Carlos Ruiz, Philadelphia Union
Courtesy of Philadelphia Union

2011 Philadelphia Preview: Expansion no more

The Tweet and Lowdown:

Can Philly transform from fledgling expansion team into MLS power? With big acquisitions joining promising core, goals are high in Year Two.

Setting the Scene:

Last season was one of milestones and memories for Philadelphia as the city welcomed back professional soccer for the first time in 30 years. Playing in front of the Sons of Ben, a passionate supporters group that was instrumental in the team’s creation, the Union employed an exciting brand of attacking soccer, opened a beautiful new stadium in Chester with a dominating 3-1 win over Seattle, and showed enormous potential at times throughout their debut campaign.

But it was also a year of missed opportunities and frustrations as the Union won only two road games en route to a disappointing 8-15-7 overall record. Defense was the main issue for Philly in 2010 as the young expansion squad allowed an average of 1.67 goals per game while matching a dubious MLS record with only two shutouts.

[inline_node:326889]Manager Peter Nowak put his best foot forward in addressing those problems by dumping goalkeepers Brad Knighton and Chris Seitz and acquiring two respected Colombian internationals – ’keeper Colombian Faryd Mondragón and central defender Carlos Valdés.

Veterans Brian Carroll and Carlos Ruiz are also coming to town, joining forces with a core that includes breakout star Sebastien Le Toux, rising star Danny Mwanga, and 2010 captain Danny Califf.

Key Changes:

Players In: Faryd Mondragón (FC Köln, Germany), Carlos Valdés (Santa Fe, Colombia), Carlos Ruiz (Aris, Greece), Brian Carroll (Columbus)

Players Out: Alejandro Moreno (Chivas USA), Fred (D.C. United), Chris Seitz (FC Dallas), Shea Salinas (Vancouver)

Star Attraction: Sebastien Le Toux

It would be impossible to overstate how important Le Toux was to Philly last season. The hustling Frenchman scored 14 goals and had 11 assists, meaning he played a direct role in all but 10 of the team’s 35 goals. He scored the team’s first goal, its last goal, and many more in between. He never stopped running and sliding, even when the ball was far out of reach. He was, simply, the engine that made the Union purr – and one very big reason why Philly fans are amped up for the 2011 season.

Unsung Hero: Justin Mapp

Much has been made of the Union’s offseason acquisitions, but just as important to the team’s 2011 success will be the play of Mapp, who was picked up in the middle of last season in a trade with Chicago. The nine-year MLS veteran only scored once through 15 games in Philly but had four assists and was a workhorse in the outside midfield. Mapp’s only goal, a game-winning stoppage tally in New England, was also one of the highlights of Philly’s season.

[inline_node:329896]Ready for Primetime: Danny Mwanga

Mwanga, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 SuperDraft, certainly lived up to the hype with seven goals and four assists in his rookie season, doing it all in a modest 1,461 minutes played. Now, just like the Union, even more is expected of the 19-year-old striker in Year Two. If Mwanga continues to mesh well with Le Toux and gets a boost from newcomer Ruiz, the teenager from the Democratic Republic of Congo could be looking at a 10-goal season.

Storylines to Watch:

On all parts of the field, the Union have veterans to help stabilize the lineup. But let there be no mistake: This is still a young team. By shedding most of the players selected in the 2010 Expansion Draft, Nowak is making a concerted effort to build through the SuperDraft. In addition to Mwanga, fellow 2010 draftees Jack McInerney, a striker, and midfielders Amobi Okugo and Kyle Nakazawa could see increased playing time this season.

Philly will also count on 19-year-old midfielder Roger Torres, 20-year-old defender Sheanon Williams, and 21-year-old striker Chris Agorsor for big things in ’11. And let’s not forget 16-year-old Zach Pfeffer, who may earn some playing time despite being one of the youngest players in league history.

The Union coaches are also excited about the 2011 SuperDraft class, which includes ‘keeper Zac MacMath and midfielder Michael Farfan. MacMath will need to learn quickly from Mondragón – and be ready to be called upon to man the net if the Colombian gets hurt.

What He Said:

“Obviously we feel like we can improve on last year. We’ve done a lot of work in the offseason; we have some new acquisitions and some key returning players. We feel really good about our team, so our expectations are pretty high.”

– Coach John Hackworth

If Everything Goes Right:

The Philly coaches and players believe they could have something special brewing here. If Mondragón and Valdés adjust well to MLS, if former MLS MVP Ruiz eases the goal-scoring burden on Le Toux and Mwanga, and if Carroll and Mapp help control the midfield, the Union should have enough firepower to charge into the MLS Cup Playoffs out of the Eastern Conference.

How far they go once they get there probably depends on how good the chemistry is on a club that has so far added 10 new players while getting rid of 11 old ones.

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