The 2014 Union season is rapidly approaching. In only 6 days, the Boys in Blue will begin their 5th campaign off of the coast of the Pacific in Portland. There are many reasons for Union fans this season to be more optimistic about their team’s playoff chances this year more than any other Union season. In Part 1 of my preview, I looked at 5 new players who could be huge difference makers as the U look to reach the playoffs for the 2nd time in their short history. In this part, I will take a look at the Union in a more general sense, by looking at the entire roster, and who coach John Hackworth will look to start. Overall, the personnel on hand makes the Union a playoff team; anything short of that would be a disappointment.
Union Depth Chart:
Goalkeeper– 1. Zac MacMath 2. Andre Blake 3. Brian Holt
For the first time in his young career, MacMath will face stern competition from the 1st overall draft pick Blake, who many believe to be the best goalkeeper prospect in the league for many years. MacMath is talented in his own right- he played a splendid last 3 months of last season, showing improvement at collecting balls in the air to his decent shotstopping skills- and he will not give up the #1 shirt without a fight. In order to retain the starting job, MacMath must continue to improve at dealing with balls in the air, and must improve greatly in his distribution. He could also be more aggressive in organizing his defense. In Blake, the U have a GK prospect who has the total package: athletic, mature, good in the air. Blake will certainly push MacMath hard. Holt is the last resort, and will probably get very little game time this season.
Centerback– Starting- Amobi Okugo, Austin Berry; Reserves- Richie Marquez, Ethan White
Okugo and Berry are the clear starters. Okugo is primed for a breakout season, one which could cement him as one of the 5 or 6 best CB’s in the league. Since entering the league in 2012, Berry has won a Rookie of the Year and has played in 62 games, including playing every minute of the Chicago Fire’s 2013 campaign. The most important part of a defensive partnership is continuity and comfort, and with both players very durable and won’t miss many games, expect the pair to develop chemistry early on. They could be one of the 3 or 4 best pairings in the league by the end of the season. Out of the backups, White is more experienced, though I think he has had a disappointing camp, as he has gotten very little playing time with the 1st team. And, if he was playing well in camp, Haackworth would not have needed to acquire Berry to pair with Okugo. Marques is a rookie, but I think he will get some playing time this year, considering he beat out the more heralded fellow rookie Kevin Cope for a centerback spot.
Right back– 1. Sheanon Williams 2. Ray Gaddis 3. Matt Kassel
This is Williams’ spot. Last season he broke the record for most appearances for the Union, and he did so while quietly putting in a campaign that some people rated as the best for a right back in the entire league. He is able to both defend solidly and attack with real results, leading the league in assists for a defender with 8. Gaddis is an excellent backup. With his amazing speed, he is able to overlap on the attack with ease, knowing he can run back to cover on defense when needed. He is far more comfortable on the right side. Kassel is the emergency option, and in limited minutes last season played okay.
Left back– 1. Fabinho 2. Ray Gaddis
It seems that Fabinho narrowly won the starting spot over Gaddis during the preseason. Fabinho provides some things that Gaddis cannot on the left side; as a left footer who has spent some time at left midfield during his career, he is able to attack and send in crosses down the left flank. However, his defensive skills are lacking. Gaddis is far more effective on the right than on the left. On the left, his crossing ability is negated, and he is far less effective as an offensive weapon. However, Hackworth did surprisingly start Gaddis at left back last season, so do not be surprised if he gets the nod again.
Center midfield– Starting- Maurice Edu, Vincent Noguiera, Brian Carroll; Next subs- Pedro Ribeiro, Zach Pfeffer, Michael Lahoud; Last resorts- Corben Bone, Keon Daniel, Leo Fernandes
There are so many center midfielders on the roster that many of them will only make the Union’s gameday roster, much less start, a few times this season. Edu and Noguiera are definite starters. They were both paid a lot of money to come here, and the U’s fans will expect a lot of results. Both players are in the prime of their careers and have a lot of pedigree; Edu is a former national team player, while Noguiera was the captain of a French Ligue 1 side for many years. Expect Edu to do a lot of work in defense while running forward to connect the side, and Noguiera to act as a “faux-creator” in John Hackworth’s system (more on why he is a “faux-creator” as opposed to just a “creator” in my look at the Union’s tactics). Captain Brian Carroll is virtually a lock in the side, occupying the 3rd midfield role. However, there is concern among the fanbase that Carroll may be redundant in the side, and that the U require a more offensive 3rd midfielder. That other option could be rookie Pedro Ribeiro. At 6’4″, he has the physical stature to dominate other teams with his strength, but he also is extremely gifted technically. He could be a real difference maker for the side this season. Pfeffer is a player with a ton of potential. He is Homegrown, having went to Upper Dublin. With all of the midfielders on the roster, he may not get much playing time this season, but he still has a ton of talent. Expect Lahoud to be a defensive option for Hackworth late in games. Bone, Daniel, and Fernandes may not get much time. I can’t see any of them making a major contribution, although Bone was a pickup this offseason, so it is possible that Hackworth plays him, and Daniel is a veteran who has shown flashes of talent in years other than 2013.
Right wing– 1. Sebastian Le Toux 1b. Danny Cruz 3. Jimmy McLaughlin
This battle is close between Le Toux and Cruz. Both are limited technically, but are excellent athletes who use their athleticism in different ways. Le Toux is one of the most fit soccer player I have ever seen. He is capable of running for 90 minutes every week. Last year, he added a new dimension to his game, as he became an accurate crosser, even taking the lead of Union corner kicks. This technical skill is a huge boost to his game, as he is not a great passer. Cruz, on the other hand, expends all of his energy in a 55 minute stint. He is constantly buzzing around the opposition fullbacks, looking to win the ball off them high up the field to start quick attacks. However, he is limited tactically, as he often doesn’t supply enough defensive cover for his fullback. Add that to his seeming lack of all technical skills, and the U have a player who can infuriate the fanbase. But Hackworth likes him a lot, and even though Le Toux is the better player, Cruz will get a ton of time this season. McLaughlin is the last option and may be sent down to the Union’s lower division affiliate, Harrisbug City Islanders.
Left wing– 1. Cristian Maidana 2. Cristhian Hernandez
This is Maidana’s wing to roam. Signed as a Designated Player like Mo Edu (meaning the U went over the individual salary restriction to sign him), Hackworth desperately needs Maidana to provide tangible results in goals and assists, not just improved technical play on the left flank. On all accounts Maidana is a very skilled player, able to dribble at players and create for others. In fact, he has played a lot of his career as the central attacking midfielder, meaning that he could provide an essential creative option for the side. The Homegrown Hernandez could play with the big club this season. He is versatile, able to play multiple positions, but he won’t get much time unless there are injuries.
Forward– Starting- Jack McInerney; Bench- Connor Casey, Antoine Hoppenot, Aaron Wheeler
This is the year for Jack Mac to cement himself as one of the MLS’ best forwards. After leading the league in goals through May, McInerney only added 2 more the rest of the way. A very intellegent player, who makes excellent runs off of the ball to put himself into good positions, he must prove he can add quality in the buildup. But, his most important task will be becoming a consistent goalscorer. The Union probably need 15-20 goals out of him, and he has the ability to do it. Casey is a very good backup who provides a very different look than McInerney, as he is a very physical player who excels in holding up the ball. However, injuries have hampered his preseason, so he may not provide as much of an impact as last season. Hoppenot is Hackworth’s spark plug off of the bench. But, while he certainly provides energy in the last 30 minutes of games, able to dribble directly at opponents and create dangerous offensive opportunities, he must become a more capable goalscorer. Wheeler is a big body while limited technically, and a bad sign for his playing time this season is that Hackworth had him playing a lot of centerback this offseason.
Now that I have went over the entire Union roster, next time I will focus on their tactics: what Hackworth will implement, and what I think they should play.