The Union are hours away from opening their 2012 Major League Soccer season, with 13 fresh faces collected during a newsworthy offseason. It's a group the technical staff believes will vault the club past last season's 11-8-15 record and its inaugural MLS Cup playoff berth.

During the Union's inaugural season CEO and managing partner Nick Sakiewicz said it would take "at least three years to build a championship team."

Welcome to Year Three.

But do the Union have the pieces to make a serious run? It's a guessing game as to just how quickly this new-look Union side can jell. But the belief in the locker room is that it's a case of when, not if. Team manager Peter Nowak has urged his players to use "imagination."

"Absolutely, I feel that this is a group that can win a championship," Nowak said. "This is a group that can get not only to the playoffs, but that can contend for an MLS Cup.

"Many of the new guys we brought in have experience in winning championships, so that isn't a problem I have with this group."

Nowak disagrees with those who say the team has changed "so many pieces."

"The majority of the group has been together for a year or two, the core is still intact. There is always a question mark as to how you will start, because it really sets the tone for later in the season."

The Union unceremoniously axed their all-time leading scorer, Sebastien Le Toux, in the offseason. After a failed trial with the Bolton Wanderers of the English Premier League, Le Toux was sent packing to Vancouver.

But while the front office saw this as no more than a potentially lucrative business decision, Le Toux and his legion of supporters saw it as a slap in the face to a player who had become the face of the franchise.

Yet, even with the fan-favorite Frenchman in the lineup, the Union found it tough to find the back of the net the majority of last season. With an average of 1.41 goals at Chester's PPL Park and an anemic 1.18 average on the road, the Union fueled the argument that change was needed.

Nowak and company have put together an attack corps headlined by Danny Mwanga and Colombian import Lionard Pajoy.

For the 20-year-old Mwanga, being injury-free and training with Premier League side Aston Villa have brought about a renewed sense of purpose.

In Pajoy, 30, the Union acquired a proven goal-scorer. Pajoy scored 10 goals in 18 league matches for Colombian club Itagüí Ditaires and is a strong forward who brings an imposing presence to the front line.

"It always happens - leading scorers leave and others come to replace them," said Pajoy when asked about the thinking that his arrival led to Le Toux's departure. "This time, I have the opportunity to simply do my job. In Colombia, I scored many goals - I want to do the same thing here.

"I understand that the forward and leading scorer has left and now I'm here. God willing, I can score the major number of goals. I dream to be a champion with the team and to be the leading scorer."

In midfield, second-year standout Michael Farfan has played his way into a starting role and Freddy Adu has shown much improvement. Defensive midfielder Brian Carroll returns and will have help from Panamanian international Gabriel Gomez, who has shown immense versatility when it comes to either defending or fueling an offense.

"I am prepared to be a leader," said Gomez, 27, who has captained Panama in many friendlies. "Because I'm a player with a lot of experience in a team with many young players, [I'm here to] instill confidence, to instill assurance and to help with offense and defense for the team to find that balance. I know how to do that very well."

The core defensive group returns with a noticeable upgrade at right fullback. With a tall, wiry frame and an afro that the Jackson 5 would have envied, Porfirio Lopez solidifies a line that allowed just 36 goals last season, tied for second fewest in MLS.

Lopez, 26, a Costa Rican international, knows the feeling of winning a championship, after success in Costa Rica with Alajuelense.

Replacing Gabriel Farfan, Lopez will pair with Carlos Valdes, Danny Califf, and Sheanon Williams. The very happy Williams has a restructured contract, a three-year deal that sources say is worth nearly three times the $42,000 in league minimum compensation he received last year.

In goal is Zac MacMath, 20, who received valuable minutes last season when Faryd Mondragon missed six weeks with a broken thumb. Mondragon requested a return to Colombia shortly after the season wrapped.

"We have a good group here and the more we play, we have become family," said Califf, who with the departure of Mondragon will regain the captain's armband.

There is also a lot to be said for Nowak's continuing to view young talent over experienced veterans as the ultimate way to build a dynasty. If it works, Nowak's mad-scientist approach will be heralded, given the resumés of the players on this year's roster are impressive enough to consider a deep playoff run.

But if it doesn't . . .

"Look, it's easy to address the problem by paying $3 million and acquiring a player like Robbie Keane [from the English Premier League]," Nowak said of the move that ultimately sealed success for the Los Angeles Galaxy last season. "But you have to have a future and get the right pieces and develop them in the right direction. We believe the players are going to get hungry. From week to week the lineups will change, we need to find the right formula [based on the opponent.] It's about being prepared. And I truly believe we are."