Union set to begin MLS season

Posted: March 07, 2014

IT WAS a tough ending for manager John Hackworth and the Union, who fell out of MLS Cup playoff contention in the final weeks of the 2013 regular season. But that is all in the past now.

With key offseason additions, Hackworth believes it is time to move on and focus on the bright road ahead for the youngest team in Major League Soccer, beginning with tomorrow night's opening game at Portland (10:30, Comcast SportsNet).

"When you look at the core group of guys that are returning to our team, we clearly needed more veteran guys, guys that are a little older with a little more experience and guys that we think are still in their prime," Hackworth said. "A lot of hard work goes into those decisions and clearly that's something that we've been trying to do for a couple of years now."

The Union made four significant additions to the roster to bolster veteran leadership both on and off the field. With a lack of midfield depth at the end of the 2013 season, Philadelphia added midfielders Cristian Maidana, Vincent Nogueira and Maurice Edu. Maidana, 27, has experience playing on three continents. Nogueira, 26, joins the Union after 144 appearances with Sochaux in France, where he scored six goals in seven seasons.

"They bring a lot of energy and they want to do something with this team, so it's nice that they want to bring that experience to this team," forward Sebastien Le Toux said. "It's great to have them, and good that they can bring something new to this team."

Philadelphia's biggest move of the offseason was the addition of Edu in late January. The Union acquired the 27-year-old midfielder on a 1-year loan from Stoke City, in England, with an option to buy in 2015. The former U.S. national team midfielder/defender and 2007 MLS Rookie of the Year is regarded as a powerful attacking player who also can help out in the backfield.

"I want to come here and do well and I want to win with the team that we have here," Edu said. "I think everybody was a little disappointed with how last season finished and missing out on the playoffs narrowly, and that's everyone's aim this season: to show that we are a playoff team."

In an effort to solidify its defense, the team added the 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year, central defender Austin Berry, from the Chicago Fire in late February in exchange for allocation money. He is a player with a lot of MLS experience and was an anchor of the Chicago defense in 60 appearances.

Hackworth liked what he saw during the preseason and has high expectations for the 25-year-old defender.

"Austin was a little bit of a late addition, but that was a position that we felt we had to address," Hackworth said. "I would tell you that we were patient in trying to find the right centerback, and I think we did in Austin."

In a surprise, one of the Union's first moves came when it traded up to select 23-year-old University of Connecticut goalkeeper Andre Blake with the No. 1 overall selection in the MLS SuperDraft.

Regarded as this year's top college prospect, Blake will provide competition for veteran goalkeeper Zac MacMath once he returns from the Jamaican national team.

"It was a little bit of a surprise, but with talking to the coaches afterward, I understood the decision to push me and give me some competition at the goalkeeper position," MacMath said.

"Obviously, Andre is a very good goalkeeper and he is somebody that is going to push me to be better every day."

Said Hackworth: "One thing that I have to be honest with you about right now is that Zac is still our No. 1. He has performed well in the games, he has performed well training; so has Andre, and I like that.

"They are definitely pushing each other and I feel really comfortable going with either one of them right now, but Zac does a lot of little things because of his experience at this level better. Andre is going to be able to acquire them, but he needs time."

The addition of the new players adds depth for a team that struggled late last season. With defender Sheanon Williams sidelined this week with a right quadriceps injury and veteran forward Conor Casey unlikely to be ready for the opener because of a calf injury, the added depth is more important than ever.

"I feel good about our depth," Hackworth said. "It's better than it was last year, for sure, so as a starting point, that's great. We do have a couple of knocks right now that we're dealing with more so than we've had to deal with in the past, for whatever reason. Our medical staff has always done a good job and we've probably been fortunate to not have more injuries over past years.''

Hackworth expects forward Jack McInerney to continue to be productive.

McInerney got off to a torrid start last season before tapering off, but he finished with a team-leading 12 goals and 86 shots. Hackworth doesn't want to push the 21-year-old McInerney into a leadership role just yet.

"He's still one of the youngest guys on our team," Hackworth said.

"What he does is that he is playing like a veteran and that is important for our team. He is the kind of person that is a goal scorer, he is good at what he does for a reason, but at the same time, we know Jack very well and know that we don't have to put the leader tag on him. We have other guys, other player personalities, now that do that.''

The Union, which finished 12-12-10 in 2013, is hopeful of earning its second postseason berth in five MLS seasons.

"The initial goal is to go out there on [Saturday] and get a good result, hopefully come back with three points, and take it one game at a time and try to establish some consistency," Edu said.

"It's a long season, and obviously if we can keep some guys healthy and establish some consistency, then hopefully we will achieve the goals that we have set out for this season."

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