As you are surley well aware, we've a double dip of football action tonight in the Heartland. The United States National Team takes on Panama in the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals at 6 pm CT, and Sporting Kansas City kickoff half an hour later away to Philadelphia Union. While the fan in me may be more excited for the former, it's the latter that we cover here at The Daily Wiz. With that, we've got the best insight into the second year Union that you're likely to find anywhere in the blogosphere ahead of tonight's matchup.
SB Nation's Union blog, The Brotherly Game, is one of the better MLS-specific blogs I've yet to find across the Internet. It is run by a Philly living, Man United supporting, all the time chatty fella named Scott Kessler, who I turned to for the answer to a few pressing questions about the Union. As always, check out their blog for coverage of the game, and give Scott a follow on Twitter @brotherlygame.
My answers to Scott's questions can be found, right here. On to the interrogation...
TDW: Here in KC, we've seen the infamous "Sophomore Slump" from second year forward Teal Bunbury. As an outsider looking at the Union, it seems like Danny Mawanga is going through the same thing, in the sense he's not playing a ton, just like Bunbury? Is that really the case?
The addition of Carlos Ruiz in the offseason relegated Mwanga to the bench. Much like Bunbury, who has gained international play with the USMNT despite not starting for Sporting Kansas City, Mwanga has seen his playing time diminished this year even though his rookie season was sensational. Mwanga's 7 goals last year, good enough for second on the Philadelphia Union in 2010 in terms of scoring, apparently weren't enough for head coach Piotr Nowak to trust in the former University of Oregon stand out.
Mwanga has provided some important goals for the Union this year, along with some of the team's best runs in open play. Yet he still found himself sitting behind Veljko Paunovic on Saturday, a 33-year-old Serbian striker/central attacking midfielder that hadn't played in a professional match 2.5 years.
It's frustrating because Mwanga has the size and speed to not only dominate in MLS, but also translate into Europe or the international soccer scene. At some point Mwanga is going to get a full starting role and the Union will benefit wholly from it because it's the best move for the team, from a youth development point of view and a squad strength point of view.
TDW: Conceding many goals is just something the Union do not do. Please just tell us all why they have been so incredibly stout in defense this year.
The additions of Carlos Valdes and Faryd Mondragon have created a back five that refuses to allow an opponent the ability to get off good shots. Both of the Colombian internationals have brought needed stability to important positions on the defensive side of the ball.
Mondragon is a breath of fresh air in goal. He's vocal, which is something that the Union desperately needed last year. Both Chris Seitz and Brad Knighton, his back up who took the starting role near the end of the season, lacked the ability to properly organize the defenders in front of them and that did not help a back four that constantly evolved in the 2010 season. He's not the most nimble goalkeeper, nor the quickest, on the pitch at any time but he is a rock in the back. His 0.86 goals against average isn't completely on the defense, he has made some saves of his own.
Valdes will be on the Best XI list for MLS at the end of the year, mark my words. The 25-year-old has done three things that have empowered the Union defense to become one of the best in the league. (1) He's helped take a ton of pressure off of Danny Califf, giving Califf the look of a 20-something defender instead of a man heading toward his mid-thirties (he's 31-years-old). (2) The combination of Califf and Valdes in the middle seems to have forced play out wide in a lot of cases. It's not often that someone watching the Union witnesses either get beat up the middle. (3) His connection with Mondragon is vital to the Union's improvements on defense. Mondragon can be seen dealing out information to Valdes, who then absorbs it without complaint. It's something that is necessary to build up chemistry among the back five. He also helps, along with Mondragon, veteran leadership for the young Colombian attacking midfielder Roger Torres.
TDW: How does a team drop points to the Vancouver Whitecaps? Oh wait, Sporting KC did that earlier this season, too, only in a far more embarrassing fashion. The real question: how has Philly, in only their second year, so quickly become a contending team in MLS? Good fortune? Savvy signings? Enlighten us.
Sometimes making a ton of deals and moves will work.
Adding Brian Carroll has helped the defense improve and aided in some increased distribution in the midfield. He's not always "seen" on the field because he's playing in an often unheralded role, but he's done very well so far into his first year with the Union. The deal was a steal for the Union, who only gave up a second rounder for Caroll.
Drafting Michael Farfan in the second round of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft in itself has turned out to be a fantastic move. Now add onto that the fact that having Michael on the team probably was the catalyst for signing his twin brother Gabriel Farfan. The two have combined to provide the Union with excellent wide position players, be it defensively or in their more natural midfield roles. Both have the flair and speed that the Union have missed this year, and last.
The aforementioned Mondragon and Valdes have played sensationally.
Not much to hate when discussing those five players, at all.