Union opens 2013 with stern test against Sporting

For the first time in their short four-year history, the Philadelphia Union will ring in the 2013 MLS season on home soil when they welcome Sporting Kansas City to PPL Park on Saturday.

In last season's opener, Philadelphia fell to Portland, 3-1, at JELD-WEN Field, but will have the opportunity to get off to a good start on Saturday in front of the home crowd.

Last year was a struggle for Philadelphia as it finished in eighth place in the Eastern Conference with a 10-18-6 mark, but it was an offseason of change for head coach John Hackworth and his staff.

Fan favorite Sebastien Le Toux, who was unceremoniously traded to the Vancouver Whitecaps by former coach Peter Nowak, was brought back in a trade from Red Bull New York. Le Toux scored 25 goals and added 20 assists for the Union from 2010-2011 while quickly endearing himself to the notoriously tough Philadelphia fan base.

Along with Le Toux, Philadelphia added some much-needed size in front of goal by selecting former Colorado Rapids forward Conor Casey in the second stage of the MLS re-entry draft. Casey was let go by Colorado after 2012, but over six seasons with the Rapids, he became the all-time leading scorer in club history with 50 goals. He also led the team to the 2010 MLS Cup title.

Defensively, the Union will have a different look as captain Carlos Valdes was loaned to Colombian side Santa Fe, but Valdes' loss shouldn't hurt too much as former MLS Defender of the Year finalist Bakary Soumare and hometown man Jeff Parke, who arrived in a trade with Seattle Sounders, will be paired together in central defense.

Occupying the all-important attacking midfield role will be Michael Farfan, who showed he could direct traffic in the middle of the park by making the MLS All-Star team in 2012. Brian Carroll returns to the holding midfield role and was named captain for his veteran leadership.

"It's an honor to officially wear the armband," Carroll said. "I'll just try to do the best job that I can, it's not going to mean that I am going to change completely who I am just because I am officially the captain."

For Kansas City, some pieces are missing from last season's side that finished at the top of the Eastern Conference. Forwards Roger Espinoza and Kei Kamara, both of whom went to Wigan and Norwich City of the English Premier League, respectively.

To help fill the void left by Espinoza and Kamara, SKC brought in 28-year-old forward Claudio Bieler as a Designated Player. He will add to an already strong forward line that includes C.J. Sapong and Teal Bunbury, who combined to score 14 goals last term.

Bieler showed his proficiency in front of goal last season with LDU Quito of Ecuador, scoring 20 goals in 36 games, and Kansas City assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin feels his addition is certain to produce goals.

"Claudio's record speaks for itself with his goal-scoring abilities, which is one of his biggest strengths," Zavagnin said. "To add him to an already athletic, powerful, promising young group, it's a tremendous addition to that part of the field. No doubt, if he does what he's done over the course of his career, he will provide goals for us."

The team not only returns captain and MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Jimmy Nielsen, but also possesses two of the better defenders in the league in Defender of the Year Matt Besler and MLS Best XI selection Aurelien Collin.

Add to that mix Josh Gardner, Ike Opara and Yann Songo'o, and head coach Peter Vermes has a nice collection of talent at his disposal in the back.

Returning to run things in the midfield is MLS MVP finalist Graham Zusi, who tallied five goals and led the league with 15 assists.

These two sides have had some good battles in the past. Last season the teams met three times in the regular season.

On June 23, Philadelphia earned a convincing 4-0 win over Sporting behind a pair of goals from Jack McInerney, but less than a month later, it was Sporting who handed the Union of 2-0 defeat in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup. On Oct. 24, a late tally from Sapong gave Sporting a 2-1 win at Livestrong Sporting Park.

Overall, Sporting holds a 3-1-3 lead in the all-time series between the clubs.