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10 Union players with the most to prove in 2012

Photo: Paul Rudderow

It’s 2012 and the Union have gotten younger and more inexperienced at the MLS level. That is not to say that they are any less talented. If anything, they’ve taken strides to be a deeper, more tactically savvy squad. But with so many variables left unknown due to youth, a midseason international tournament, and a still evolving system, PSP looks at the 10 players who have the most to prove in 2012 if the Union are to meet, and hopefully surpass, they’re 2011 finish.

1. Freddy Adu

Even without the rough beginning to his Union career in 2011, or his offseason comments about the desire to stay in Spain with La Liga side Rayo Vallecano, 2012 was always going to be about Freddy Adu. His history and media presence are undeniable and now that Adu is fully healthy and has a complete offseason with the Union under his belt, the expectations for his 2012 campaign are higher than ever. His nearly $600k in guaranteed compensation in 2011 failed to yield adequate production in the eyes of most Union supporters and if Adu does not show full commitment and effort coming out of the gates this year, public opinion will quickly sour against the Union’s most expensive player.

Further complicating the issue for Adu are the Olympic Qualifying Tournament and the London Games that follow (assuming the US succeed in qualification). With the added stress that extensive travel and jumping from team to team can cause, all eyes will be on Adu as he attempts to prove not only to the Union faithful, but all US soccer fans, that his career is back on the upswing and that he is beginning to live up to the vast potential he displayed as a youngster.

2. Danny Mwanga

2011 looked like it would be the year for Mwanga to prove that he could stay healthy and focused while being a consistent contributor for the Union. With the sale of Sebastien Le Toux, all expectations for Mwanga have been multiplied dramatically. Still only 20-years-old, Mwanga will have to display not only the soft first touch and powerful hold up skills of a true target forward, he will also have put the ball in the net and lead the Union line in 2012. However unfair it is to demand so much of such a young player, the honeymoon is over for Mwanga in MLS. If he is to become an elite striker in the league, 2012 is the year in which he must prove it.

In Lionard Pajoy, the Union hope they have acquired a similarly sized veteran option who can push Mwanga and provide mentor-ship for the constantly improving Union No. 10. For two years Union fans have wondered how Mwanga would react to an extended run of start and in 2012, we will likely have that question answered. His ability to thrive in the spotlight will go a long way towards keeping the Union near the top teams in the East.

3. Zac MacMath

MacMath did nothing but impress as Faryd Mondragon’s backup in 2011, but being named the 2012 starter is a different animal entirely. Entering 2012 as Peter Nowak’s number one, many expected the Union to acquire a veteran keeper with a proven MLS track record to offer MacMath both support and mentor-ship. Whether or not the lack of such a signing is a move to show faith in the young keeper, lifetime minor-leaguer Chase Harrison is the next to pick up the gloves should MacMath suffer an injury or significant dip in form.

It may seem unfair to place so much pressure on such a young goalkeeper, but as a playoff team in 2011 with increased expectations for the upcoming season, that is the position in which MacMath finds himself. Should he excel (and there’s no one out there forecasting that he won’t) the Union will be in excellent shape for a postseason push. But goalkeeping is a tricky position and even the best young keepers suffer hard to explain losses of confidence. As the 2012 campaign gets underway, there will be plenty of people closely scrutinizing MacMath’s demeanor and ability to remain composed both in the best and worst of times.

4. Roger Torres

Whether it was fair or not (it’s not), the Union celebrated the permanent transfer for Roger Torres by telling angered fans that Sebastien Le Toux’s sale made Torres’ full-time acquisition possible. Talk about ladling a heaping helping of pressure onto the young midfielder’s shoulders. With Freddy Adu expected to miss large chunks of 2012 for Olympic-related reasons, the 20-year old Colombian playmaker will likely be called upon to be the creative catalyst in the Union midfield. Torres has grown through each of his first two seasons in MLS and, in 2012, the Union need him to be very near the finished product.

While Torres has always shown playmaking ambition and ability, his aggressive mindset has often gotten the better of him in the past. For Torres to succeed he must be patient and possession-oriented as he waits until the appropriate moment to release his forwards or drive to net himself. If he can do these things, his production, as well as his playing time, will skyrocket. It is unlikely that he will replicate Le Toux’s numbers in 2012, but if the Union can come away with a full time playmaker, a true offensive catalyst, they will take it.

5. Danny Califf

With Faryd Mondragon, Sebastien Le Toux and Veljko Paunovic suddenly members of the Union’s past, Danny Califf again finds himself as the primary leader of the Union, both on the field and off. Brian Carroll and new signing Chris Albright will be able to help out some, and new acquisitions like Gabriel Gomez and Lionard Pajoy are seasoned professionals, but this is Califf’s team.

Without the armband, Califf excelled in 2011, partnering with Carlos Valdes as the one of the league’s strongest, and certainly most underrated, defensive pairings. In 2012, he will not only have to lead by example, he will need to acquire some of Mondragon’s fiery persona in stoking his teammates on throughout the season. Fortunately for Califf, the defense is in a much better place than it was in 2010, when he was last the full captain. Union fans will hope that with his defensive responsibilities well defined and understood, he can provide the solid anchor this young Union team needs to thrive.

6. Jack McInerney

With the increased depth the Union added at striker in the offseason—including Josue Martinez and Lionard Pajoy as well as rookies Chandler Hoffman and Antoine Hoppenot—the pressure is squarely on Jack McInerney to prove that the experience of two professional seasons has helped him develop into a player who can finish his chances. In 2011, the Union often emptied their bench of attacking options in an effort to throw bodies forward. Often enough in those formations, McInerney found himself deployed in midfield, which clearly did not suit him.

But strikers score goals and, if McInerney wants more time up front playing alongside a larger striker like Mwanga or Pajoy, he will need to bury some early opportunities in 2012 and make it known that he is prepared to accept a significant portion of the goalscoring burden. He did after all take the still warm No. 9 shirt off Le Toux’s back. Union fans must be hopeful that is a sign of a confident young goalscorer ready to prove his credentials.

7. Josue Martinez

Moving to a new league is always a challenge, especially for a young player. Coming into a side that expects immediate production is even more challenging, yet that is exactly the position in which Josue Martinez finds himself. Martinez has yet to play a minute for the Union, but he already is in a fight for minutes with no less than five other players. So far in the preseason, the Union have paired him with Mwanga as matchday starters and while he has found the back of the net, the preseason is the preseason and fans will look forward to learning more about his game once the regular season begins. One thing is certain: Just like every other member of the 2012 Union, Martinez will be expected to produce, and quickly.

8. Michael Farfan

It took Michael Farfan the better part of 2011 to prove that he belonged in Peter Nowak’s starting XI but, with so much young attacking talent, he will likely have to state his case all over again. With the plethora of attacking options available to the Union coaching staff, Marfan must reestablish the partnership with Sheanon Williams that proved so dangerous last year and stave off any notion of a sophomore slump. Both Freddy Adu and Jack McInerney have seen time on the right flank for the Union and a fast start will be needed from Michael Farfan to remind the Union staff why they turned over the right midfield position to him in the first place.

While not searingly fast up the touchline, Farfan’s ability on the ball and desire to cut into the heart of the field looking for work suits Nowak’s flowing style of play. The Union manager is also a known fan of versatility and, after having played every midfield position and fullback in 2011, Michael Farfan has shown that he is the kind of team player Nowak prefers to call on. But Farfan is most valuable in his preferred right sided role, where he can serve his strikers, set the table for Williams’ aggressive runs, as well as create chances for himself. It will be up to him to remind his coaches—and the fanbase—just how successful he can be in all of those facets of his game in 2012.

9. Gabriel Farfan

Gabriel Farfan gave his all for the Union in 2011, playing out of position at left back after the departure of Jordan Harvey. He received far less credit than he deserved for his strong effort while deployed in a new role, yet with Porfirio Lopez now installed as a true left back, Farfan will have to prove to the Union coaching staff that he can offer the team more than just defensive depth. Justin Mapp’s offseason departure via the expansion draft helped Farfan, as did the recent news that the Union decided not to retain Tanzanian international Nizar Khalfan. Still, Farfan will be up for a fight against Keon Daniel, his brother Michael, and perhaps McInerney, Martinez and/or Adu for a wide position in the 2012 Union midfield. In the preseason game against Orlando, Lopez slotted into the middle of the pitch as a center back option, meaning that any injury along the backline could see Gabriel Farfan earn minutes in relief, though he will be wanting to earn a starting spot in a more natural spot higher up the field.

10. Amobi Okugo

Okugo finds himself in the unenviable situation of playing one of the few positions where the Union are stocked with veteran players. Brian Carroll is clearly a Nowak favorite and Gabriel Gomez is an excellent midfielder who captains his national side, Panama. Following an excellent offseason of work with Freiburg in the Bundesliga, the Generation Adidas tour, and the U-23 US National Team, Okugo may find himself in the unusual situation of playing more minutes for his country than his club in 2012.

Thus, the pressure is on to make the most of any opportunity he has to impress Peter Nowak with the first team. 2011 saw Okugo put in multiple strong first half performances, only to be pulled for an attacking player at halftime. With no future GA status to limit his minutes in 2012, Okugo needs to prove that he can not only do the business of winning the ball and launching the attack, but also stay focused and effective for 90 minutes while learning from Califf, Valdes, Carroll and Gomez to become a leader for his club.


  1. Soccerdad1150 says:

    Wow..I’m really liking the many, many options we have. Looks like it’s going to be another season of ‘who’s starting today?’ Not a bad thing to have so many quality players NEEDING to get time. Makes them all the more hungry when they get the call. Should be a fun season.

    • It’s only going to be another year of “whos starting today” because of our coach. We have talent, that I am not worried about, I am just worried about how badly Nowak is going to handle all of it.

  2. I’m reminded of the old adage that when you have two of something, you really have none. No one is talking about “all the options” we have at right back. No, we have Sheanon and a back up. You only get “two guys” at a position when one has to claim the starting job over the other.

  3. Freddy killed it tonight

    • Damn Straight. The whole US U-23 killed it. Caleb Porter is en fuego. Next US coach?

      • Sure looked like it last night. The confidence we showed on the ball was fantastic as we really took it to Mexico.

  4. The whole team has a lot to prove following this preseason. What a poor Union preseason that ultimately culminates in an on field fight in Costa Rica. Nice throw Keon! MacMath is a bad ass!

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