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At the half: Where we’ve been in 2011

Featured photo: Earl Gardner

Saturday’s game will mark the midway point of the 2011 MLS season. And, just as was the case with the first game of the season way back on March 19, the Union will be on the road.

7 wins, 4 losses, 6 draws. In and out of first place. Who’d a thunk it way back when the Union took the field in Houston?

Truth be told, the PSP’s Adam Cann wrote in February that he thought they’d have a 8-4-5 record at this point. The rest of us, those who aren’t members of some advanced species of future-seeing supergenius soccer analysts from Planet Gola in the Sector 90 of the Orion Nebula, we can take some pleasure in being pleasantly surprised.

Here’s a look back at the season so far.

Preseason

Preseason started with a week of open training sessions at YSC Sports. There were familiar faces now departed—Michael Orozco Fiscal and Andrew Jacobson among them—recent signings Brian Carroll, Faryd Mondragon and Carlos Valdes, and recent draft picks eager to prove their worth. Also there were some at-the-time-unidentified trialists. With the club keeping mum on their identities, Union blogs and their readers expended the wattage trying to identify the mystery men, scouring photos from the training sessions and comparing them to images found on the web. The comments on websites and Facebook piled up, while tweeps twittered away.

Soon there were but two. (Photo: Nicolae Stoian)

Meanwhile, the Union were off to Florida.

We were all left to speculate about the team as the results from the preseason friendlies—known almost entirely from scanty reports on the Union website—weren’t entirely positive. Things started with a 1–1 draw with the US U-17 team—not exactly an emphatic beginning. Two victories over college sides—University of South Florida was downed 2–0 and a 1–0 result over University of Central Florida—were more encouraging. A 0–1 loss to USL PRO side Orlando City wasn’t very encouraging at all, even if the referee was to blame for giving Valdes a straight red in the 17th minute.

At this point, what did we know?

Not very much, actually, since none of the professional Philadelphia media outlets had a presence at the training camp. We knew Le Toux had two goals (one more than he has during the regular season thus far), Mwanga had one and there was a Zach Pfeffer wonder strike that will be seen only in the memories of those who were there to witness it, since no one thought it might be a good idea to videotape the game. The Union wasn’t releasing lineups so we were all left to look at whatever pictures could be found on the web to figure out who was playing in these games, making guesses about whether they were playing in the first or second half. Not that the Union cared: They were on their way to Greece. As it turned out, Orozco Fiscal wasn’t with them, although it took a Roger Torres tweet from Greece to make that clear.

If there was no local professional media presence in Florida, there certainly wasn’t going to be one in Greece. So, it was back to deciphering the paltry match reports from the club and using Google translate in an attempt to understand whatever information could be gleaned from Greek football sites. The Union drew 1–1 against Ergotelis in their first game of their Greek sojourn, the goal coming off the foot of new signing Carlos Ruiz (a signing greeted with what can only be described as mixed emotions by fans). The scoring floodgates finally opened in a 5–0 thrashing of third division side Hersonissos. Chris Agorsor and Jack McInerney each got two goals with Danny Mwanga providing the icing on the cake.

The season begins

Two-and-a-half weeks later, the Union were in Houston for the regular season opener. The fifth minute goal that opened the season scoring contained two elements that have since become familiar to Union fans: a howitzer-like Sheanon Williams throw in and Le Toux launching a shot only to see it bang off of the woodwork. After that it was Danny Califf to net the rebound. Well, that and 85 minutes of nail-biting anxiety as the Union held on for a 1–0 win. A road win and a shutout to start the season? Que jubilation.

Torres nets the winner against the Red Bulls. (Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz)

The home opener against Vancouver was a chippy affair with seven cards being handed out, including two yellows to the big Frenchman, Eric Hassli. It took 77 minutes, but Ruiz finally put the Union on top for the 1–0 win.

The chippiness continued in LA. The Union went down a goal scored off a set piece, a defensive weakness that still persists midway through the season. When LA went down a man in the 53rd, the Union were unable to press the advantage. The match ended 1–0, McInerney was ejected in stoppage time, and the Union had suffered their first loss of the season.

After traveling back east, the Union quickly headed south on short rest for a midweek US Open Cup play-in against DC United. A scrappy comeback saw the game at 2–2 after extra time, only for the Union to lose on penalty kicks and Peter Nowak to be ejected from the game. With nary a moment to catch our breath, three days later it was New York at home.

The Energy Drinks controlled play in the first half but the Union defense held firm. Making an offensive adjustment, Nowak put Torres into the match to replace Ruiz in the 67th minute. A minute later, Tim Ream’s howler of a back pass ended up at substitute Danny Mwanga’s feet. Mwanga passed to Torres who finished with confidence on his first touch of the match. Bedlam, a 1–0 win and the Union were now 3–1–0 and alone at the top of the Eastern Conference.

Seattle Sounders were in town next. The weather was atrocious, the rain coming down in buckets before the game even started. During the game the weather alternated between very rainy and an outright downpour. Nevertheless, the PPL pitch was surprisingly playable and when Carlos Ruiz put the Union up 1–0 in the 32nd minute on a free kick, the pride emanating from those in the stands was palpable: crap weather, great goal, the stuff of legend—even if, on replay, the goal was shown to have taken a slight deflection. The Union controlled play for much of the game and those who had braved the elements—and if you were there, you know that the numbers of those who will say they were will grow larger with each passing season—could be forgiven for thinking, surely, this one was in the bag. A corner kick in the 92nd minute resulted in a goal that proved otherwise, the game ended 1–1, and more than one person suffered nightmares that night not experienced since 2010. Those nightmares were punctuated with a new thought: why can’t the Union put opponents away?

Against San Jose the Union controlled the opening of play until Jordan Harvey was shown a ridiculous straight red card in the 41st minute. Still, the Union hung tough and battled, giving the impression of a team pressing for the win, not one looking to survive a numerical disadvantage. The pressure paid off when Amobi Okugo’s driving run ended with a cross that was handled in the box. Le Toux converted the penalty kick in the 76th minute and that was enough for another 1–0 win. The Union were winning but would they ever score a second goal?

Another transcontinental flight was next, this time to expansion side Portland. With Harvey suspended and Califf ill, the makeshift backline of Farfan, Valdes, Williams, Farfan played surprisingly well. Scoring chances were few for both teams but Portland capitalized on one of theirs with a 72nd minute goal for the 1–0 win and the Union’s second loss of the season.

Mwanga equalizes against LA. (Photo: Nicolae Stoian)

The Union had thus far recorded three clean sheets but they had been held scoreless twice. Despite the problems finding the back of the net, trouble defending set pieces and the increasingly all-too-familiar rotating lineup, the knowledge that a win would put the Union back on top in the East meant the home game against LA was filled with anticipation, even if David Beckham had decided to give the game a pass. Landon Donovan put the visitors up 1–0 in the 24th minute. Some sixty minutes later, second half substitute Mwanga rescued the Union from a first home defeat of the season when he intercepted a back pass from Sean Franklin to fire home his first goal of the season. The match ended 1–1 and was as fine an example of how a draw can feel like a win.

On the road only three days later, the Union opened with authority until Dallas scored against the run of play in the 29th minute. Two minutes before the end of the half it was 2–0. It would end as the third goalless road loss of the season.

Starting to find the net, coming from behind

Against Chicago it took 64 minutes for the Union to find the back of the net, but Marfan connected beautifully with a Nakazawa free kick pass to open his account. Four minutes later Chicago equalized. Ruiz settled the 2–1 win when he chased down his own botched free kick and fired a high arcing shot for the winning goal. For the first time in league play in 2011, the Union had scored two goals.

Against a hapless Toronto squad, and with Ruiz on the bench for the first time, the Union offense finally erupted for a 6–2 win. Gabe Farfan equaled his brother’s effort against Chicago with a goal of his own in the 3rd minute. Justin Mapp and Danny Mwanga would go on to score two more apiece with Nakazawa adding the first of his career. The Union defense was uncharacteristically porous, but the result was never really in doubt.

A midweek friendly with Union affiliate Reading United ended as a 1–1 draw with Gabriel Farfan recording the Union goal. A few days after that the Union were in Colorado. A Mastroeni dive would lead to a 63rd minute penalty kick. Three minutes later it was Mwanga in the super sub role once again, equalizing from 25 yards out. With the Union starting to really turn it on, Colorado was fortunate to get a point at home.

Inconsistent finishing results in dropped points

Keon Daniel’s emphatic header put the Union ahead of Real Salt Lake as the Union sustained pressure throughout much of the first half. But, once again, the team did not put away their chances. In the 53rd minute, Marfan was steamrolled for an uncalled foul at midfield and RSL equalized through Fabian Espindola (who was later allowed to walk up to Roger Torres during a free kick and waggle a finger in his face). The 1–1 final was an unsatisfying home result.

Ruiz scores the second goal against Chivas. (Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz)

That result wasn’t as unsatisfying as the 1–0 loss in Vancouver that followed. On a 14-game winless streak, Vancouver outplayed the Union, with Philly’s new signing Veljko Paunovic making little impression on the sputtering offense and a chorus of doubts began to rise from the Union faithful.

Unsatisfying continued to be the theme in the 0–0 draw at home against Sporting Kansas City. There were lots of shots (all for Philly), but KC keeper Jimmy Nielsen was better than them.

The Union finally were able to find the back of the net again when they hosted Chivas just a few days later. Twice they were down a goal and twice—thanks to goals from Paunovic and Ruiz—the Union fought back to level. Once again, it was Mwanga who saved the day, posting a 3–2 winner in the 82nd minute.

Against DC, falling behind twice for the second match in a row, the Union proved their undeniable mettle and battled back for an important point on the road against a conference rival. After a Perry Kitchen own goal put the Union level in the 49th minute, Ruiz found the next equalizer after Najar put United ahead again with a rocket from distance. Perhaps, most importantly, the Ruiz goal was the result of some beautiful buildup play, a slanting pass from Le Toux setting Williams free, and his cross to Ruiz for the equalizer was deserving of a goal and the 2–2 final.

Where we are

At the start of the season, the big question was less about scoring goals than about not letting them in. Turns out that the Union back five are among the best in the league, although a lack of depth remains as concerning as ever. Of course, that was before the announcement that Harvey had been traded to Vancouver for allocation money. At least temporarily, the one area of the Union’s lineup that has been steady is now in flux.

Scoring goals wasn’t supposed to be a problem. We had Le Toux and Mwanga, Ruiz was a proven goal scorer, and the up and coming young ones were sure to blossom. What a difference a couple of months makes. Le Toux has one goal, and that from a penalty kick. Mwanga has scored some beauties but has yet to solidify a place in the starting lineup or score a goal in the first half. Ruiz has finally found some consistency after returning from national team duty in the Gold Cup. Whether that consistency will is the reality or the outlier remains to be seen.

Part of the consistency problem with the offense is surely related to the constant tinkering in the midfield. The midfield lineup seems to have settled in recent matches but whether the lineup is the best one remains open to debate. Certainly the Union’s uneven play in recent first halves suggests there is still a lot of work to be done.

At the start of the season there were questions about whether the Union had the stuff to make it to the playoffs. Now the talk is about whether the Union have the depth and character to fulfill the promise that has so far been prominently displayed for all to see.

Defense, offense, midfield—some answers have been found. Other questions, both old and new, remain. It all should make for an interesting summer transfer window.

7 wins, 4 losses 6 draws, as well as being in and out of first place. It might be more than most of us dared to hope for. Now it is up to Peter Nowak and company to prove that the hope they have given the Union faithful extends beyond faith into the reality of a full season.

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