With playoffs looming, Mwanga back for Philadelphia

CHESTER, Pa. – If there was one positive the Philadelphia Union could take from their ugly 1-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls in last Thursday’s regular-season finale, it was that they knew there were still playoff games on the horizon.

If there was one more positive, it was seeing Danny Mwanga return to full strength just in time for the playoffs – which, thanks to Chicago’s win over Columbus over the weekend, begins for Philly in the Eastern Conference semifinals rather than in the wild card round.

The Union, which finished third in the Eastern Conference, play the Houston Dynamo in their first playoff game Sunday at PPL Park (4 pm ET, ESPN2/ESPNDeportes). And Mwanga, who has been battling a hip injury for the past month, should be ready for it.

“I think at this point, I’m back at 100 percent,” Mwanga told MLSsoccer.com. “I think I got my speed back. I was sprinting all over and felt normal. I’m back.”

After missing four straight games with a right hip flexor strain and then logging just 18 minutes in Philly’s regular-season home finale on Oct. 15, Mwanga played the entire second half against the Red Bulls. And though he looked rusty at times, he did show the kind of speed that elevated him to become the top overall pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft and later a dynamic offensive player through his first two professional seasons.

The next step now for Mwanga is rediscovering his scoring touch. Although the 20-year-old is second on the club with five goals, he hasn’t found the back of the net since June, in part because of his nagging injury.

“We need him,” Union striker Sébastien Le Toux said. “He’s a big piece up top with me. He can score big goals and I’m sure he’s going to help us. And maybe for the next game, I can play with him up top from the first minute and we can re-find our connection.”

Without Mwanga scoring as frequently, most of the offensive burden has fallen on Le Toux, who has responded in a huge way, netting 10 goals over the final 12 games of the season while often playing alone up top.

But with the playoffs beginning, the Frenchman could certainly use some help from Mwanga – who has teamed with Le Toux to provide nearly half of Philly’s scoring over the past two seasons – and may end up needing it depending on when Veljko Paunović returns from the hamstring strain that kept him out of the Union-Red Bulls game.

But whether or not he’ll be able to score his first playoff goal, Mwanga believes playing a full half against one of the Union’s biggest rivals was the perfect preparation for the madness to come.

“It’s kind of like the closest thing to the playoffs,” he said. “For me and the entire team, it was a very good test for us to see what it will be like during the playoffs.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.