The Philadelphia Union and MLS are in their All-Star break, with teams participating in “friendlies” this week as part of the World Football Challenge. While some league games will be played this week, the Union hosts Everton FC of the English Premier League on Wednesday at PPL Park and then Real Madrid CF of the Spanish La Liga on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field. On Wednesday 7/27, a select group of MLS All-Stars, including Union goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, will take on Manchester United of the English Premier League, in a match to be held at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ.
The Union feature 10 players who were not on the team in 2010, when they went 8-15-7. Some of the new faces are new to MLS, while others are veterans brought in to improve the team. The dramatic overhaul has the Union with the same point total after 19 matches in 2011 as they had in 30 matches in 2010. At 31 points, the Union sit atop the MLS Eastern Conference. Even though there are 3 Western Conference teams with higher point totals (L.A. Galaxy, Seattle Sounders and FC Dallas, with Real Salt Lake at 30 points after 17 games, it is still a stunning turnaround that elevates the Union to among the league’s elite.
How did they get here? While 2010 All-Star Sebastien LeToux (1 goal, 7 assists) and 2010 Rookie of the Year candidate Danny Mwanga (5 goals, 3 assists) still provide firepower up front, the addition of Carlos Ruiz (6 goals, 3 assists) as a free agent transfer from Aris FC of the Greek SuperLiga has spread the scoring burden, allowed Mwanga to come off the bench in 8 matches and prevented opponents from keying on Le Toux. Ruiz is no stranger to MLS, having played for FC Dallas from 2005-2008, and before that having won 2 Golden Boot awards as MLS MVP in 2002 and 2003 while playing for the L.A. Galaxy. Le Toux has played every minute of every match (1710 in all) and has only put 12 of his team-leading 46 shots on goal. Arguably, Le Toux should be given some time off during the upcoming friendlies to try to lighten his workload a bit – especially with the season lengthened to 34 games from 30 and possible playoffs.
At midfield, Justin Mapp (acquired during the 2010 season from Chicago) leads with 2 goals, while second-year player Kyle Nakazawa has contributed a goal and 3 assists. Newcomer Brian Carroll (from Columbus and the US Men’s National Team) leads all midfielders with 17 starts and 17 games played. The Farfan twins, Gabriel and Michael, provide some relief minutes at midfield.
At defense, returning captain Danny Califf anchors the defenders at center back. Califf was a teammate of Carlos Ruiz on the 2002 MLS Champion L.A. Galaxy, before playing 4 years in Denmark’s Superliga. Flanking Califf are 19-game starter, rookie Sheanon Williams and 18-game starter Carlos Valdes, a newcomer from Colombia. 16-game starter Jordan Harvey was traded to Vancouver on July 7, opening up a spot for Colombian Juan Diego Gonzalez.
In goal – also from Colombia – via German powerhouse FC Cologne is the Union’s lone All-Star, Faryd Mondragon, who like Le Toux, has played every minute of every match. Mondragon – at age 40 – with his stellar defenders in front of him, has a microscopic 0.84 goals-against average and 7 shutouts.
The remaining schedule favors the Union, with 8 home matches and 7 on the road. More importantly, only 4 of those 15 matches are against teams with winning records, including 2 against the Columbus Crew, who sit in third place in the Eastern Conference just 3 points behind the Union, with 28 points also in 19 games.
The Union are very strong up front, on the backline and in goal. They are not particularly deep at those positions – their midfield depth might need to be called upon at other positions if a significant injury occurs. If the Union stay healthy as a unit, they should make the MLS playoffs and should do well in the playoffs. A trip to the MLS finals is not out of the question, though the Western Conference would appear to have several strong teams which would be favored to win.
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