Previewing the Philadelphia Union’s season with ESPN color analyst Taylor Twellman

PORTLAND, Ore. - Taylor Twellman’s voice should be familiar to all of you by now. After spending last year as the Philadelphia Union’s local TV color analyst, Twellman took a full-time job with ESPN to be the lead color analyst for Major League Soccer and U.S. men’s national team broadcasts.

The former New England Revolution striker is not short of opinions on the state of American soccer, nor is he short of a willingness to voice them. We chatted for a few minutes after I got into town Sunday ahead of the Union’s season opener against the Timbers.

Which players are you looking at to step up as leaders this year, who maybe haven’t been before?

"Leaders" is a tough one. In the locker room, they’ve only got four guys over the age of 27 on this team. So when you look at it, obviously, some young players – even though they’re young,that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re inexperienced, right? Carlos Valdés is experienced,but he’s also young.

But let’s be honest: When you lose Faryd Mondragón and Sébastien Le Toux, someone’s got to step up, and I don’t think it goes much further than Freddy Adu. And a collection of forwards have to step up in front, whether it’s Pajoy, Mwanga, McInerney.

Freddy Adu, being paid what he’s being paid now, it’s the time that he’s got to step up. He’s got to show up game in and game out, and really be that player that can be counted on. Because he’s old enough now – it’s funny, what is he now, 22?

Everyone says, well, he’s young, but he’s in his ninth season as a pro. So at some point, the potential label has got to go. It’s got to be results and it’s got to be tangible that the fans, Peter Nowak and the team can see.

So I don’t look at Philly as being a team that needs one player, but if you need one, then let’s be honest: it’s got to be Freddy Adu.

What do you think about Michael Farfan? Do you think he can take a step up this year and maybe be a breakout guy? For as well as he played last year, he wasn’t always in the spotlight. Maybe with Adu gone at the Olympics he’ll get more attention.

Yeah, but when you say breakout, he was a finalist for Rookie of the Year. When you’re in the final three at the end of the year, that’s pretty good attention if you ask me. The key with Michael Farfan – the key with Gabe [Farfan], the key with anyone – is the second year in the league. As you look at Portland’s team, Diego Chara, Jorge Perlaza, the foreigners come into the league and the second year is the key.

The second year can make or break a player a lot in MLS, and with Michael Farfan there’s going to be bumps in the road. Players have now watched him play. He’s not the new kid on the block. So he’s got to show improvement, and that’s what I’m sure Peter Nowak and his staff are looking for.

Can he? I think so. I think he’s got a special quality that in tight spaces, he’s not flustered. I think he’s very versatile, and the way Peter and his staff like to change the lineup consistently,Michael puts himself in a good spot. He can play out wide, he can play in the middle,he can even play as a second forward if you need.

"Breakout" is tough. People hear the word "breakout" and think he’s going to have 15 goals and 10 assists. Well, no. That’s a career year, but is it someone you’re going to see in the lineup consistently? I would expect to see Michael Farfan in that lineup for Philadelphia a lot.

What do you think of Danny Califf this year? I ask that because he improved so much last year, and I couldn’t always tell whether that was a function of Mondragón, or whether it was – among other things – Mondragón having the armband taking pressure off Califf.

Do you think that was part of it? And do you think that now that Califf is the captain again,and is in that spotlight, can he play as well as he did last year if there’s more pressure on him?

I love how Mondragón gets the majority of the credit for the rejuvenation of Philadelphia last year, and yet they bring in a guy by the name of Brian Carroll, who’s never missed the playoffs in his entire career. And everyone looks at the back four and says it’s because of Mondragón. Well,really? Mondragón is behind him.

Who plays in front of Valdés and Califf? Brian Carroll. He’s been in the playoffs every year, and yet he’s never been an All-Star – and if you ask Brian, he probably couldn’t care less about the notoriety. I think Danny Califf, with the same players as the previous year, he got some help, he got some leadership.

He’s got guys around him that can help, and I think the relationship he has with Carlos Valdés on the field is a very good one. I think it’s a very mature one and a good understanding. I think in the middle of last year, Carlos Valdés hit a wall a little bit, but I think in this year you can see improvement from him.

You talk about Michael Farfan, well, what’s the improvement going to be from Carlos Valdés in his second year? Does he have a better understanding of what the league’s like, does he know what the travel’s like, and how to take care of his body?

But when you’ve got a guy like Brian Carroll in front of him, then you add Gabriel Gomez - who’s very similar to Brian Caroll – those four guys, Valdés, Califf, Gomez and Carroll, that’s very tough to break down.

So I expect the Danny Califf that I grew up playing with and that I’ve played against, and that I’ve seen. He’s going to be hard-nosed, and he’s going to fight. He has to be a little bit more of a leader, so I think the expectations for Danny are a little bit greater as a leader this year,because there’s no Sébastien Le Toux or Faryd Mondragón.

I went off on a tangent, but I don’t think Mondragón deserves all that credit, because of what Brian Carroll brought to that team centrally, and Valdés next to Califf. I think those guys deserve more credit than they get, not Faryd who got a lot of the credit in goal.

I was going to ask you about Gomez. I think that of the four international guys that the Union brought in – along with Josué Martinez, Lionard Pajoy and Porfirio Lopez – he’s going to be the best of the bunch. Do you agree with that?

I would have to see him play. Before [the season starts], I think the most influential is going to be Pajoy. Because let’s be honest: you got rid of the guy that every fan recognized from the Philadelphia Union in Sébastien Le Toux.

The growth of Danny Mwanga is huge. This is the biggest year of Danny Mwanga’s career, hands-down. He’s not a Generation Adidas player anymore, he’s making a lot of money – as is Freddy Adu – and he’s got to produce. Pajoy can take the burden off of that if he can be the workhorse that Peter Nowak has talked about, and get in behind and score goals.

But I think Gomez is the least to worry about, because you know what you’re getting. So that’s answering your question. He’s the one that you think is going to be the best, but I’d say it in a different way: he’s the one you’re least worried about. Because his game is going to translate to MLS quicker than any of the other ones.

Do you think Pajoy is going to be the leading scorer this year for the Union?

I don’t think so. It’s kind of hard – if you ask Peter, it would be tough to get it out of him, but if you as him: Would you rather have four guys score seven goals or would your rather have one guy score 15? I don’t know. That’s a real good question.

[Stay tuned for the answer. – JT]

One last question, and it’s a leaguewide question. I look at some of the European players that have come to MLS in this offseason, such as Kris Boyd in Portland and most recently Arne Friedrich in Chicago.

Then I look at the Union, which got all of its major foreign acquisitions this offseason from Central America and South America. And they brought up two homegrown players.

Do you think there’s a philosophical difference there, or is it just the way it happened? And would you rather see a club develop one of its own young players instead of bringing in a foreign veteran?

I have a concern, and I think it goes along these lines. I was watching the games this weekendand I was watching the CONCACAF Champions League games, and we have to keep in mind – I know ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle brought this up in an interview with [MLS commissioner] Don Garber recently – the American player is still the focal point of development and producing.

While I agree with Don Garber in the sense that I don’t think it’s a problem right now, you look at New York’s team [in Sunday’s season opener at FC Dallas] and how many Americans did they play? I look at Seattle. I look at these teams – Portland’s starting lineup tomorrow, there might be two or three Americans.

I root for it when [teams] bring guys over [from abroad]. We need guys that come over and get that DP status. We need them to be successful. But we can't forget that the American player has a lot to offer.