AS THE UNION prepares for the season opener Saturday, it feels like last year's roller-coaster only just finished its ride. Indeed, fans hoping for a smoother journey in 2013 are probably still feeling the lingering effects of 2012's controversies. At least they aren't alone.

The team has yet to fully repair the damage wrought by former manager Peter Nowak, whose dismissal last summer proved to be the season's defining storyline.

But current manager John Hackworth has taken steps to make the Union better. The team is on a much more stable path, though its destination is not yet clear. "I try not to look too far down the road," Hackworth said, adding that his main goal is "right off the bat, to be consistent."

This much we know: Fan favorite and perennial hustler Sebastien Le Toux is back with the team. He's expected to lead the attack, along with new signing Conor Casey and returning young gun Jack McInerney.

Casey has perhaps the most potential of the three. The 6-1 New Hampshire native is a bruising presence in the box, and could be an aerial threat on set pieces.

Hackworth's other marquee offseason move was a trade for veteran defender Jeff Parke. A Downingtown native, Parke has spent 7 years in MLS since graduating from Drexel.

"It's a dream come true," said Parke, whose wife recently gave birth to the couple's first child.

With former Union captain Carlos Valdes on a 1-year loan to Colombian club Independiente of Santa Fe, Parke is likely to be a regular starter.

But there are lingering questions over who will play next to Parke in central defense. Bakary Soumare is likely to get the nod if healthy - especially since he commands one of the Union's highest salaries.

However, that could leave no place on the field for perhaps the Union's top young star: Amobi Okugo. The 21-year-old Nigerian-American excelled as a central defender last year. He also has done very well as a defensive midfielder, but Union captain Brian Carroll stands at the top of the depth chart in that role.

It won't be too surprising if Hackworth platoons Okugo, Parke and Soumare over the course of the season.

"Any of us can start at any time," Parke said. "It's important that we go out there and push each other."

The signings of Casey, Le Toux and Parke weren't the Union's only major offseason moves.

Costa Rican defender Porfirio Lopez, who proved to be an expensive bust, is gone. So are countryman Josue Martinez and Panamanian midfielder Gabriel Gomez.

In addition to Valdes, Dresher native Zach Pfeffer is also away from the team - in this case on a yearlong loan to German club TSG Hoffenheim.

But the sale that the Union most wanted to make during the offseason never happened. Hackworth and team CEO Nick Sakiewicz tried desperately to shed Freddy Adu and his $519,000-per-year Designated Player contract.

Hackworth hasn't been afraid to call Adu the Union's "elephant in the room." In addition to the salary-cap hit, Adu takes up a roster spot that the Union could have used to sign another player.

Adu and his agent turned down all of the offers the Union received from foreign clubs, and the Union doesn't want to trade him within MLS if it means paying part of his salary.

With Adu's contract guaranteed for 2 more years, a full buyout would cost the team nearly $1.3 million. MLS' complex salary rules mean that it may be cheaper for the Union to keep him on the roster.

If it's any consolation, the Union doesn't really need Adu on the field at this point. In Michael Farfan and Roger Torres, the team has two attacking midfielders with just as much creativity - and much better work ethics.

In the final hours before the Union take the field at PPL Park, the biggest question is simple: Can this team rebound from a poor 2012 and make the playoffs?

Kansas City and Houston are expected to be the top two in the East. Chicago, New York and D.C have boosted squads that made the playoffs last year. Montreal, Columbus and the Union made major moves in the offseason after coming up short. That's eight teams chasing five spots. None can afford to slip up too many times, even early in the season.