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Analyzing the 2011 Union schedule

March 19… March 19…

Just over a month until Philadelphia’s soccer-crazed fans slide onto bar stools across the city and try to convince the local establishment that LiveWell is indeed a real television channel.

There is a different mindset for Year Two of the Philadelphia Union. When last season began, Danny Mwanga emerged as a midfielder (still mind-boggling) and the starting lineup featured Toni Stahl and David Myrie. In hindsight, Peter Nowak’s first starting eleven suggests that more guesswork goes into coaching than most managers would like to admit.

This year will not begin like that rainy evening in Seattle. Now Sebastian Le Toux and Danny Mwanga are the stars we guide by. Veterans like Brian Carroll and Faryd Mondragon come to Philadelphia knowing what to expect from the manager and the fans. And while the team missed the playoffs in 2010, and the Sons of Ben were dismissed by a pompous English gentleman who thought that American soccer fans were both inauthentic as hooligans and not hooliganish enough (with a side of implied racism, which goes great with crumpets), both the team and its fans can call the inaugural season a success.

The Union finished 2010 with 8 wins and 31 points. That total put them 15 points out of the playoffs and tied for the second-worst defensive numbers in MLS. Even with the announcement that MLS will expand to a ten-team playoff system in 2011, the Union still need to break the 40 point barrier to have a realistic shot at postseason play.

Where will those points come from? Now that the schedule has been belatedly released, we can break down the season and find out what it will take to turn the 2011 Union into a contender.

March

March 19: Houston v Philadelphia, 8:30pm
March 26: Philadelphia v Vancouver, 4pm

Nick Zimmerman fights for a ball with Houston goalie Pat Onstad. (Photo: Paul Rudderow)

Last season’s match at Houston was Danny Mwanga’s coming out party. His late winner was a high point of the season and a huge confident boost for the rookie striker. Houston came back stronger in the second matchup and only a bit of Torres/Le Toux magic saved the point for Philly. The Dynamo move to the Eastern Conference this year and are looking to show that last season’s struggles were more the result of a tough conference than a weak roster. Goalkeeper Tally Hall steps into the pipes vacated by Pat Onstad and the Union should test him early and often. Hall been a pro for half a decade but has never been a regular starter. In short, the Houston of 2011 will be much like the Houston of 2010. If the Union can neutralize the height of Brian Ching up front, they should be able to break through a weak defense and come away with a win. 3 points

The home opener against Vancouver is a must-win match. Vancouver will be measuring themselves against Philadelphia and a win in PPL would be the signature victory that proves they belong. Currently, 17-year old Omar Salgado is the only pure striker listed on the Whitecaps roster. With Philadelphia’s well-documented clean sheet struggles last year, this match would be a good opportunity to get the monkey (or… Dragon? No you’re stupid!) off the team’s back early on. This match will also be the opportunity for a couple of PSP contributors to make doe-eyes at Shea Salinas.  3 points

April

April 2: LA Galaxy v Philadelphia, 10:30pm
April 9: Philadelphia v New York Red Bulls, 7pm ESPN2
April 16: Philadelphia v Seattle Sounders, 4pm
April 23, Real Salt Lake v Philadelphia, 9pm
April 30: Philadelphia v Earthquakes, 4pm

Gulp. All five of the Union’s April opponents were postseason participants in 2010. Three of the five were either one or two seeds in their conference.

Sheanon tracks Landon (Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz)

Los Angeles caught Philadelphia during a dark period last year. After losing 2-1 to New York in league play and then by the same score in the US Open Cup, the Union were soundly beaten by a composed Galaxy team that knew how to push a young team’s buttons. The Union rebounded in the reverse fixture and only a defensive breakdown on a corner kick gave LA the points at PPL. The Galaxy rebuilt their roster with the clear intent of turning their regular season success into playoff wins. Seasoned (read: oooold) veterans make up the bulk of the roster, with starlets like Omar Gonzalez stepping up to round things out. This will be the first real test of the Union’s defensive unit. 0 points

The rivalry with the Energy Drinks is made all the better by the contrasting philosophies of the teams. New York features designated players as stars while the U rally behind expansion draft gems like Le Real MVP. While New York struggled to fill its gleaming new stadium last season, Philadelphia fans traveled to Chester to pack out PPL Park and filled Lincoln Financial Stadium to the tune of over 30,000. No real analysis here. The Energy Drinks are odds-on favorites to win the East but PPL is the Dragon’s Lair. 1 point

Traveling to RSL is a tough proposition. Only Dallas had more ties than RSL in 2010, and nobody had a better defense than the Nick Rimando-led unit in Utah. If the Union can grab a point here, it will be a big one. 0 points

San Jose plays a tight game. They made the playoffs last year with a +1 goal differential and had a pretty boring offseason. To add some life to this matchup, I’m challenging all supporters clubs to come up with a fun chant for San Jose draft pick Anthony Ampaipitakwong. 1 point

May

May 7: Portland Timbers v Philadelphia, 10:30pm
May 11: Philadelphia v LA Galaxy, 7:30pm
May 14: Dallas v Philadelphia, 8:30pm
May 21: Philadelphia v Chicago, 8pm Galavision
May 28: Toronto v Philadelphia, 7pm

Thanks a lot, MLS. After traveling to Utah to play RSL then returning to Philly for the San Jose match, the Union skim across the time zones to Portland for a late night showdown against the expansion Timbers. Portland draft pick Darlington Nagbe draws comparisons to Danny Mwanga, and he will likely be asked to carry the load up front as last year’s success story Bright Dike recovers from a major knee injury. Portland claims to have fan support to rival Philadelphia. This game will be a chance for Union supporters to see what the Timber faithful have to offer. (Pop quiz, hot shot. If a Timber falls in Portland, does anybody hear it? Trick question: Nobody cares. Boom.) 3 points

More insane traveling for the boys as they return to Philly to play the Galaxy four days after the Portland match. It is hard to imagine the team will be anything more than tired and cranky, so grabbing a point from a very good team would be nice here. 1 point

Knighton's 2010 debut ended prematurely

Timezone crossing takes the Union out to Dallas. A year ago, Dallas received these points on a silver platter. Knighton’s first start ended with red and even a strong performance from Chris Seitz could not change the outcome. Wait, did someone say Seitz? Philly’s former number one has a new home and will look to bounce back from a torrid season in the northeast. I don’t mind losing this one, but if Seitz plays we better not get shutout. 0 points

The Chicago Fire should be in rebuilding mode in 2011. Having missed the playoffs a year ago, the Fire did not do a lot to improve in the offseason. This is a match that the Union need to win to make the playoffs. 3 points

The game at Toronto. Last year’s fixture is as forgettable as it is hard to forget. Seitz helped us coin the term “pulling a Seitz,” and Dwayne De Rosario engaged in epic celebrations after scoring on a horrific free kick that Seitz fumbled. There are not many road matches that should be marked must-win but this is one of them. 3 points

June

June 4: Colorado v Philadelphia, 9pm
June 11: Philadelphia v Real Salt Lake, 4pm
June 18: Vancouver v Philadelphia, 7pm
June 22: Philadelphia v Kansas City, 7:30pm
June 25: Philadelphia v Chivas USA, 7:30pm

Sébastien Le Toux Knocked away from the ball in the box. (Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz)

From Toronto to Colorado. The Rapids play tough, boring and successfully. They will not drop many points at home this year and will see Philadelphia as an absolute must-win on their schedule. A year ago, Colorado smacked the Union around to the tune of 4-1. It was a match that Philly was never in and displayed many of the weaknesses that the team dealt with all season. A point would be a good result here. 0 points

Seriously MLS. Have you ever heard of a road trip? The Union return to PPL to play RSL then fly back west to take on Vancouver. Last year the Union tied RSL at home in the middle of a six match winless streak during the dog days of summer. A similar result would be welcomed. Tying at home against a team like RSL is only acceptable if you can grab points away against outfits like Vancouver. 1 point; 3 points

The games against Kansas City and Chivas should turn into six points. Both teams will come into PPL and play for a point. Creative players like Roger Torres and Justin Mapp will be key figures for the Union during this stretch. The fans must put in a huge shift as well, because after welcoming Chivas, the team will go on a ridiculous trip until the end of July. 3 points; 3 points

July

July 2: DC United v Philadelphia, 7:30pm
July 9: San Jose v Philadelphia, 10:30pm
July 16: New England v Philadelphia, 7:30pm
July 23: Seattle v Philadelphia, 10pm
July 30: Philadelphia v Colorado, 7:30pm

(Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz)

East, west, east, west, east. Does anyone else suspect that USAir had a hand in building the schedule? I have called last year’s game at DC the low point of the season from a strictly on-field performance standpoint. Another loss at DC in 2011 is unacceptable. Every conspiracy theorist knows that DC was handed the best franchise when MLS was formed. Their fans are American soccer’s equivalent of trust-fund babies. The Union, as Sons of Ben are quick to remind you, are the people’s team. Plus, DC United is a moronic name for a team in a city famous for partisan politics. Bonus points to anyone who can make their fans aware of these shortcomings on July 2. DC was terrible in 2010 and will be looking to prove they can bounce back in 2011. Their fans are playing catch up to Philly. Will they be ready for us this year? 1 point

Traveling to San Jose is a tough trip. It will extra-tough coming on the heels of an emotional DC game and just in front of an important conference match up with New England. The Revs were awful defensively last year and drafted pro-ready defender AJ Soares and holding midfielder Stephen McCarthy to shore up the back. The old adage in footy is that you have to beat the teams around you in the table. It is very likely New England will be one of those teams for Philadelphia. 1 point

The Seattle match is a bogey game. After a month of traveling the Union will be an a very hostile environment against a team that, honestly, made us feel like an expansion team a year ago. Even if they take a loss here, the team needs to make it a tough, hard game and ignore the diving antics of Freddy Montero. Because they will happen, guaranteed. 0 points

August

August 3: Chicago v Philadelphia, 9pm
August 6: Philadelphia v Houston, 7:30pm
August 13: Philadelphia v Dallas, 7:30pm
August 20: Columbus v Philadelphia, 7:30pm
August 28: Philadelphia v New England, 7pm Galavision

The key games in August are at home. The Chicago fixture is dangerous because while the Fire only won four games at home in 2010, one of those was against the Union. That loss took the air out of a two game streak that saw Philly tie Dallas and beat Houston away from home. 1 point

Home games against Houston and Dallas are a great chance for the Union to show off an improved defense if they have one. Dallas will be a good team and look to grab important non-conference points to push them up a tough western conference ladder. Houston will play a counterattacking style and rely on its size to grab a cheap goal or two. The Union will need their toughness to come through this pair of games ready for conference matches against Columbus and New England. 1 point; 3 points

Former Crew member Carroll is a Union boy now

Columbus cannot expect to finish with 50 points this season after losing several key members of the 2010 squad. That puts them squarely in the mix with Philly and New England for the 5 through 10 seeds. They will see a late season home game against the Union as three points they need to have. Tactically, this should be a very interesting match. Can the Union play a counterattacking style while holding their shape in the back? It isn’t something we saw last year but it will make the difference in the east this year, where the middle of the conference will be very tight. 1 point

A win is the only acceptable outcome from the New England game. Anything less than three points at this stage of the year is a cause for concern. Philly outplayed the Revs but came away with a tie in the corresponding fixture last year. That will not be good enough this time around. 3 points

September

September 10: Philadelphia v Portland, 7:30pm
September 17: Philadelphia v Columbus, 7:30pm
September 24: Kansas City v Philadelphia, 8:30pm
September 29: Philadelphia v DC United, 8pm ESPN2

The most important month of the season. The. Most. Important. Month. Of. The. Season. Philadelphia needs to be in the playoff picture when September rolls around because these four games (and the New England match to close out August) are make-or-break. Portland and Columbus are both three points waiting to happen. Kansas City knows how important these games are. After going undefeated in five, KC lost three in a row before winning their final three games. They finished one spot out of the playoffs. If Philadelphia can hit the DC match with at least 7 points already secured in September, it will go a long way towards taking the anxious edge off of the rivalry match. After DC, Toronto is the only remaining home game for Philly. Fans need to make the most of it and turn in the loudest performance of the year. 3 points; 3 points; 1 point; 3 points

October

October 2: Chivas USA v Philadelphia, 8pm
October 15: Philadelphia v Toronto, 7:30pm
October 20: New York Red Bulls v Philadelphia, 8pm ESPN2

At this point in the season it will be clear whether the Union are in playoff contention or just cruising to the finish line. But either way, they should finish October with six points minimum. Traveling to Chivas on the heels of the DC game will be a good test of character, and the Toronto match up is a place you expect to take all three points. Look, what I’m saying is that we don’t want our playoff future coming down to the Energy Drinks game on October 20th. By that time we should be preparing for the postseason, and the smackdown we lay on the MetroBulls should just be the icing on the cake of a great season. 1 point; 3 points; 1 point

Adding up the points in my incredibly optimistic and stumble-free scenario we get 52. But take out that great schedule in September and it is 42 and we miss the playoffs again. After the 2010 season, many Union players noted that they had not done what it takes to turn losses into ties and ties into wins. The points total listed here assumes that they learned their lesson. But soccer is never that straightforward. The only team to beat English Premier League leaders Manchester United this year is last place Wolves. I guess that’s why they play the games.

What do you think? How many points do the Union need to make the playoffs this season? Where are the major stumbling blocks in this schedule?

9 Comments

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  3. I think you are being very optimistic, but I see them making the playoffs with 45 (+/- 2) pts.

  4. I agree, you have U with way too many points. Optimistic isn’t the right word, you just been drinking too much BEEEEmbo koolaid.

    Making the playoffs in the Eastern conference should be possible. I am not sure though if Union are ready. But that should be the goal.

  5. Optimistic is the correct word.

    One bad injury (Mwanga/Letoux/Mondragon) and we are bottom of the table.

    Breakout season by Valdez/McInerney and we do better than even projected above.

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