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'14 Season Preview: Re-tooled Union ready to compete with big boys

Chester, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The 2014 season marks the Philadelphia Union's fifth anniversary in Major League Soccer. It could also be the start of a new era of success for the young franchise.

Last season, the Union saw the emergence of young striker Jack McInerney and central defender Amobi Okugo and identified them as pieces to build around for the future.

McInerney scored 10 goals in his first 14 league contests and appeared to be heading for a Golden Boot title as the league's top goal scorer. But he ran into a massive dry spell after being called into Jurgen Klinsmann's U.S. squad for the Gold Cup and didn't score again until October 12 against D.C. United.

Still, McInerney showed his scoring prowess, especially when paired with a talented hold-up forward like Conor Casey, who returns for his second season in Philadelphia after scoring 10 last year.

Okugo has become one of the brightest young American defenders. He played and started 32 games last season, anchoring a backline that posted 12 clean sheets while adding three goals.

Unfortunately, these two stars were unable to lead the Union to their second- ever playoff appearance. They punched above their weight for most of the season and had an opportunity to sneak into the postseason down the stretch, but lost a crucial game in Montreal on Oct. 19, then fell to eventual champion Sporting Kansas City in the regular-season finale.

Philadelphia's 2013 season had its ups and downs, but they were undone by a shaky midfield which offered almost nothing in attack, forcing McInerney and Casey to drop deeper to recover the ball.

Heading into the offseason, then, the Union's biggest challenge was how they were going to completely retool an ineffective midfield.

It took until mid-January before the Union hit the international market to fix the midfield, but they seem to have fixed it in a big way.

Gone are Kleberson, homegrown player Greg Jordan and Michael Farfan, who was transferred to Cruz Azul in Mexico.

Replacing them are Corben Bone, U.S. international Maurice Edu, who arrives on loan from Stoke City in the Premier League, Cristian Maidana from Argentinos Juniors and Vincent Nogueira, who signed a two-year contract from Sochaux in France.

Philadelphia lacked a true No. 10 last season; someone who could pull the strings in attack from the middle of the park and create opportunities for the forwards. Farfan played sparingly while manager John Hackworth often played Trinidad & Tobago international Keon Daniel in that spot.

But with the new midfield acquisitions, the middle of the park now appears to be a major strength as Maidana can play out wide on the left as a natural left-footed player, while Nogueira will fill the CAM role with fan-favorite Sebastien Le Toux on the right side.

Edu will likely play as a holding midfielder next to captain Brian Carroll, but will, have license to get forward frequently while Carroll stays home.

In order to acquire Edu, the Union traded hometown man Jeff Parke to D.C. United for Ethan White and the top spot in MLS's allocation order, which left a void in central defense next to Okugo.

Hackworth said during preseason that the club would like to bring in a veteran player, and they did just that by trading for Chicago Fire defender Austin Berry in exchange for an undisclosed amount of allocation money.

Berry, 25, was the ninth overall draft pick in 2012 by the Fire and a former Rookie of the Year winner. He should slide right in next to Okugo, forming one of the best defense partnerships in the league.

The Union also made a big splash on draft day when they traded up to the No. 1 spot and selected goalkeeper Andre Blake.

It was an interesting move for a side that already has a talented young 'keeper in Zac MacMath. But Hackworth said Blake was simply too good to pass up.

"This is a guy who has tools and plays the game in a way who is going to challenge Zac," the manager said. "Competition is going to help Zac. It's going to push him. Andre is going to learn so much from Zac. It's going to be interesting."

Blake, 23, became the first-ever goalkeeper to be taken No. 1 overall in the SuperDraft and he comes to Philadelphia with some extremely high praise from his college coach:

"This guy is the best goalkeeper, and we've had very good goalkeepers," said University of Connecticut men's soccer head coach Ray Reid. "This guy is the best goalkeeper that not only that we have had in 25 years, but that we've played against in college soccer.

"This is a not a joke, and I won't say this lightly, so it should resonate with you. This is the LeBron James of goalkeepers. This is not a joke."

It's still unclear whether the Union plan to start Blake over MacMath and possibly trade MacMath to another team to fill the aforementioned hole in defense.

Either way, having the "LeBron James" of goalies can't possibly be a bad thing. And with Blake en tow, the Union appear ready to compete with the big boys of the Eastern Conference.

2013 IN REVIEW: The Union endured an up-and-down season that included exhilarating wins as well as some crushing defeats. They had an opportunity deep into August to be at the top of the Eastern Conference, but following a scoreless draw with New York on Aug. 17, they finished the season with just two wins over their last nine games, ultimately finishing seventh in the East with 46 points.

ACQUISITIONS: Austin Berry (D), Corben Bone (M), Ethan White (D), Cristian Maidana (M), Maurice Edu (M), Vincent Nogeuira (M), Andre Blake (GK), Pedro Ribeiro (M).

LOSSES: Jeff Parke (D), Kleberson (M), Don Anding (F), Michael Farfan (M), Chris Albright (D), Oka Nikolov (GK), Greg Jordan (M).

OUTLOOK: One of last season's major weaknesses was turned into a major strength in a matter of weeks with the signings of Edu, Maidana and Nogueira. The starting goalkeeper spot, and Hackworth will need to decide on a formation that best suits all of his new talents. But with a much-improved midfield, they should be able to boss the middle of the field and create more scoring opportunities for McInerney and Casey up top. Fourth in the East and a second playoff appearance seems in the cards this season.