MLS Preview: Team By Team, Philadelphia Union’s Freshman Struggles Should Pay-Off with Sophomore Success

Posted In Features - By Brian Mechanick On Saturday, March 5th, 2011 With 4 Comments

Philadelphia Union’s inaugural season was… mixed. The highs included a home-opener win, the opening of PPL Park, the emergence of the Sons of Ben as MLS’s best supporters group (yeah, I said it), and Sebastien Le Toux’s emergence as one of the best players in the league.

Unfortunately, the lows outweighed the highs. A disappointing 8-15-7 record left the Union long out of the playoff picture, and poor defending and goaltending were the Union’s downfall. But just as any freshman in college comes back for their sophomore year with the experience and knowledge to do better, the Union should be in a position to excel in the 2011 season.

The Union’s attacking core of Danny Mwanga, Sebastien Le Toux, and new acquisition Carlos Ruiz will undoubtedly lead the team. The acquisition of Ruiz is absolutely pivotal for the team, adding a proven poacher and, ahem, “penalty drawer” that Alejandro Moreno failed to provide in ’10. Le Toux will likely be pushed to a right attacking midfielder in the Union’s 4-2-2-2 formation. Danny Mwanga was a contender for Rookie of the Year and with a year’s experience under his belt, expect him to at least hit double digits in goals. With either former U.S. Soccer Development Academy U-17/18 Player of the Year Chris Agorsor or young 18-year old Jack McInerney providing the attacking spark off the bench, the offense should be formidable.

The rest of the midfield forms the deepest, yet most undecided part of the Union’s squad. Justin Mapp is likely to start on the left as he pushes to regain his form that had him once so highly regarded. Brian Carroll could be a talisman for the team, providing the support in defense and distribution that earned him a recent cap with the USMNT. UCLA teammates Amobi Okugo and Kyle Nakazawa will be competing to start alongside Carroll, with veteran Stefani Miglioranzi lurking as cover.

The spine of this team however might end up being their “Colombian Connect”, as Juelz Santana says. Roger Torres returns as an enigma for the team, the type of skilled player in the midfield whose potential has yet to be realized. He may be a classic attacking midfielder, deep-lying playmaker, left or right winger, but Peter Nowak will be looking to utilize the small dynamo.

The biggest upgrade for this squad though comes in a pair of Colombian additions. After enduring the horrors of Chris Seitz in 2010, Philadelphia has a goalkeeper with pedigree in Faryd Mondragón, 50 times capped by Colombia and a consistent starter in the last decade with Turkey’s Galatasary and FC Köln of the Bundesliga. Not only will his command of the box and shot stopping be an improvement, but also he brings a leadership and organization to the defense that could be transformative.

His partner in bringing “narco-fútbol” to the Union is Carlos Valdés, a rising star in Colombia at central defender. A captain for his last two club sides in Colombia, Carlos brings an athleticism that was lacking in the Union’s defense. The rest of the defense is pretty much set, but the depth currently is lacking. Danny Califf returns as team captain and central defensive starter. Useful in the air and a powerful tackler, having Valdés paired with him should make up for some of his slowness.

The right back will be Sheanon Williams, an unknown quantity that could gain some recognition. A former U-20 international, Williams has emerged from USL-2 to a starting role with the Union, adding needed pace down the right flank and the width to cover up for Le Toux’s narrow play. Left back will be the steady but boring Jordan Harvey, who seems to never get hurt and never do anything special. The final Colombian Juan Diego Gonzalez provides some veteran cover at center back.

While the Union was raw and not talented enough in 2010, this 2011 squad has some true ballers. With a strong combination of veteran leadership and rising young talents, the Union should surprise a lot of fans in pushing for the top of the Eastern Conference. The Red Bulls are the team everyone’s chasing, but with Columbus Crew, Sporting KC, and Chicago Fire all suffering major departures, I guarantee the Union make the playoffs.

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  1. baumer says:

    So I am going to assume you are a homer after your comment about the SoB’s. Other pundits have openly questioned whether the keeper situation in Philly is any better this season than last. What say you to the doubters?

    • Brian Mechanick says:

      Saying how the Sons of Ben singlehandedly built the support for an MLS team in Philadelphia far before an ownership group was in place and sold out the supporters section the entire season, I’ll stand by my statement.

      I severely question anyone who could say that the keeper situation is close to as bad as last year. Chris Seitz made multiple errors that led directly to goals, and Brad Knighton wasn’t much better. There’s a reason why Mondragon has started so many games in Europe’s top leagues in the last decade, and that’s because he’s class. With a top goalkeeping prospect behind him in Zak MacMath, goalkeeping should be a vast improvement.

  2. Mike says:

    Thanks for being honest. I’ve read a lot about the Union during this off-season and nobody really seems to be willing to say Callif is sloooooow and that Harvey is boring. Perfect.

  3. Greg says:

    To say that the keeper situation has not improved is absolutely ridiculous. Last year we had a complete shit gk, and an average gk. Now we have a strong, energetic veteran, and a young gen adidas gk who will be our #1 in the future

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