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10 Union questions for 2012 – Part II

Photo: Paul Rudderow

With the SuperDraft behind us, thoughts now turn to the nitty-gritty of the 2012 Union season. Naturally, questions arise. Over a two-part series we pose ten questions to our Union beat reporter, Eli Pearlman-Storch, which began with a look formation, roster depth and leadership roles within the starting XI in Part 1. In part 2 the focus shifts to goalkeeping, breakout stars and who will challenge the Union as they fight for a trip to a second consecutive postseason.

6. GK Controversy?

Zac MacMath is very close to ready; Faryd Mondragon is very close to retirement. The Dragon’s flaws were fairly apparent as the season wore on in 2011: He’s a decent shot stopper but he doesn’t have great range. When the defense limits opponents to 2-3 shots per game, he’s an All-Star. More than that and it’s less star than question mark. The real question is how much the Union need Mondragon’s leadership on the field. I’m not a huge believer in intangibles but there is no doubt that The Dragon has “presence.”

Eli, how good does Faryd Mondragon have to be to keep his job?

Honestly, it’s not a question of doing anything to keep his job. The job is his, plain and simple. And Union fans will need to live with his limited shotstopping range and overly-ambitious service out of the back. Minor errors like those will not be sufficient to force Peter Nowak’s hand. However, if the Dragon shows any signs of wearing down or looking physically creaky, the Union manager might throw MacMath a few starts. Especially in the instances of a fixture logjam, of which there are a few. But Nowak will only do this grudgingly. Mondragon is his man and the Union’s captain, while MacMath is only 20, a relative infant in goalkeeping tools. Yes, he proved that he has the talent to be a top keeper in MLS, but it is still too early to force him into that role.

7. Mwanga Time

The Mwan’s Time Has Come: Promising first season. Injury-riddled, confidence-killing year two. Montreal selected Andrew Wenger over Darren Mattocks because they wanted a player who could immediately influence a game. The jury is still out on Mwanga’s ability to be a consistent game changer. He certainly can do it, but a supersub (aside from being one of Eli’s least favorite terms) is not what the Union thought they were drafting.

Eli, what kind of pressure is on Danny Mwanga this season? And what do you think he has to do to get Peter Nowak to stamp his name next to Seba Le Toux’s as an every day starter?

I haven’t a clue on this one. There are two things that frustrate me more than Mwanga’s slide in form during 2011. One is the manner in which Peter Nowak handled his young hitman—inserting him, pulling him, moving him in the formation and then pulling him again. The other is the manner in which fans don’t give this kid the support he deserves. Remember, he’s still 20 years old. He had a strong rookie campaign after which he was immediately replaced with the signing of Carlos Ruiz and the tinkering at the beginning of 2011 that threw the entire team out of sorts.

Yes, it is absolutely critical for Mwanga to find his feet again, but come on, cut the kid some slack. Do you really expect a young striker to find a rich vein of form without consistent minutes, formations or teammates surrounding him? How about this? Give him four starts in a row. If he doesn’t find his game in that time, then sit him down and call me an idiot. In 2010, he twice made 5 consecutive starts and over those ten games netted 4 goals and 4 assists. In 2011, he never made more than 2 starts in a row. That simply is not enough for.

8. The first nine points

The Union’s first three games will be extremely challenging. Playing at Portland (especially to open the season) is never going to be easy, Colorado came into PPL and sucker-punched the U last year, and Chicago’s strong finish (7-3-3 after tying Philly to start August) means the Fire will expect to start 2012 on the front foot. What should the Union get out of these first three games before a very winnable match at home against the Vancouver Dirty Hasslis?

Two out of the first three on the road is no easy task, but the Union will be ready for the season, keen to prove that 2011 was no fluke. I’m eying six points from the first three matches. But honestly, if the Union play the way they are capable, it could be nine. First, I expect the Union to see off Colorado in the home opener. The crowd will be electric and the Union will have more than the thuggish clods from Denver can handle. Hopefully, 2012 will be the year when the level of play in MLS finally leaves terrible, negative teams like the Rapids behind.

Now that Portland is a second year team, the Union, as well as the rest of MLS, should not fear traveling to the City of Roses. Yes, the atmosphere in Portland is adequately hostile, but the Timbers just aren’t that good (even before they shipped off their leading goalscorer, Kenny Cooper). Given that it is the opening match of the season, the Union will have enough of their own excitement and energy to earn a winning result at Jeld-Wen Field.

Chicago, like a number of other Eastern Conference teams—Toronto and DC United, for example—are poised for a strong year. They have a system in place, time to acquire the correct players and the speedy, skillful athletes that gave the Union fits in 2011. The Union will have two more chances for pay back, but three wins on the trot is a lot to ask.

6 out of 9 to start 2012 ain’t bad, though.

9. 2012’s Breakout Star

In 2011 it was a toss-up between Michael Farfan and Carlos Valdes. Who will be the breakout star of 2012? And who needs to break out or risk an early end to their Philly career (I know you want to say Naka, Eli, so you can’t say Naka here)?

Danny Mwanga. Maybe you got me riled up with all that supersub nonsense, or maybe it’s the fact that Mwanga will be pushed hard by three less experienced strikers chomping at his heels for minutes, but I believe this is the year that Danny Mwanga scores double digit goals, rediscovers 2010’s chemistry with Sebastien Le Toux, and reminds people why Peter Nowak went out of his way to make sure he was the No. 1 pick in the draft. Add to all that the chip on his shoulder that he will have inevitably developed from recent trade rumors, and Mwanga enters 2012 as a dangerous man. That’s where I’m putting my money.

As far as a player who needs to produce in order to stay relevant in Philadelphia, I’m going to say Jack McInerney, but reluctantly. After all, when a team preaches about young player development, while adopting a win now mentality, something’s gotta give. Unfortunately for Jack, it has been his minutes that have been most gravely impacted by the urgency felt throughout the organization. With his Generation Adidas status a near certainty to expire following this season, McInerney must prove that he is ready to contribute right now, which unfortunately appears to mean scoring goals in limited appearances. What makes the situation more dire is the acquisition of Chandler Hoffman, who is being billed as a similar, but bigger version of Jack. If Hoffman maintains the red hot goalscoring form that saw him finish fourth in the nation with 18 goals this season, McInerney might be on the outside looking in sooner than later. No matter how disappointing this would be, and it would be massively disappointing because Jack projects as an excellent player, it is an inevitable function of carrying four strikers under the age of 22.

10. Where should the Union finish in the East?

KC, Houston, and Philly were all supposed to be also-rans in 2011. Will they be back on top in 2012 or will someone else make a surprise run (coughDCUnitedcoughcough)?

While Schellas Hyndman and the Western Conference are beating their chests, expecting to once again dominate the MLS landscape, the Eastern Conference might prove this speculation premature. As mentioned above, enormous strides have been taken in Toronto, DC and Chicago to build teams that can compete week in and week out. Add to the fact that, although we may not like it, there’s no way the Red Bulls can stink as much as they did last year, and all the sudden there are seven teams in the East that can compete for a playoff spot.

As far as the three bottom dwellers, New England is there, obviously. Montreal will face an uphill battle in their first season. And Columbus rounds out the bottom three, as they have simply been holding their team together with smoke and mirrors for far too long. In my opinion, Toronto will be a tough match for any team, especially at BMO Field, but they are still a year away from being true contenders.

At the top of heap, Sporting KC is only getting stronger, as is Houston. If the Union start brightly and find a system that results in consistent goalscoring, they will be right there, always in the conversation, but will face some bitter showdowns with their regional rivals to secure a playoff spot, especially with an extra fixture each. Going into the year, I’d be happy with the Union slipping into the playoffs with the third seed in the East, because once you’re in, all bets are off.


Predict the starting lineup and formation on opening night (I know the biggest issue for you is whether Freddy Adu goes in the middle or on the wing).

Glad you asked Adam!! But, my answer is too long for the end of this post. Look for a piece analyzing the 2012 Union’s 4-3-3 formation on Thursday.

If you have your own questions to add to the discussion, please send them to info@phillysoccerpage.com and we will do a special post answering as many as we can.


  1. Jack is getting rave reviews from U-23 camp for his speed, vision, and movement in the 4-3-3. Part of me was suprised we didn’t see him sent off to Toronto for one of their first rounders in the draft. He has skills, theres no doubt about that, but I don’t know that Philadelphia plays a formation that puts them to good use. Philadelphia in a 4-3-3 in 2012? Wouldn’t that be an interesting development. I’ll be reading it Eli.

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