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When a no-brainer means you have no brain…

He shoots! He scores! He sits?!?

How do you reward a player when his excellent performance includes a sensational back heel assist followed by two goals of his own?

You bench him. It’s the Union way.

Following the 6-2 trouncing of Toronto FC in their own building, it seemed safe to assume that only one change might be made to the starting XI that had shown so brightly for the U. After all, Gabriel Farfan was carrying an injury and might be rested in favor of a fully healthy Keon Daniel or another midfielder.

When reports trickled down that Mwanga had been benched following his clinical showing— in which two top-drawer interventions from Toronto goalkeeper Stefan Frei kept Mwanga from getting on the scorer’s sheet much earlier in the match—the general consensus was concern.

“Is he hurt?” was a text message I received from more than one friend who was unable to wrap their heads around the demotion. After all, unlike any other position on the soccer field, strikers live and die by their confidence. When completing team selections, coaches don’t think as much about riding the hot hand when it comes to choosing a left-back (no offense to Jordan Harvey), they worry about picking the player in the richest vein of form and confidence when it comes to burying the ball in the back of the net.

Get this man a shirt! And a starting spot!

Yet, despite watching Sebastien Le Toux flop and flounder in front of goal, it was Mwanga who found himself in the bleachers when Saturday’s match began. Some people worry about over-using a player of Mwanga’s age, burdening him with too much expectation too quickly, claiming that bringing him along slowly is the best way to get the most out of him.

I would argue the other side.

First of all, what more do you want out of him? He has been in scintillating form this year. Even before the goals began flowing, his hold up play, ability to attack defenses and touch on the ball (all three greatly improved from his rookie campaign) have shown through in each run out he has been given.

And I would pose the following question in rebuttal. How is a 19-year-old superstar meant to feel when he is jerked around by his coaches like a yo-yo on a string?

Peter Nowak convinced Danny to forego Europe in favor of MLS so that he could come to Philadelphia and develop into a goal scoring machine. Well, despite having played the fewest minutes of the Union’s big three (~200 less than Ruiz and ~400 less than Le Toux), Mwanga is now leading the team in goals scored and points scored given his two assists to boot. A young player must trust in his manager, yet as Mwanga continues to be an honorable, self-effacing, team-first soldier in Nowak’s army, he has to wonder about why he is being left to twist in the wind when it comes to the starting position that he is not entitled to, but has earned.

Leading Union Goalscorer...

And before someone tries to make the argument that Danny Mwanga is an excellent supersub and I feel the urge to take a swing at them, let’s get one thing straight. Michael Jordan would have been an excellent sixth man. Joe Montana would have made an excellent backup quarterback. And in a tight spot in the bottom of the ninth, it probably would have been great to bring in Ted Williams to pinch hit. But you don’t leave your best player on the bench. It’s not good for morale, it’s not good for chemistry and its not good for the player.

And make no mistake: when it comes to scoring goals, Danny Mwanga is the best player on the Philadelphia Union. At this point in the team’s brief history, its not even that close of a call.

3 goals in 2 games. That enough for you?

True, Sebastien Le Toux lit up the stat sheet in Year One, but it was through every sort of hustle play imaginable. And while we will always love him for it, his shortcomings with the ball at his feet have become apparent for all to see in 2011. True, Carlos Ruiz has tallied three very important goals for the Union in his short career in Philadelphia. And true, Jack McInerney, despite limited playing time, has shown immense class in scoring vital goals for the Union last season. But when it comes to the full package—speed, agility, vision, strength, composure on the ball and the all important ability to finish—none of them hold a candle to Mwanga.

This is present tense. Right now. June 8, 2011.

He should have been a starter when the season opened. He should have been a starter in Colorado and he should be a starter now and for the foreseeable future. Not because he was the no. 1 pick in the 2010 draft and not because he’s a fan favorite, but because he is the best goalscorer on the team.

Period.  Case closed.

MLS’ great dilemma…

In the pre-lockout National Hockey League, league officials (along with fans, media and sponsors) identified a problem. The game was being bogged down by tight-trapping, heavy-hitting defenses and the most influential players on the ice at any given moment were not the superstar skill players, but the meat-headed goliaths sent out to beat them to bits. Low goal totals, injuries and decreased speed of play were only a few symptoms of the issues plaguing the league.

When the NHL finally emerged from doldrums of season-ruining negotiations and play resumed, new rule changes were implemented that changed the entire appearance of hockey in America (and Canada), making for more attractive play, increased scoring and a generally improved viewing experience for the fan. As the speed increased, slower, less technical players went from being an endangered species to one that is fully extinct.

It is a lesson that MLS would do well to follow, because the Colorado Rapids represent all that is wrong with MLS.

That may be a slight exaggeration, but a quick glance around the team that trotted out against the Union was enough to make anyone’s knees and ankles ache in anticipation of the kicking they were due to receive from the Rapids. And to think, with a starting XI featuring Conor Casey, Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni, the Rapids were still without their dirtiest player in Brian Mullan, who showed no remorse following his pre-meditated and malicious tackle that snapped Seattle’s Steve Zakuani’s lower leg like a twig earlier this season.

MLS now finds itself in the unenviable position of being represented not by its preference of either the star-laden LA Galaxy or New York Red Bulls or even the organizationally excellent Real Salt Lake, but by a bunch of violent, low-skill veterans who have come out of their Rocky Mountain lair to stomp, elbow and kick their competition into submission.

With Zakuani joined in the hospital ward by Dallas playmaker David Ferreira and RSL’s influential leader Javier Morales, MLS’ reputation sits on a perilous perch, especially given the edict that was issued to the referees, demanding that they encourage attacking play. Unfortunately, what we have seen from the men who enforce the league’s agenda has been average at best and, in many instances, match officials seem to lack the basic common sense to control a match and keep it from escalating to a point where a player might lash out and do serious harm to another.

Watching the Union play Colorado, I was taken aback by the number of times Conor Casey flew in on late challenges and chopped down a defender in the process of making a clearance. Any soccer player knows the grave danger of challenging a player’s plant leg: with the entirety of a player’s bodyweight leaning on only one leg, the chance of serious injury rapidly increases, should the leg be challenged. Yet time after time, Casey would forgo any attempt to actually block the clearance in favor of sliding in late to take a chunk out of the defender. It’s a foul every time and in most instances, a yellow card as well. It was the identical play that earned Eric Hassli his marching orders when Vancouver traveled to PPL, when the big Frenchman crashed in on Carlos Valdes, yet Casey did it four or five times and received no punishment. These continued refereeing inconsistencies put players who are actually endeavoring to play bright, attractive soccer at great risk.

This is only one highlighted instance, but until the league starts protecting its players in a greater manner than simply awarding more fouls around the box, the level of play will continue to stagnate and teams that are truly exceptional will have no way to separate themselves from the herd.

Parting note: Let’s get physical, physical…

I know its a nonsequitur, but seriously, what is going on with the set piece defending? Of all the complicated skills and tactics involved in soccer, set piece defending just isn’t that difficult: find a man, put a body on him, follow him into the box and either win the ball, or make damn sure that he doesn’t. That’s all there is to it. Yet, again, for another match, the Union’s defense struggled to maintain their assignments on balls served into the area.

In open play Danny Califf and Carlos Valdes are two of the most physically imposing defenders any MLS striker will come across. Yet once the ball is crossed into the box, it is as if the flight of the ball gives the pair amnesia. They must sort it out and soon. That’s all that stands between them and being MLS’ elite central pairing.

(All photos: Nicolae Stoian)

10 Comments

  1. Note on Mwanga: strategy probably comes into play. As well with a team like ours, it’s better to tire the competition out and force them to make mistakes, and THEN put in fresh healthy talent ala Torres and Mwanga… but that’s a whole entire debate.

    Note on the leg snapping: Colorado is not the only team that is completely guilty of reckless challenges. The week after the Mullan leg snap, Philadelphia Union played San Jose at PPL park. I am sure I wasn’t the only one who noted that whenever a player challenged our offense he would be slide tackling. In the first 5 minutes I think I counted 10 slide tackle attempts by San Jose, with only 2 actually making any form of contact (ball or not). This is a plague of every team and you have to wonder if these players actually think they are any good.

    Also, the “MLS is a much tougher, more contact league than others” is a bull**** statement. A little more rough is one thing, a lot reckless is another.

    • I only highlighted Mullan’s tackle because we A. Played against Colorado and B. they are the league champions and therefore represent MLS to the world.

      As far as strategy comes into play, I completely disagree with your point about tiring them out before Mwanga enters the fray. Mwanga is the strong, fast, dangerous presence that tires defenses out. My point in the article is that great players play the full game, do the hard work and still reap the rewards. That is why he must start from the opening whistle and that is why he has such a bright future.

      • I understand the example, and Colorado is by far the worst team in actual skill, and yet they are considered to be one of the best, I was just representing how other teams who are just like Colorado happen to not give a damn for caution against stupid, irrational, impossible, and reckless challenges cause a defender beat them. As far as representing the MLS, that was more RSL’s job since they actually were on an international stage… and they played very well. If I ever see the Rapids represent the MLS on an international club stage, I would be sorely disappointed.

      • Agreed. It seems like such a long time ago now that Pablo Mastroeni was a poster child for US soccer. Now he’s just a sad old hack.

  2. Soccerdad1150 says:

    Good rants. Love it. Agree with the set piece defending not being that hard. As opposed to marking everyone though, my preference for teams I coach is to station men strategically around the danger zone and simply be first to the ball. Easier yet.

  3. Matt Kirk says:

    Thank for discussing the ridiculous of the rapids play Conor Casey and most the the rapids are a bunch of dirty idiots who go in late on just about every single challenge and I’m sick of the ref not calling them out for it, its not welcome in the game. Just another showcase of how brilliant the refereeing in the MLS is…

  4. Well said. I can’t even call the part about Mwanga a rant. It’s just common sense. I mean, really, WTF does he have to do to get Nowak to start him consistantly? I think it all boils down, once again, to Nowak’s ego. He knows Mwanga should start but he benches him just to show all of us, who dare question his personnel moves, that he’s in charge.

  5. I’m convinced they didn’t start Mwanga against Colorado for fear he’d pick up another yellow and be suspended for the RSL game. Now he’s good for RSL and if he picks up a yellow on Saturday he’ll be suspended vs Vancouver where we’re less likely to feel the loss quite so much.

  6. Further to my point, Mwanga is now only 1 game away from a Good Behaviour Incentive reduction http://www.mlssoccer.com/mls-disciplinary-summary

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