgo solving a couple of glaring problems that the Union had by selecting MacMath fifth overall. Continuing the Union’s fascination with Maryland goalkeepers, MacMath brings top American talent to the position for the Union. He has Mondragon to tutor him in the finer points of goalkeeping, Holder to make sure he’s not rushed into action and the return of the Reserve League to play in and benefit from. The highest level of competition that MacMath will most likely see in 2011 will be a possible start in an USOC match.

How many goals will Carlos "El Pescadito" Ruiz score?

His ability to put the ball in the back of the net is undeniable but Ruiz will not net double digits for the Union. What’s more reasonable is to believe that he will score between 5-7 goals. His time away from the Los Angeles Galaxy has been a time of a serious lack of league goals, no matter what country or league he has played in. It’s probably better to believe that Mwanga will improve to hit double digits in goals, rather than think that Ruiz will immediately come in and get at least 10 league goals for only the second time since 2006.

- Report by Scott Kessler of Brotherly Game (Philadelphia Union blog)