Before the season, the Philadelphia Union offense may have been thought of as a three-headed monster. Last year, the duo of Danny Mwanga and Sebastien LeToux accounted for 60% of the goals scored by the team. Adding the unpredictable Carlos Ruiz to this tandem seemed to give the Union a great offensive presence going into 2011. Pundits (including myself) were predicting that the Union’s troubles would come in the defensive third. The offense was not going to be a question mark, right?
That was March, and this is nearly June. The Union defense has been one of the stingiest in the league, allowing only 8 goals thus far. If there has been a trouble area thus far, it has been in the attack.
Union fans were delighted with the production of six tallies over the weekend, nearly doubling their entire season’s output in one outstanding display. In their victory over Toronto FC, Mwanga picked up two goals as the match waned. Conspicuously left out of the same match was Ruiz, even though the Guatemalan decided the previous week’s match versus the Chicago Fire with a wondergoal from distance.
The trouble for me is that I still can’t say that these two players are in form. At times Ruiz has looked more like a 40-year old striker than one that is only 31. Mwanga seemed uncomfortable with the addition of Ruiz early on, the two mixing like oil and water on the pitch. In recent weeks both players have looked more at ease in Peter Nowak’s system, but they seem to thrive when the other is on the bench. While Ruiz was on the field when Mwanga opened his 2011 account against the LA Galaxy, the goal was a result of a defensive error, not through the normal offensive build. It seems that Nowak has caught on, and the juggling of these talented forwards has found results.
This leads us to the Frenchman LeToux, Philadelphia’s main stalwart in 2010. A year ago any offensive discussion about the Union began with his contributions. If he wasn’t burying the ball in the net, he was setting up his teammates. What’s the difference this season? In my opinion, not much.
LeToux has been a workhorse thus far. Some fans want to point to his lack of goals from open play as an indication that he has regressed from last season. Statistically that may be true, but it would have always been a challenge for LeToux to match his output from 2010. The Union are a young squad. Players like Mwanga, Jack McInerney, Roger Torres, and Kyle Nakazawa must begin to step into more prominent offensive roles on the team. In my mind, Nowak knows this, and has begun to transition LeToux back into a midfielder.
Soccer isn’t always an additive sport. Let’s take Real Madrid. They scored the most goals in La Liga in the 2010-11 campaign, with 102. How many did they score in the 2009-10 season? 102. Cristiano Ronaldo set a record for La Liga with 40 goals scored this season. His gain in goals didn’t equate to a gain for Real in goals; they lost production elsewhere. The same may be said for LeToux and the Zolos.
Expecting LeToux to score 14 goals in 2011 is unrealistic. Yes, the Union have room to grow from a scoring standpoint, finishing 11th in the league in goals scored in 2010. But for a guy who scored 1 goal for Seattle in their inaugural season, his rise in production in 2010 went against the grain.
And yet, in my opinion, I think LeToux is currently playing the most consistently good football on the team. Yes his giveaway enabled Toronto’s second goal on Saturday. Yes, his free kicks have looked abysmal thus far. But he’s leading the team in shots taken, and his work rate in the forward ranks has been second to none. He has taken 20 shots, with only 6 finding frame. Eventually a few of these chances will slot past the keeper. Ten goals for LeToux would be a great contribution within the current makeup of this team.
Clearly the Union are not the three-headed monster that we imagined, with nifty passing leading to three strikers engaged in quality finishing. The first two weeks of June will have to be a different story anyway, because Ruiz will be playing for Guatemala in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Regardless of who is up front, there is a tale in the Chicago and Toronto results that may belie the real cure for what ails Philadelphia.
In 2010, the Union finished near the bottom in shots taken. Notably they put 47% of those shots on frame, which ranked them third in the league in shots on goal. In 2011, they currently stand dead last in shots taken, and only 35% of those have ended up testing the keeper. Only Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake have been less accurate with placing their chances, and both of those clubs have played two fewer games than Philadelphia.
Ruiz’ game winner against Chicago was a half-volley from 25 yards, a prayer answered on that May evening. The first goal in that match was Michael Farfan’s 19 yard blast off a set piece for his first MLS goal. Then in the Toronto match, Justin Mapp scored the 2nd goal on a shot from 23 yards out. And it wasn’t so much the pace but the placement in the bottom right corner.
The rest of the goals against Toronto weren’t shots from distance, but the one thing you noticed (beside’s Mwanga’s tap-in) was that each taker seemed to take something off the shot and instead put a premium on accuracy. In that match, 9 of their 15 shots were goalbound. Now that kind of accuracy isn’t easy to reproduce, but the fact remains that the Union can do a better job of placing their shots.
I’m not so worried about the striking trio right now. They will find their scoring touch, as Mwanga did twice at BMO Field on Saturday. What the Union needs is an improvement in the placement of their shot attempts. If they can get their proficiency back to 2010 levels, this may be the start of something special in the Delaware Valley.
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