After a tough expansion campaign in 2010, the Philadelphia Union came into the 2011 season with one goal above all else: qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs in their second year of existence.
Led by an improving young core of players and some key offseason acquisitions, the Union did just that, leading the Eastern Conference for part of the year before finishing in third place with an 11-8-15 overall record and earning a spot in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Manager Peter Nowak’s crew didn’t last long in the postseason, however, dropping their first two playoff games in franchise history. But the Union certainly seem prepared to build off their success in Year 3.
Best Moment of the Year
Late in an early-season showdown against the rival New York Red Bulls on April 9, the Union were looking for a spark. They got a big one from reserve midfielder Roger Torres, who scored his first career goal – less than a minute after coming on a sub – to send Philly to a dramatic 1-0 victory in front of a record PPL Park crowd. The win put the Union all alone in first place in the Eastern Conference, where they stayed for a good chunk of the season.
Worst Moment of the Year
The Union’s 2-1 defeat to Colorado on July 29 – their first home loss of the season – was tough enough. What followed in the postgame press conference was even harder to swallow as Nowak delivered the bombshell that talented striker Carlos Ruiz was on his way out of Philly. Struggling to find a suitable goal-scoring replacement for Ruiz, the Union didn’t win another game for nearly two months.
What began as a botched set piece from Ruiz turned into a game-winning golazo. With Philly’s May 21 game against Chicago tied at 1-1 at PPL Park, “El Pescadito” followed a blocked free kick, turned and launched a left-footed shot from about 40 yards out that sailed over Chicago ’keeper Jon Conway’s’ head, hit the bottom of the crossbar and bounced straight down. The Union went on to win 2-1, and some of Ruiz’s teammates hailed the wonder-strike as the goal of the year to that point.
Trailing by a goal in the franchise’s first-ever playoff game, the Union pushed serious numbers forward to try to tie Houston in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. In the 86th minute, they were nearly burned on the counterattack – before Union goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón came off his line, slid and got his right hand up to swat away a wide-open look from Houston’s Brad Davis. The brilliant save gave his team life, but Philly couldn’t find the equalizer in the final minutes.
For the second straight year, Sébastien Le Toux was the engine that made the Union purr. Despite a frustratingly long scoring drought, the French striker finished with a team-leading 11 goals and nine assists, and was at his absolute best when his team needed him most, scoring 10 times in the club’s final 12 games. Le Toux was also the only Philly player to play every minute of every game – and he rarely stopped running through all of those 3,060 minutes.
It’s hard to choose just one player here because offseason acquisitions Mondragón, center back Carlos Valdés and defensive midfielder Brian Carroll all proved vital in transforming the Union from one of the league’s worst defensive teams to one of the best. Mondragón finished with seven shutouts in 27 starts and provided the vocal leadership the club sorely lacked last season, Valdés was an imposing presence in the middle of the field and quickly emerged as one of the league’s top defenders and Carroll, a proven winner who’s made the playoffs every year he’s been in the league, was an unsung hero and one of the few everyday starters in the midfield.
1. Defensive depth: Natural midfielder Gabriel Farfan played well at left back after the Union traded away Jordan Harvey in July, but if the Union can bring in a veteran defender to fill that role, that would allow Farfan to play in the midfield where he’s most comfortable. It would also give the Union’s backline – which was dangerously thin in 2011 – far more depth and security in case of injury.
2. Another goalscorer: The fact that Ruiz played only 14 games and still finished second on the club in scoring with five goals is telling. And what it says is that Le Toux has shouldered too much of the offensive burden over the past two seasons and needs another goalscorer to emerge – whether it’s a healthy Danny Mwanga, an improved Jack McInerney or a new acquisition, such as recently signed Cosa Rican Josué Martínez.
3. Help with set pieces: One of the Union’s biggest issues this past season was set pieces – both defending them and scoring off of them. Bringing in a player with a little more height could be the first step in helping to solve this problem.