CHESTER, Pa. – The most important development in the Philadelphia Union's inaugural season lies under the shadow of the Commodore Barry Bridge.
PPL Park represents more than a glimmer of hope to a decrepit city. It offers a glimpse into the future of the club.
The River End creating a cauldron of sound. Supporters wearing their navy-and-gold and echoing those chants to send them ringing around the stadium. Eleven players pulling their weight on the field in an effort to send the fans home happy.
Game day in Chester shows the Union has quickly assembled all of infrastructure required to succeed with its ample fan base, its bumper TV deal and its gleaming new stadium. In the midst of its inaugural season, Philadelphia has performed well enough off the field to suggest that it will soon add its name to the list of successful expansion franchises if it has not already.
Success, however, has proven considerably more elusive on the field. The Union has meandered its way through its inaugural season by coping with frustration in ample doses and displaying quality in fits and starts.
When Philadelphia keeps the ball on the field and starts to play, it often provides entertaining fare for the neutral with fluid attacking movements. Sebastien Le Toux drives the proceedings from any number of spots in the attacking third and his timely interjections – the former Seattle midfielder has contributed to 15 of the Union's 19 goals on the campaign with his eight goals and seven assists – and Danny Mwanga's late heroics (five goals) have kept an otherwise impotent group afloat.
“I think we have a lot of good players who can score,” Le Toux said after his masterful curling effort notched the Union's only goal in a 1-1 draw against New England on Saturday afternoon. “I'm sure we can score more goals [because] we have a lot of players who can do it.”
Filling the gaping hole in front of Stefani Miglioranzi in central midfield should aid the Union in possession and help players like Fred and Alejandro Moreno thrive in the attacking third. Eduardo Coudet looks like the next choice to act as the conduit in the center of the park after his recent arrival from Atletico Colon (Argentina). On his debut this weekend, the 35-year-old showed the steady hand Philadelphia manager Peter Nowak craved as he rotated through a series of younger options earlier this season.
“He was distributing from the back and being active in trying to find the guys in front of him,” Nowak said. “It was very good and very positive. I think we can take a lot from this game, especially from his game [on Saturday].”
Coudet will have to play an influential role in support of a Union back line that has yet to record a shutout this season. Indecision and intemperance have caused most of the problems, particularly with goalkeeper Chris Seitz feeling his way through his first extended run as a starter in MLS and giving away soft goals with regularity.
The balance found in the attacking third – lots of interchangeable parts with Moreno acting as the target player – is absent at the back. Two of the Union's three best defenders are left backs, while Danny Califf has no natural partner in central defense. Expansion teams often cope with a grab bag of defensive parts, but the lack of options has undermined the defensive cohesiveness and has contributed to a lack of stability that will likely keep the Union out of the playoffs.
Selecting the right players to take forward into the future represents the key task as Philadelphia continues with its inaugural season. Locating a central defensive partner for Califf, replacing Moreno with a more prolific option up top and signing another central midfielder look like the biggest offseason priorities. If Seitz can't smooth out the rough edges of his game quickly, the Union may belatedly turn to Brad Knighton or add goalkeeper to its list of needs.
Despite the holes and despite the inevitable struggles, the Union can highlight plenty of positives from its inaugural season. Le Toux has emerged as a real star and Mwanga could soon join him in that category. The youth movement will continue as the Union develops its core and maintains its focus on building through the SuperDraft.
Those fundamental underpinnings pale in importance to the strides made by the club itself. With the culture, the infrastructure and the stadium now in place, Philadelphia has laid the foundation for its future success.
Not bad for a club halfway through its first season.
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