After fading during the latter part of the season and missing the playoffs, the Union aggressively made major changes during the offseason.
The question is whether all those changes will bring renewed success.
The Union almost completely revamped their midfield, bringing in Maurice Edu, whose rights were acquired in a draft week trade, and Vincent Nogueira. Edu is a transfer from Stoke City of the English Premier League. Nogueira is a transfer from Sochaux in France’s top league.
The Union also added Cristian Maidana, a transfer from Argentina. He could play midfield or, if Union manager John Hackworth makes the expected switch from a 4-4-2 alignment to a 4-3-3, on the forward line.
Austin Berry was a late addition, acquired from Chicago to solidify the back line. Berry, the 2012 MLS rookie of the year, is expected to start at central defense alongside emerging star Amobi Okugo. Defender Ethan White was also picked up in a trade that sent veteran defender Jeff Parke to D.C. United.
Draft day was another important part of the Union’s offseason. They traded up to get the No. 1 pick in the MLS SuperDraft, choosing goalie Andre Blake. Midfielder Pedro Ribeiro was selected 15th overall.
But will all this additional talent help the Union improve upon last season’s seventh-place finish in the Eastern Conference? It should. But sometimes it takes time to fit so many new pieces together to make the sum as great as its parts.
If the preseason is an accurate barometer, the Union may have difficulty scoring goals this season. The Union went 0-2-3 during the preseason, scoring one goal apiece in its first three games and failing to score in the last two (against 2013 non-playoff teams Columbus and Toronto). Their goal-scoring will be put to the test immediately in the season opener Saturday (10:30 p.m.) against Portland, which allowed the second-fewest goals in the Major League Soccer last season while winning the Western Conference.
Jack McInerney, just 21, led the Union last season with 12 goals. McInerney was inconsistent, starting off on a hot streak before enduring a long drought in the middle of the season that ended with goals in the final few games. McInerney didn’t even start sometimes, which spoke volumes about his inconsistency.
The only other Union player with more than three goals last season was veteran Conor Casey, who bounced back nicely in his first season with the Union. Casey scored eight goals and had five assists. But the 2010 MLS Cup MVP has been sidelined with a “soft tissue” injury during preseason and may not be ready for the start of the season.
Sebastien Le Toux scored just three goals last season – far below his days as a double-digit scorer in 2010 (14 goals) and 2011 (11), but his creative skills were essential, and he was particularly adept at finding McInerney. Le Toux led the Union last season with 12 assists.
One of the questions up front is how much the 30-year-old Le Toux and 32-year-old Casey have left in the tank. Another question is how well Maidana will work with his new teammates. Danny Cruz and Antoine Hoppenot, a spark off the bench the past two seasons, will compete for playing time.
The Union will score more goals if it can control the ball. The hope is that Edu and Nogueira help the Union maintain possession for longer periods and improve their transition game.
Edu, 27, burst on the scene with a flourish at the start of his career, but has languished in Europe in recent years, failing to distinguish himself. Edu may have a bit of a chip on his shoulder, determined to show that he is an elite player and was underutilized by Stoke City. He is expected to help at both ends of the field and, obviously, in the middle of the field.
Dependable veteran Brian Carroll, 32, is expected to start at the other midfield position. Keon Daniel, who started 20 games last season, appears to be the odd man out. Hackworth may also try to make time for Leo Fernandes.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the contributions of Edu and Nogueira may make or break the Union.
With Okugo and Sheanon Williams on the back line, defense would appear to be a strength for the Union. Okugo, 22, had three goals and three assists last season and might take the leap up to star status this season. Williams contributes on defense and on the rush, dishing out eight assists last season, second on the team to Le Toux.
The wild card on defense is Berry. He was the MLS rookie of the year two years ago, but the Fire obviously considered him expendable as they revamped their defense. It may take time for Berry and Okugo, who flourished last season playing next to the reliable Parke, to feel comfortable in the central defense. The Union must hope the adjustment process doesn’t take too long.
The left defense position could be manned by Fabinho or Raymon Gaddis, who made 31 starts last season. Fabinho may give the Union a little more on the rush. Gaddis may be more dependable. It will be interesting to see how Hackworth manages that situation.
Zac MacMath returns for his third season as a starter. Or is he the starter?
MacMath will begin the season as the starting goalie, but there’s a question as to whether he’ll finish the season in that role.
The Union drafted Blake with the No. 1 overall pick. That couldn’t have made MacMath secure in his starting role. The 6-foot-4 Blake, from the University of Connecticut, is actually older than MacMath (23 to 22), so this isn’t a case of a young player backing up an experience veteran for a year and then taking over. There may be competition in goal.
The question is whether competition in goal is a good thing. It’s important to have stability in goal. If Hackworth is switching goalies throughout the season, it may lead to some doubts and lack of confidence among the players.
The best-case scenario is for MacMath to play so well that there’s no need for Hackworth to consider starting Blake. If MacMath spends the season looking over his shoulder, however, that could damage his confidence, which, in turn, would damage the Union’s playoff hopes.
The Union upgraded their talent. If the talent upgrade doesn’t lead to a playoff berth, it will be extremely disappointing. The Union probably aren’t good enough to catch the Red Bulls or defending MLS champion Sporting KC, but they should be good enough to finish third through fifth in the Eastern Conference and earn a postseason berth.
The Union should be better at the end of the season than at the beginning. That could make the Union a dangerous playoff opponent. The key will be how quickly Hackworth can meld the new pieces into a cohesive unit.
Will the new pieces come together in time for the Union to make the playoffs? We’ll start to find out Saturday night.