It’s tough to believe we’ve reached the end of the 2011 season already. Seems like yesterday that Robert, Daniel, Kristan and I were hashing out who would be previewing which teams. I wanted to preview the local Philadelphia Union, and was granted the privilege. For kicks, I just looked back at my preview article, and lo and behold, I accurately predicted 48 points for the Union.
I also predicted a 4th place finish in the Eastern Conference, and entry into the MLS Cup Playoffs. At the beginning of the season, that looked to be a stretch goal for a 2nd year team coming into 2011 with a suspect defense and a top scorer who appeared due for a return to Earth. That all changed as the Union began the season red-hot. Faryd Mondragon stabilized the Union fortress in back, and MLS returnee Carlos Ruiz picked up where Le Toux left off. Even with a midseason slump and the selling of Ruiz, the Union were able to enjoy a renaissance for Le Toux (who overcame early struggles to finish with 11 goals) and entered Thursday’s match tied with Sporting KC for the Conference lead.
After that start, 4th place doesn’t seem so peachy. A Top 3 position (carrying a 1st round bye) appeared a formality entering the final two games. Those prospects took at hit when Toronto FC equalized in the 2nd half, costing the Union two precious points. After Thursday’s loss to New York (I won’t go into detail, on-site reporter Daniel Feuerstein will give a match recap), that first round bye will depend upon the results of teams playing only for pride (Chicago, DC United, and Supporter’s Shield winners LA Galaxy who may rest players after a Champions League tilt).
I’ll quote Union Manager Peter Nowak to provide the perspective, though. I’ve been fortunate enough to trade Tweets with Nowak recently about this subject, and his words show that the Playoffs themselves are an achievement. “Expectations are good if they are realistic. We will put both feet on the ground to make it best from this coming opportunity.” With the way the season started, for a fan it can be easy to forget that this team is still in its second year, and that there were serious concerns heading into 2011.
For many of these players, this will be their initiation into the MLS Cup Playoffs. Another Nowak quote from Twitter: “First step before preseason started was to be contender for the playoffs , natural next one is to be contender for MLS Cup.” While there is a veteran presence on the team (Mondragon is 40, Danny Califf 31, Veljko Paunovic is 34), there are a number of youngsters who have grown into important roles on the Union. Mwanga, Torres, Williams, the Farfans, Akugo, MacMath, and even Adu (who is a veteran by these standards) are all under 23 years of age and have made significant contributions throughout the season. To make that jump from Playoff Contender to Cup Contender, that growth will have to continue, and perhaps a measured addition or two to help bolster an attack which struggles to find goals at times.
So while the Union will have to pull up a chair and root against Kansas City, Columbus and Houston in order to secure a bye, we must not forget that 4th place isn’t so bad. Any team can get hot in the MLS Cup Playoffs, and just making the show is a huge step in the franchise’s young history. The future looks bright for the Philadelphia Union.