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Season Review: Danny Mwanga

Editor’s note: PSP is running season reviews for each Philadelphia Union player — one per weekday for the next few weeks. You can read all the reviews here.

On the scorer's sheet for the PPL Park opener. (Photo: Paul Rudderow)

Being the number one pick in any draft comes with immense pressure.  Being the first pick of an expansion team comes with similar stress and trepidation.  Too often the burden of expectation is too much for a young athlete and they are unable to live up to the hype.  Then again, Danny Mwanga is no ordinary young superstar.  Mwanga repaid Peter Nowak’s investment in the 19 year old with an impressive haul, leading all rookies in goal-scoring with seven, while also tallying four assists in his debut campaign.

But it could have been a very different story for the Union faithful had Nowak not convinced Mwanga of the merits of MLS.  Following a two year career at Oregon State during which time he earned PAC-10 Rookie of the Year and PAC-10 Player of the year awards (all while squaring off against Kyle Nakazawa and Amobi Okugo at UCLA), helping himself to a league leading 14 goals during his final year in Corvallis.  Growing up in French-speaking central Africa, Mwanga always held aspirations of a dream move to France and when he decided to pursue a professional career, trial offers from top Ligue 1 outfits Auxerre and Lille looked set to make this dream a reality.  But Nowak saw the immense potential in him, “I think he has a soccer brain, he reads the game very well, and he plays like he’s thinking about the game a little bit faster than anybody else.”  While his time in Europe would be invaluable, Nowak reminded Mwanga that young players need match experience to realize their potential and in Philadelphia he would have the opportunity to hone his game on the pitch, not only on the training ground and in reserve matches.  In the end, Nowak got his man and for that we should be thankful.
2010 statistics

24 games (17 starts). 1,461 minutes played. 7 goals, 4 assists, 27 shots (14 on goal). 16 fouls caused, 16 fouls suffered. 0 yellow cards.

High point

May 15, 2010 – Lincoln Financial Field – Dropped from the starting eleven following a frustrating performance playing out of position in the Union’s first match against Seattle, Mwanga eagerly joined the fray in the 81st minute of a match that the Union trailed 0-1.  The Union pressed forward searching for the equalizer that would keep them undefeated at home and when Shea Salinas’ cross was not cleared far enough from harm Mwanga stepped up to smash home passed Kevin Hartman from 15 yards out.  It was Mwanga’s first professional goal and was the first time Philadelphia got to witness his knack for late game heroics (in his final year at Oregon State, Mwanga recorded a league-leading five game winning goals).  Two weeks later in Houston, again deep into injury team, Mwanga provided the dagger, finishing off a flowing move by burying Sebastien Le Toux’s frantic cross.  On June 5, he struck in Chicago, working the second half as the Union never gave up the fight, Mwanga earned a consolation prize in injury time to cap off a run of three stoppage time goals in three consecutive matches.

Low point

Whether the shoulder injury suffered during the September 11 home match against Chicago was the reason for his dipping form as the season concluded is anyone’s guess.  Perhaps the longer professional season began to wear him down or with the Union’s playoff chances all but forgotten the coaching staff wanted to retain Mwanga’s Generation Adidas status as they braced for the two team expansion draft, whatever the reason, Mwanga’s sparkling midterm form ran out of gas as the Union’s inaugural season drew to a close.

Strengths

It's my ball and you can't have it. (Photo: Nicolae Stoian)

As American soccer fans, too often we are forced to endure endless promises about young strikers who have all the tools and project as the next great American superstar, yet somehow fall hopelessly short in the only category by which strikers are ultimately judged, goals scored.  What made Mwanga’s early season back to back to back outburst so thoroughly promising was the calm manner by which he went about it.  Deep into injury time, he radiated a cool confidence traditionally reserved for players many years his senior.  At times, Mwanga looked more comfortable inside the box than he did out of it and while he could have ballooned his shot into the 30th row, or let the cross slide through, or drag his opportunity wide, he didn’t and then he didn’t and then he didn’t.  You can’t teach that.  You can only sit back and enjoy watching it unfold in front of you.

Yet, Mwanga is no simple “nose for goal” player, a phrase usually reserved for a player with average attributes who somehow finds himself on the scorer’s sheet.  In this league, where bruising powerful defenders rule the day, Mwanga’s 6′-2″ stature allows him to compete with anyone the opposition throws his way.  A powerful presence with his back to goal, Oregon State coach Steve Simmons praises his former player saying, “Danny makes his plays from instincts and not just skill level and athleticism. He just happens to be 6-foot-2. I think that separates him from everybody else.  He’s strong, he’s fast, his footwork is superb, [and] he can tackle. He works his socks off, and for a kid with his talent, that’s rare.”  Instinct, skill, athleticism, speed, workrate and size, that pretty much sums it up right there.  It’s east to see why Peter Nowak pursued him so aggressively before the draft.

Weaknesses

A common thread amongst young strikers is often the inability to maintain focus throughout an entire match and in this area, Mwanga is not unlike his peers.  With the Union midfield often mired in a tedious passing game, more horizontal than vertical, Mwanga drifted in and out of matches, sometimes raring to go while others looking uncertain and unprepared to receive any service that eventually found its way forward.  While playing opposite Sebastien Le Toux would make anyone look lazy, Mwanga is far too dangerous a threat to not be available at any given momentum during a complete 90 minute match, wearing out defenses with this ability to race around the edge or simply bulldoze through them.

Increasing his 90 minute participation will also require him to drop deeper into the midfield to collect the ball.  While his hold up play has been called into question at times this year, that is not the real issue.  He is powerful and composed with his back to goal, yet at times he is hesitant to drop deep enough into the midfield to collect the ball and serve his overlapping wingers.  As this willingness increases, he will create gaps for himself because most man marking center backs will be unwilling to stray that far from their own goal line, giving him space to run at them rather than constantly being locked in physical confrontations.  Additionally, he will be far harder to defend because he will be attacking the goal from wider, unexpected angles, distributing deep and making long runs in behind players rather than constantly milling around the box where one or two players can easily keep tabs on him, regardless of the inroads he is making into the area.

The good news for Union fans is that the concerns about Mwanga’s game are minor and are typical struggles that young players must overcome when they transition to a higher level.  With a full year under his belt, another offseason to work on his own game and his role within the side and his excellent chemistry with his teammates,  Mwanga should iron out the kinks and continue his rise to power in MLS.

Outlook

Dear MLS. Be afraid, be very afraid. (Photo: Nicolae Stoian)

While certain members of the Union faithful are already beginning to rue the eventual day when Danny Mwanga sets his sites on the bright lights of European soccer (with, Marseille and Chelsea his ideal targets), let us not forget that that day will come because Mwanga is on the verge of scoring buckets of goals for the Union in the upcoming season(s).  With a year under his belt and the true MLS MVP, Sebastien Le Toux at his side, there is nothing to suggest that Mwanga’s goal-scoring output will go anywhere but up in 2011.  And with this production, what we all must hope for is that US Soccer is poised to insure that on the day that he is eligible for US duty, his phone rings.

(Title photo: Nicolae Stoian)

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