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It’s time to start Danny Mwanga again

Photo: Nicolae Stoian

It took Danny Mwanga eight minutes to do what Lionard Pajoy hasn’t done in 367: Create a goal.

If that one play isn’t a good enough reason of why Mwanga needs to replace Pajoy in Philadelphia Union’s starting lineup, here are a few more.

  • Only one team in Major League Soccer has a worse goals-per-game rate than the Union’s 0.71 goals per game.
  • No MLS team has taken fewer shots (9) or shots on goal (2.4) per game than the Union.
  • Pajoy hasn’t taken a shot on or off target in a month. That’s three regular season games with no shots from a starting striker.
  • One of the most common sights in the Union attack is a through ball into space to which an opposing defender outruns Pajoy.

We can talk about changing formations till the sky falls, but we’ll keep this simple. Whatever the Union are trying to do with their attacking corps, it’s not working, and Pajoy is a big part of why.

Why Pajoy?

Pajoy clearly fits the model Union manager Peter Nowak wants for his system: A target forward to serve as a pivot off whom his midfielders can make runs. First it was Alejandro Moreno, then Carlos Ruiz. Moreno passed, moved and created space well but didn’t score. Ruiz simply wouldn’t move.

Pajoy is planting himself in the center of the field, leaning right more often than not (see Saturday’s chalkboard) and not proving particularly mobile or linking up well with the attacking midfielders. After years in softer, more technically sound Latin American leagues, he’s yet to adjust to the more physical play in MLS.

Is it all on Pajoy though? Probably not.

Nowak wants to control possession and appears to feel he can best do that with a five-man midfield. With D.C. United, Nowak typically played a 3-5-2, but there, he had the personnel at all three tiers of the team to do it, including a trio of goal-scorers in Jaime Moreno, Christian Gomez and Alecko Eskandarian.

Since day 1 with the Union, Nowak has deployed formations with two holding midfielders. If Nowak could pull off a 3-5-2 with the Union, he probably would. The roster looks built for a 3-5-2, with just two true center backs. It’s the formation of choice when the Union are chasing a goal, as on Saturday, when Cristhian Hernandez’s entry heralded a formation shift. But it hasn’t worked for extended periods of time, because opponents exploit the three-man back line on which Carlos Valdes may be the only natural fit.

Unwilling to sacrifice the possession game with a target forward pivot, Nowak has more often deployed a functional 4-2-3-1 this season.  Michael Farfan and Freddy Adu have shown flashes of danger in the attacking third, but Pajoy’s offered little.

It’s telling that the first time Pajoy was substituted before the final minutes was during Nowak’s suspension. While Pajoy’s 75th minute removal led to a Union goal, it may have also indirectly resulted in a San Jose goal. Had assistant coach John Hackworth not had to waste a sub on Pajoy, he could have replaced a fatigued Adu with defender Chris Albright when the Union were trying to close the game. A legitimate fullback (Albright or Sheanon Williams) might have stopped Marvin Chavez from unleashing his game-winning cross. Instead, Chavez dusted Jack McInerney and Adu to find Steven Lenhart for the climactic goal.

Why Mwanga?

It’s pretty simple: Why not?

Did Mwanga suddenly forget how to play? Did he suddenly forget how to find the net? Is he suddenly no longer a promising prospect?

He’s 20 years old, he was drafted to be a future star, but he hasn’t started three consecutive games since October 2010. Yet it was that promising rookie season that captured the imaginations of Union fans, who saw not just the seven goals he scored but also his passing vision and chemistry with Sebastien Le Toux.

No, Mwanga isn’t the prototypical target forward. He’s more interesting than that. When he runs, there’s actually speed involved. When he passes, the potential for goals exists. When he coolly dropped a pass back to Gabriel Gomez for a goal Saturday, he did exactly what you want from a target man and exactly what Pajoy hasn’t provided. Mwanga’s talent ceiling remains as high as ever.

Pajoy’s struggles have done nothing to make people forget Le Toux and all the goals and assists he took with him. If the Union are really building with youth, a 30-year-old journeyman striker who isn’t scoring or linking to midfield is no way to go.

It’s time for Mwanga, just like it always was.


  1. Earl Gardner says:

    I’ll take Danny Mwanga and Jack Mac up top for the win please

  2. I’d like Jack and Mwanga too. Though, I would also rather have Nowak get hit over the head and abandon this route one football philosophy and play soccer like Kreis has RSL playing.
    Also, doesn’t this article (or Nowaks mindset) contradict himself? He wants to control the ball, hence the 5 man midfield. Yet his main choice to link midfield to attack is to punt the ball upfield to an inadequate striker? OR maybe Nowak just thinks the 8th times the charm.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Well, I didn’t get into the Route 1 stuff. That’s what we’re often seeing in practice, but I don’t think it’s what the Union actually want to do in theory. (The players consistently talk about possession being key.) I kept this column pretty narrowly focused because there’s so much you can say about the team’s attack right now (Route 1, midfield issues, 1 striker vs. 2 strikers, etc.), and the Mwanga-Pajoy point is nice and clear cut.

      • Help a novice out? What’s “Route 1” mean in this context? It’s a term I’ve not seen, and I’m having trouble getting meaning from the contect. Thanks.

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        Straight forward. Down the middle. Either by pumping long balls up the pitch towards the strikers. Or just dribbling straight up field. It’s a term generally reserved for teams who lack nuance and fluidity in their build up play.

      • Thanks, Ed.

    • Easy solution. Fire Nowak !

  3. Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

    Exactly. It was never NOT time for Danny Mwanga. He’s better than Pajoy at every aspect of the game. I still don’t understand why he receives so much negativity. Until he gets 3,4 or 5 consecutive starts, I don’t think anyone, coaches, journalists, bloggers or commenters can say definitively what Danny Mwanga is. LET THE KID PLAY!!!

    • Why does it seem like, for some players, Nowak can’t manage to sit them/give them a rest EVER no matter how out of form they are (Le Toux, Ruiz, Miggy, Pajoy)?
      Yet, for other players/positions, he can’t WAIT to sit them (or sub them out) after a great game or shift?

    • I agree completely. I still don’t understand how the guy can’t get a run of games. People expect him to completely dominate as a 20 year old, and that’s completely unrealistic. He’s still the best option we have at forward (I still reserve judgement on Martinez).

      He is not a target striker, but if you pair him with Adu as a withdrawn striker while Keon takes over on the left, I think we’d all see immediate results.

      • The Black Hand says:

        I think Kai would fit better than Adu, given Adu’s lack of speed and propensity to shy away from being “the guy”.

      • Kai could also work. As long as there’s someone to support a lone striker. Continuing to put Mwanga, Pajoy, ect. on an island is a recipe for disaster.

  4. Good article. As a rule, I’m cautious when it comes to starting young players, and I’ve always believed that Mwanga got thrust into the limelight too early with a lot of appearances starting at age 19. At this point in time, though, I think there’s no avoiding Mwanga starting most games–very surprised he’s played so little. I’d like to see Pajoy and Mwanga on the field together more often; I didn’t think either would do well in front of a five man midfield. The key to both of their struggles–Pajoy’s in fact and Mwanga’s in all likelihood–is the lack of a player like Le Toux just in the area to poach goals. Maybe the two of them together can poach goals for one another.

  5. I second that, Earl.

  6. Aside from that admittedly nice assist, Mwanga hasn’t done much on the field. He just looks lazy and sluggish. I understand the need for a change up top, but I’d rather see either Martinez or Jack Mac get the start. Heck, I think both could even play well off Pajoy and make those runs no one else does.

    Personally, I’ve given up on Danny.

    • Kensington Josh says:

      Danny has the best vision of any of the four forwards you mention- the best shot, and the best ability to create a shot for himself. Not quite sure what he’s done for you to give up on him, unless its sit on the bench, something he can’t control.

      • He is also terrible in the air and unwilling to hustle for the ball. Most of the time when I watch him play, he just stands there waiting for the ball. Also, a good shot doesn’t mean anything when he is afraid to shoot. He’s too damn timid of a player and seems to have regressed in the past year and a half. I understand people looking for a solution other than Pajoy, but I feel like people are romanticizing Mwanga’s play and ignoring the laziness and general lack of awareness that led to his benching.

      • Dan Walsh says:

        Fair point about the aerial game. (See this post for more on that.) Disagree on the rest. Mwanga isn’t a top MLS forward yet, but he’s shown enough at this young an age to indicate serious potential. There may be regression, but is it because of the lack of playing time, or vice versa? Josh is spot on about the vision.

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        I’m sorry. I believe Brandon is DEAD WRONG. Calling a player lazy and accusing him of a lack of awareness is completely inappropriate given his age, lack of PT and lack of consistent players around him.

        If you don’t like him say “I don’t like him.” I do not agree with any of your rationale.

    • The Black Hand says:

      Give the kid a chance! Let Mwanga get a little more than fifteen minutes before you give up on him. He was in poor form the first couple of matches. Was there anyone on our club that wasn’t? He came onto the pitch and almost immediately orchestrated that goal against San Jose. Granted, it was a nice cross (prayer) from Williams, but without Danny’s composure to lay that off…that goal never happens. He provides a far bigger presence, in the box, than Jack Mac or Martinez. He deserves a look.

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        Seriously. There is nothing any striker under the age of 22 has done that anyone should give up on them. Not only are they all way too young to have reached their potential, they havent had anywhere near enough time to be accurately judged as soccer players. Not Danny, not Jack, not Josue. There will be good and bad in their development, but the way they’ve been managed, theyre still so early in their developments that as hard as it is, we must reserve judgement.

      • This is the bottom line for all our young players and I feel bad for them that it seems like a ton of fans have already passed judgment on them.

      • Gordon Thompson says:

        It is long past time to use two forward attack and put two of the under 22 crowd up front to create pressure and actually take a shot on goal. One forward always seems to have two defenders marking them, and when you also are slow and predictable, no SOG will continue.

      • That assist was really the only thing Mwanga has shown me all season. Aside from that one play, what else has Danny done in the past year and a half?

        Also, size =/= a big presence. Mwanga plays smaller than he is. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen him either use his head or out muscle a player in the box.

        I’d still much rather see Jack or Josue get a chance before Danny.

      • stick with either the last year and a half or this season by mixing and matching the two you are undercutting yourself and making this a tough conversation to have. Afer all I can only remember seeing danny on the field twice this year (ive missed two games) both as a sub

    • He’s 20. How many other 20 year old forwards are lighting up leagues throughout the world or MLS for that matter? He’s only going to improve with games.

      • Richie the Limey says:

        How many? Loads. Off the top of my head (playing right now):

        Danny Welbeck / Phil Jones (I know he’s not a forward) – ManU
        Jack Wilshere / Alex Oklade-Chamberlain– Arsenal
        Mario Balotelli – Mcity
        Neymar – Santos
        Tony Kroos – Bayern
        Bojan Kurcic (spelling?) – Roma

        —– from the past there are plenty of examples. As the US market is EPL centric how about Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney?

  7. DarthLos117 says:

    Article should be titled: “Time to start someone other than Pajoy.”

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Heh heh. We might have to make you our headline writer. (Ok, so it was a bit light on the for Mwanga argument, but hey, some things don’t require a lot of words to argue. 😉 )

  8. I would argue that the problem with the Union offense has less to do with personnel as it does with the formation. This 4-2-3-1 formation that we insist on using is not working. While I think it’s time Danny Mwanga gets a chance to “Bring Danger”, if the support from midfield is lacking, we’re going to see results similar to the first seven games. You could count on one hand the number of balls played to Pajoy’s feet on Saturday vs. San Jose. Not that Lio does anything but concede possession (9 times vs SJ) when he does have the ball. My preference would still be a 4-4-2 with a diamond mid-field with Adu/Herdling tucked in behind the forwards and Gomez/Carroll protecting the back line. Marfan and Keon would complete said midfield while Mwanga and the speedster Martinez lead the attack. If it works in FIFA 12…………………

    • The Black Hand says:

      I like the formation. Unfortunately, Nowak will never abandon his two holding midfielder “system”. It is clearly limiting us and has been forever.

    • T of the U says:

      I agree with a diamond midfield as well…I’ve been preaching that to my buddies this whole season. I’m getting accustomed to the 4-1-4-1 that they’re playing right now and could see it working, if Pajoy’s slow @$$ sits for a few weeks and we try other strikers up front (Mwanga preferably).

      One player that I actually miss more than Le Toux (honestly always questioned Le Toux actual skills…but that’s another story) is Justin Mapp. Great pace, great vision, technically sound. I am actually hoping that Herdling can become the new Mapp this season. Should have never left him unprotected for the expansion draft IMO.

      • great pace?! justin mapp is slow as shit. and he sucks.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Mapp was smart on the ball. He just couldn’t shoot with both feet. We are definitely missing him in the midfield.

      • msg24365 says:

        Mapp? Smart on the ball?? Is that secret soccer speak for dribbling into groups of 3 or 4 opposing players and not helping on defense? Mapp had, maybe, 4 decent plays all season last year.

        I actually offered Rafa cash at the energy drinks’ game to take out Mapp….. He ignored me.

      • T of the U says:

        Well aparently there’s a divide on Mapp’s quality. It doesn’t quite matter much since he’s gone, but I sure miss his play. Mapp scored some of our best goals from the run of play in ’11.

  9. “Why Mwanga?
    It’s pretty simple: Why not?”

    Because Mwanga plays very inconsisently. This has always been the case here. One game, he’ll come on as a sub and be a beast late in the game. The next, he’ll start and be invisible all game.

    Pajoy has not played well, and we’re all down on him right now, but this does not mean that fixing the problem is as simple as switching him out for Mwanga. IMHO, the problem is systemic.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      I’ll take inconsistently good over consistently bad any day, particularly when the player is 20 years old. You’re probably right regarding a systemic problem, but that’s a case for another PSP post.

    • DarthLos117 says:

      I kinda agree with the systematic theory and fear that in a couple of weeks were gonna be all “Its time to start Pajoy again.”

  10. So on why Pajoy needs to sit you state its probably not all on him, I don’t see how Mwanga changes that.

    I do agree that the offense needs better link-up play or a better formation for the personnel. It puts into persepective how much LeToux’s hustle covered up for the tactical deficiencies.

    I haven’t given up on Mwanga, but the problem with the team is they are 19 out of 19 for Shots and SOG, putting a guy who averages only 1 SOG per 90 minutes isn’t going to turn the ship around. I hear the argument – if he plays more he’ll have more confidence and with more confidence comes more shots. Probably. But that sounds like a long summer of learning curve though, doesn’t it?

    We’re all grasping at straws (and wishing Pete was too), it can’t hurt to play him. We’re really at that point already, it’s not like the Union could score less goals.

    • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

      When the Union began to preach this building through youth mentality, it was always going to be a slow learning curve. Unfortunately, 2+ years in, none of our youthful prospects have been given the chance to prove themselves, outside of MacMath (who you could argue is the one player who SHOULDN’T have been made to prove himself so young).
      Personally, I would prefer to make 2012 the year of the kids and play all of these guys who are still incredibly bright young prospects. That way we can develop our young talent and actually see if these kids are the real deal. then we can form opinions and the Union can make roster moves based on actual data

      • Here’s the problem with that – 2010 was the year to do it.

        And whether Mwanga/McInerny are playing,it’s already the year of the kids. The U have the youngest team in MLS and got younger by the largest % from 2011 to 2012. http://www.mlssoccer.com/news/article/2012/04/11/climbing-ladder-average-age-mls-rise
        Only 4 players 30 and over (Carroll, Califf, Pajoy, Albright), so it’s not like we’re jammed up with savvy veteran leadership. The kids are being played by default.

        Here’s the Mwanga question you have to ask – what is he NOT doing? He was a #1 overall and first pick ever, a guy the club builds around. Nowak’s pick. Pistol Pete wanted him. He’s no longer GenAd, so that contract is weighty now. You would think he’d never leave the field,right? So what is happening in training (we all see what we want to see with him on the field) with him? Is it attitude? Is he just not performing? Is he a bust? Because everything on paper says he should be out there 60-90 per game. And yet he’s not.

      • Unfortunately, no way to get behind the scenes and find out. still, while the Union have the youngest roster in MLS, their matchday lineup (aside from albright) is pretty much as old as they can make it with the components at their disposal. All of the young strikers are buried. okugo and jordan are buried, gaddis and gabe only busted into the lineup when Lopez couldnt hang and DC was hurt.

      • I have a feeling you might get your wish. If the next two months are anything like the first two, there won’t be much left to play for by July.

  11. How many goals of the week nominations did we have last year? now it is saves (if we are lucky)…; Shows how low we have come.

  12. Screw Mwanga. Obviously it is time to hand Hoppenot his first start. Whos with me?

  13. Mwanga scores on one on ones with the keeper every time. Every time he gets the ball in space outside the box he is lethal. Anyone else on our roster that we can say this about? Marfan perhaps?

    Given our roster and our clear lack of ability to play soccer at this time, Mwanga must start.

    He is not our total solution though.

  14. Different Andrew than the one above me, but I would like to see Martinez get a look as well. We dropped serious change on him and he hasn’t had a start. Let’s see Mwanga and Martinez up top with Marfan, Keon, Freddy, and Gomez.

    • I take it that’s a diamond? I might keep Okugo in there with Gomez and put Marfan and perhaps Adu on the wings. That’s not necessarily playing to Freddy’s strength, and I liek Keon’s workrate, but he doesn’t seem decisive in attack (not that he’s alone in that. . . )

      • The Black Hand says:

        Keon has to be on the pitch. He plays a composed gam that is much needed in our current midfield.

      • T of the U says:

        Definitely agree…Keon is one of our starting wings (whichever side Nowak decides to deploy him). No one else on our current roster (although the jury is still out on Herdling) has the composure and vision that Keon has. He definitely still makes some ill advised passes…a couple a game, but usually recovers and wins the ball back.

      • That composure and vision hasn’t really amounted to much when he’s been out there this year. I like him, but I also want to see what we have in other players, and want to see quicker decisions. He’s good defensively, which works when he’s on the same side as Williams, but I’d be willing to give up a bit of that for some more creativity. I don’t see him as a particularly creative player.

  15. Excellent column. I just don’t think we have the horses to make a 4-2-3-1 generate pressure and shots. Pajoy’s woefully deficient hold up game (allegedly a strength when we signed him) is a major reason (among others.) I’d prefer to see a second striker out there (even if it’s just a matter of the central MF in the 4-2-3-1 pushed up further,) and would prefer that neither striker be Pajoy.

    • Gordon Thompson says:

      There are a lot of teams scoring goals with 4-4-2. Time to shake things up with that “radical” formation. A lot of talented forwards added to team in 2012. Use them or trade for more midfielders Nowak wants to play.

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