2013 was a tough year to be a Union fan. The team, while picking up many good results that saw it in the race for playoff spots until the final day of the season, played ugly soccer and seemed to win many games because of luck rather than outplaying their opponents. About midway through the season, the Union had a chance to seize control over the Eastern Conference playoff race, as other top teams like New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City were faltering. However, the Union failed to take advantage of this opportunity, and ended up just short of the playoffs. Every Union fan knew that massive changes were needed in order to improve the quality of the squad, in particular in midfield, where none of the usual starters were quality passers. But past poor performances in the offseason by the Union’s front office did not give the fan base much hope that the U would significantly improve before their first game on March 8th against the vaunted Portland Timbers and their rabid home fans.
Boy, were Union fans wrong.
The Union have had a nothing less than stunning offseason. Not only have the finally spent money on quality midfielders who can do more than run a lot (like, maybe, pass), they have been aggressive in both foreign and domestic markets to improve almost every inefficiency on the team. This effort to improve has most Philadelphians feeling very good about the upcoming season. In a few parts, I will explain why the 2014 season will feature the best Union team to date, and why the Union should certainly make the playoffs this year. Today I will look at the top 5 new players, and how they will impact the squad.
5. Andre Blake- The 1st overall pick in the 2014 SuperDraft, Blake has a ton of potential. Some MLS analysts have hailed Blake as the best keeper product in the league since Brad Guzan, who now plays for Aston Villa in the English Premier League and is the backup keeper for the United States National Team. Blake is an excellent athlete; however, the thing that really helps him stand out is his maturity and reading of the game. This often does not develop in goal until later in one’s career, and it is an essential skill to have because a goalie must organize his backline well.
4. Cristian Maidana- This tricky Argentine winger has the potential to fill a huge hole for the Union this season- the left wing. Maidana has the technical ability to come back and help the U maintain possession, while also boasting the speed and directness to attack the other side’s goal or isolate the other team’s fullback one on one. Maidana will bring much needed flair to the side.
3. Austin Berry- Berry, the newest player on the squad, was just picked up in a trade with the Chicago Fire. A rugged, 6’2” defender, Berry has played in over 60 consecutive games for the Fire, and played every minute of last season for the squad, while winning Rookie of the Year the year before. The importance of this addition cannot be understated; he is a perfect partner for the smaller, quicker Amobi Okugo (who is poised to have a breakout year). Berry will help the U boast one of the 5 best defenses in the league.
2. Vincent Nogueira- This French midfielder will have a huge impact on making the U play more attractive soccer. He is an excellent passer, mobile, and is able to play both attack and defense. The 26-year old is also a great leader, as he was captain for French side Sochaux for many years. A team can never have enough technical midfielders on its roster, and Nogueira will certainly prove his quality this season as he is asked to play an important central attacking role.
1. Maurice Edu- The biggest splash of the offseason for the Union, Maurice Edu is a former national team player who has not played too much in recent years after signing with Stoke City of England. However, do not think that Edu has nothing to offer; he is an incredibly talented player who can do everything in midfield. The pair of him and Nogueira will rapidly change the side. As great soccer coach Jaunma Lillo once said, “Tell me who your central midfielder is, and I’ll tell you what sort of team you are.” The Union are poised to find out the truth of that statement in a great way. Central midfield is the most important position on the field, and the Union have just increased their talent there exponentially.
NEXT TIME: a look at the broader Union roster, its coaching staff, and strategy.