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Danny Mwanga & the aerial game

Cover photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

I know a guy who, when we were growing up, wouldn’t greet you with a “What’s up?” or “How’s it going?” or whatever.

His first question would be, “You working on your game?” The line had started with our basketball coach, who basically told us that your off-season was the most important time for the development of your game, because everything that happened next season would be determined by how much you improved before it started.

So if you run into Danny Mwanga this winter, that’s how you should greet him. Because this is the time when it’ll be determined if he’s the future or marginalized.

“The Union need to sign an aerial threat at forward” — Uh, NO

The Union scored only two goals by header this season, and that’s consistently — and rightly — highlighted as a team weakness by those who follow the team closely. Their center backs are each just six feet tall, but each is a solid piece of the team that shouldn’t be replaced.

So naturally, when people break down a list of what the Union need to take the next step from playoff team to championship contender, a top item is signing a veteran aerial threat at striker.

But that’s not what they need at all.

Too rare a sight: Mwanga going up for a header. (Photo: Earl Gardner)

What they need is for 20-year-old Danny Mwanga to develop his aerial game.

In 2010, Mwanga showed terrific athletic ability, good speed and strength, and a nose for the goal, but he hadn’t proved he could play hold-up, which is why Alejandro Moreno had been necessary. In spring 2011, with Moreno gone, Mwanga showed in spurts that his hold-up play had improved, either a consequence of off-season practice or simply the osmosis method of learning from Moreno.

It’s not unreasonable to think he could come in next spring with a similar addition: an aerial game. He hasn’t shown it yet, and that’s not surprising. When you’re as good an athlete as Mwanga, it’s easy in your youth to get used to creating goals almost entirely on your own. Further, in some countries where pickup games without proper goalposts dominate, goals are usually scored on the ground. That could be Mwanga’s experience in Democratic Republic of the Congo (and it might not). Either way, outside of the terrific chemistry he shows with Sebastien Le Toux, that’s how Mwanga has taken most of his chances with the Union: Creating them himself, with his feet.

Now it’s time for Mwanga to take the next step.

Learning from your mistakes

If the Union go out and sign a veteran striker, they’re likely to repeat the mistake they made with Carlos Ruiz. No, not the “He’s a cancer on the offense’s fluidity” mistake, but rather the other one: Pushing Mwanga and Jack McInerney further down the depth chart and taking their minutes.

After two seasons in the league, Mwanga and McInerney need and deserve time on the field. They’ve each shown the talent to play in Major League Soccer, but their playing time was so irregular in 2011 that it was hard for either to get into a routine. It’s time for them to become regulars in a three-man rotation with Le Toux at the two striker positions, along with Veljko Paunovic moving between striker and midfield to fill gaps as needed.

If they’re not going to get regular time, Mwanga and McInerney would be better served going out on loan somewhere or even moving permanently to another team, because their development will be stunted without regular time. Likewise, the Union would be better served selling or trading them, because the investment in these players won’t have much of a return if they end up as bench warmers.

Does that sound dramatic? Maybe.

But it’s time they got their chance. And hopefully, when they do, they’ll have spent their off-season working on their game to the point that they’re ready to fully capitalize on it.


  1. do you have any evidence of players from the Democratic Republic of the Congo not having the same heading ability or propensity as players from other countries or is that just conjecture?

    • Ridiculous to write players from 3rd world economic countries don’t head the ball well. See Drogba, went to France late, Pele was pretty good at heading after growing up playing on crap ground. I lived in Swaziland for a year and pick up games were more organized than in the states and because of the poor surface and lots of bumps, the ball was in the air a fair amount. My heading was called into question and I’m from England, home of the long ball.

      • that was my initial thought.

      • No, what’s written there is “goals are almost always scored on the ground” in pickup games without goalposts. That’s all.

        There’s no claim that all players from such countries can’t head. That’d be idiotic. I don’t know how you read that out of it. Anyone who follows soccer knows otherwise.

        It was, as Nick suggested and I thought was pretty clear, conjecture to perhaps explain a particular player’s development curve. Based on what I’d seen playing pickup in another developing country (Brazil) and regular pickup games in the States dominated by players from sub-Saharan countries (Ethiopia, Sudan, Burundi and Somalia in particular), most games are scored on the ground because that’s where the goals are, and it didn’t seem an unreasonable leap to extrapolate to DRC. Regardless, I’ve thrown an edit in there to eliminate any lack of clarity on this.

      • Josh Kensington says:

        I’ve grew up playing with Laotian guys, played for two years in rural Uganda too. In my experience, the goal is ofter just two balled up shirts, and the ball must be below knee level to count. This goes for pick up with Mexicans and Haitians in Olney too.

      • Exactly my experience too in my game in Hatfield, which is dominated by Ethiopians. That’s what I was referring to. Same rules.

  2. So their third year should be the charm? Ill argue that both our #10 (our #10?!) and Jack should have already staked their claim with the time they did have…I dont want to hear this “they werent given enough time BS!” Stop making excuses. If they were quality they would have proved it by now with the minutes they were handed. Also is the Union built to be a crossing team? To score goals off crosses? I haven’t noticed…dont recall many deep runs to the endline…

  3. keep the ball on the ground. its the reason we couldnt beat houston. we continued to play and ball into the box into the air and failed time and time again. play the ball on the ground into space and shots will open up. obviously we will have corners and free kicks where a great aerial finisher would come in great but its not what is holding us back from scoring more goals. its a lack of patience.

  4. Josh Kensington says:

    Barcelona never resorts to the hopeful cross, but just about every other team uses it to some effect. Barcelona also has players that dribble and pass better than just about anyone else. I love the total football, but we’d be unrealistic to think that our MLS team, with MLS skills, is going to perfectly implement total football. I like the value. Look at Tottenham- scintillating attack, and plenty of goals in the air. (They still suck. Go Gunners)

  5. What, develop our own players!?!? Why do that when we can sign high priced aging players who don’t fit our system and take away minutes from young players trying to get better!!!!????

  6. Jack McInerney and Danny Mwanga both need to step up their games next year. Both had disappointing seasons, but for the life of me I don’t see why they are grouped together in this article or in the general fan frustrations. The apologists will say Jack hasn’t had a consistent opportunity to grow into the lineup but he has had chances to score and he doesn’t. Nor does he set anyone up to score. He’s just not that good. Sure he’s got hustle. Just not quality. I hope he proves me wrong but I don’t think he will for the Union.

  7. If Jack Mac and Danny Mwanga have so much potential wouldn’t they have displayed it in some of the reserve games? I don’t recall them dominating the lesser competition. So what makes you think they are quality but just not getting enough minutes. I’m not seeing it. Danny clearly regressed last year and Jack has simply not impressed…

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