MLS 2012 preview: Philadelphia Union
2011 record and finish: 11-8-15 (third place in Eastern Conference)
Additions: M Nizar Khalfan; F Josue Martinez; M Jimmy McLaughlin; M Gabriel Gomez; D Porfirio Lopez; F Chandler Hoffman; M Greg Jordan; D Raymon Gaddis; D Tom Brandt; F Krystian Witkowski; F Antoine Hoppenot; M Brandon Zimmerman; F Lionard Pajoy; D Chris Albright
Losses: D Juan Diego Gonzalez; GK Thorne Holder; M Justin Mapp; GK Chase Harrison; M Stefani Miglioranzi; F Levi Houapeu; M Morgan Langley; D/M Ryan Richter; D Joe Tait; F Veljko Paunovic; GK Faryd Mondragon; F Sebastien Le Toux; M Kyle Nakazawa
Key questions facing this team
1. Has the Union lost too much experience?
In a shocking series of moves, the Union said goodbye to its two most experienced players and its MVP this offseason. Veljko Paunovic and Faryd Mondragon returned to their home countries because of family issues, with Paunovic retiring for a second time and Mondragon re-joining his first club, Deportivo Cali. Meanwhile, perennial MVP candidate Sebastien Le Toux, who delivered 25 goals and 20 assists in the Union's two seasons of existence, was shipped to the Vancouver Whitecaps for allocation money. Head coach Peter Nowak received plenty of heat over the Le Toux decision but insists it all fits into a grand plan, and that the financial breathing room created by the striker's transfer fee will pay dividends for years to come. "We were able to have Carlos Valdes back and give a new contract to Roger Torres, and we believe that it was important to make this move for the long term," Nowak said. Question is, how hard will the losses hit the Union in the short run? Nowak is confident that the mountain of young talent he has assembled over the past two years is ready to perform. "The youngsters already have experience playing in this league," he said. "It's not like we're just picking up some rookies who don't know the league. We're not in a rebuilding year."
2. Will Freddy Adu stick around?
Nomadic wunderkind Freddy Adu seemed to be getting his customary biannual itch this winter, admitting publicly that he wouldn't be opposed to turning his training stint with Rayo Vallecano into a permanent move. Although not the Union's best player, Adu looked promising in his first 11 appearances for the club; now that he's fit and settled in, he could be primed for the strong, complete season he's never had. Adu also gives Nowak the flexibility he craves to shift systems, as he can play in several different roles on the left and in the center of the park. That's if he sticks around, of course.
3. Can they weather the Olympics?
To the relief of many MLS coaches, the league's schedule now breaks for international games. But the Olympics and the qualifying tournament thereof could still wreak havoc on MLS rosters throughout the summer, and none more so than the Union's. Adu, Zach MacMath, Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo and Sheanon Williams are all potential starters for the Union -- but are squarely in the U-23 picture too. "I've got the calendar from the U.S. Federation and in the worst-case scenario, we can lose these guys for 16 or 17 games, which is half the season," Nowak lamented. He hopes to have created enough depth to compensate for their absence, but that's a lot of talent to cover for.
Biggest X factor: Rapid maturation
On its current roster, the Union has just four players over the age of 27. On average, the 24-man team is an incredibly young 23.3. As talented as they are, this bunch will have to mature quickly into a team that can build on the Union's strong 2011 season. "Not just to be playing attractive, but also effective," Nowak said. "This third year we have to combine playing effective, playing efficient, but also winning the games."
Breakout player to watch: Danny Mwanga
The Union's top draft pick in their 2010 expansion season, Mwanga, who still is just 20, has already yielded a pretty nice return. He scored seven goals as a rookie and five more in 2011, making him the second-most productive Union player of all time, while collecting eight assists too. Nowak has always used him conservatively and tried to bring him along slowly, starting him just 30 times over two seasons and taking great precaution with his knee injury last summer. With Le Toux gone, Mwanga is the favorite to see more minutes and step into the void.
The Union, by its admission, was ahead of its own blueprint when it made the playoffs last season. Performance breeds expectation, though, even if a team's best player and two other starters leave. With a young core solidifying and growing up together, paired with Latin imports Gabriel Gomez, Josue Martinez, Porfirio Lopez and Lionard Pajoy, the Union should be competitive for a playoff spot. But don't expect them to go far in the playoffs just yet.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.
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