[MLS SPOTLIGHT] The Union is taking the week off from league play; after beating Everton, 1-0, Wednesday it hosts Real Madrid Saturday. Whether or not it keeps the Eastern Conference lead over the weekend it has transformed itself from a struggling expansion team into a solid contender.
To assess the dramatic improvement of the Philadelphia Union this season from its debut campaign, any number of indicators would suffice.
DO THE MATH. First, as they say, “the standings don't lie. Last year, Philly finished seventh in an eight-team Eastern Conference while averaging just barely more than a point per game: a record of 8-15-7, 31 points in 30 games, 35 goals scored and 49 conceded.
By debuting a year after 2009 expansion entrant Seattle qualified for the playoffs, won the U.S. Open Cup, and smashed league attendance records, the Union’s performance may have looked worse than it was. Actually, it won more games than did Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA (2005), Toronto FC (2007) and San Jose (2008) had managed in their expansion years.
The 2011 Union has already matched its win and point totals of 2010: it is 8-4-7, has compiled 31 points in just 19 games, has scored 24 goals, and is among the league’s best defensive teams with 16 goals conceded.
The coaching staff knows the value of each individual and also saw the problems we had the first year and fixed them,” says midfielder Stefani Miglioranzi, who was picked in the 2009 Expansion Draft after playing one year for the Galaxy and two with Columbus. “We knew it was going to take a little bit of time and a lot of grit, and that we have plenty of.”
It is also atop the Eastern Conference, which can be derided for its relative weakness compared to the Western teams, but does include rich and glamorous New York, rough and tough Columbus, and interconference transplant Houston.
STRENGTH DOWN THE MIDDLE. While the 2010 team featured Rookie of the Year finalist Danny Mwanga and an MVP-caliber season from Sebastien Le Toux (14 goals, 11 assists), gaping holes dotted much of the lineup.
To strengthen the spine of the team, the Union signed a pair of Colombians (goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon and defender Carlos Valdes), a veteran U.S. midfielder (Brian Carroll), and a Guatemalan striker (Carlos Ruiz). Every one of those moves has paid off, and other changes have also paid off in subtler ways.
Eyebrows were raised when Ruiz, a former Galaxy star who’d been traded to FC Dallas and then fallen out of favor, began training with the Union in preseason, but he leads the team with six goals despite missing several games to play in the Gold Cup. He’s taken pressure off Le Toux, who while struggling to score has contributed seven assists.
Said Le Toux during preseason, “I hope to continue in my way last year with the goals and assists, but I will be happier for us to have more wins.” That happiness stems largely from a stronger defense, which registered shutouts in four of the first six games this season. The personnel for the most part has stayed intact, unlike last year.
“There was a revolving door almost until the last 10 games and that was difficult on the team in general,” says defender Danny Califf of the 2010 season that marked his return to MLS after four years in Denmark. “I don’t think we had the same back four until that point in the season and then we started doing a lot better. This year we’ve played with same back four except all of two games, and we’ve been able to develop some continuity and a good relationship.”
An exception was a 0-0 tie at San Jose in early July. Valdes, sidelined by an illness, did not make the trip, so Stefani Miglioranzi played centerback for the first time in his MLS career. Anticipating that Valdes might be absent during the season had prompted Coach Peter Nowak and his staff to test the Miglioranzi-Califf combo in preseason games.
“We tried that in preseason because we thought Carlos Valdes would be in Copa America and we’d need some replacements,” said Nowak. “I think he had a very good game today.”
Ruiz also didn’t make the trip, then returned to the lineup last Sunday to score the first goal in a 3-0 thrashing of New England at Gillette Stadium. Valdes took his regular spot alongside Califf and scored his first MLS goal as Mondragon recorded his seventh shutout.
Last year, the Union managed just two whitewashings in 30 games. Valdes and Carroll have shored up the middle in front of him, yet the 39-year-old Mondragon is a commanding figure whose confidence permeates the field players.
“Faryd’s presence in the back has been huge with his experience and I don’t think that can be under-estimated as well,” says Califf of the team captain and All-Star goalkeeper.
NO MO’ ROAD WOES. Since its unveiling in late June of last year, PPL Park (capacity 18,500) has quickly taken a place among the league’s best venues. It sits practically underneath the Commodore Barry Bridge alongside the Delaware River. Most games are sellouts and according to LeToux, who came to Philly from Seattle, no fans make more noise as the Sons of Ben and other supporters’ groups pound out a pulsating din of songs and cheers and shouts.
There are only 4,000 parking spots, so ingress and egress by car is aggravating. Certain crowd chants have upset segments of fans and rowdiness is not unknown. As the players acknowledge the fans now have a team worthy of their support.
“It is not the biggest but the fans get a very nice atmosphere and a very nice view. People bring their families and it is sometimes like in Europe when the fans give their strength to the team,” says former Sounder Le Toux, who played in his native France before coming to America. “It is only 18,000 but it’s 18,000 every game. It’s full and the noise is comparable to Seattle even with less people.”
The Union, though, paid a heavy deposit before moving into its spiffy new digs. It played 12 consecutive games, 10 on the road and two at Lincoln Financial Field, before moving into PPL Park. It lost the first five league road games, managed a win at Houston, then lost two more before beating Seattle, 3-1, in the PPL opener. Ironically, in midseason it tied three straight at home and never got into serious playoff contention.
Its experience mirrors that of Kansas City this season, which played its first 10 on the road prior to the opener at Livestrong Sporting Park in late May. SKC is unbeaten at home (2-0-3) but a road mark of 3-6-5 is definitely dragging on its playoff ambitions.
Says assistant coach John Hackworth, “I don’t think people remember that part of it. We played at the Linc twice and opened at home in late June. Kansas City went through that this year and found it incredibly hard.”
The point gained in San Jose July 9 gave Philly a 3-4-3 road mark; not sensational, but a huge leap from last year’s 2-12-1. It is accompanied by a notable change in the team’s persona.
“A lot of times last year we were playing not to make a mistake,” says Califf. “This year we’re just going out and playing and trying to dominate teams and convert our chances, and that’s obviously a much better way to play.”