State of the Union

By Michael Alan Goldberg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Mar. 20, 2012

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Well, it hasn’t been the start Philadelphia Union fans were hoping for, but perhaps the one they feared from the boys in blue as the Chester-based team heads into the 2012 fray after an offseason of upheaval and uncertainty.

A tightly contested first half during the March 12 season opener in dismal, rainy Portland, Ore., turned into a laugher as the Timbers disemboweled the Union’s shaky defense en route to an easy 3-1 victory. And again on Sunday, during their home opener against the Colorado Rapids at a raucous, sold-out PPL Park, the Union seemed well in control of the match until two gut-punching second-half Rapids goals—one of them softer than a baby’s bottom—doomed the Union to a dreadful 2-1 defeat.

So what gives? Can the Union bounce back from these early stumbles and make a serious run at the MLS Cup, or will 2012 be a step back from last year’s third-place conference finish and semifinals appearance?

The most glaring difference between this year’s squad and last year’s is the absence of 28-year-old Frenchman (and fan favorite) Sebastien Le Toux, face of the franchise and the Union’s leading scorer in the team’s first two seasons, who was traded to the Vancouver Whitecaps in January. Union head coach Piotr Nowak is hoping to replace that offense via recently inked Colombian striker Lionard Pajoy and the continuing development of promising forward Danny Mwanga and midfielder Roger Torres.

And, of course, there’s the Freddy Adu factor: Hyped as the Tiger Woods of American soccer when he signed with D.C. United in 2004 at age 14, Adu is a grizzled soccer veteran at 22. But nagged by an ankle injury upon his splashy signing with the Union near the end of last season, the mercurial midfielder didn’t show much. And now that he’s been selected to the U.S. Olympic squad, he’s going to miss significant time with the Union this season. How much he can be relied upon to make a real difference is a huge question.

Another crucial roster shakeup: the departure of steady goalkeeper and team captain Faryd Mondragon, and the ascendance of hugely talented but still greenhorn Zac MacMath to starting keeper. He’ll have to be consistently brilliant, and get more help from a thus-far-feeble defense led by Brian Carroll, Danny Califf and Sheanon Williams, for the Union to move themselves into playoff contention.

All in all, the 2012 Union resembles the 2012 Sixers: an exciting youth movement with plenty of potential and solid coaching, but seemingly lacking the bona fide finisher to realistically compete with the elite squads in MLS. Still, with more than 30 matches to go, one of those young talents could emerge as a true goal-scoring force, so there’s no reason to lose hope just yet.

As the Sons of Ben, the Union’s manically devoted supporters group, sings loudly at PPL Park (to the tune of Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend”): “Oh Philly you, you got what I neeeeeeeeed/And we’ll love ya till the end/And we’ll defend the River End.”

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1. Jason said... on Mar 21, 2012 at 09:13AM

“I beg to differ. It's obvious that the biggest glaring change is MacMath in for Mondragon. He's cost the Union 3-4 goals already out of 5 scored. LeToux maybe would have scored one possibly two. Pajoy already one one, with his head, off a cross, from a restart. Im not mad about that one bit! We should have 4 points right now heading to Chicago if Zac kept his head in the game.”

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2. Javi said... on Mar 21, 2012 at 12:17PM

“@Jason
MacMath has cost the team two goals this year. The rest have been poor defending (Lopez & Califf against Portland, Albright against Colorado) and a crazy bit of luck from Alhassan.

I agree that Le Toux's absence is not the biggest problem, but maybe it points to the real issue. Coach Nowak has made strange tactical decisions, and his poor communication with players is becoming increasingly apparent. The Danny Califf snafu last weekend was disheartening to say the least.”

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