The status quo can only persevere for so long in Philadelphia if the Union want to consolidate its spot near the top of MLS.
This statement presents a rather unusual assertion given the recent success in Chester. The Union aren't exactly in crisis mode these days. Quite the contrary, in fact. No team churns out effective results quite like Peter Nowak's side does.
Case in point: Danny Mwanga – in concert with a moment of madness from Sean Franklin – stole a result Philadelphia scarcely deserved in last night's 1-1 draw with Los Angeles and sent the Union within a point of New York in the race for top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Battling for a lofty perch probably outstrips the Union's expectations heading into the season, but the standard operating practice required to achieve the current standard of success may not dovetail with the rising hopes harbored around PPL Park these days.
Philly has moved up the ladder primarily through its miserly work at the back. Only New York (three in eight matches) and Real Salt Lake (two in six matches) have conceded fewer goals than the Union's four in eight matches. The additions of Colombian imports Faryd Mondragon and Carlos Valdes and oft-underrated holding midfielder Brian Carroll shored up a rearguard that leaked 49 goals last campaign.
By combining a measured approach with personnel capable of implementing it match-after-match, the Union have posted four shutout victories by a 1-0 scoreline and posted two 1-1 draws. It isn't the beautiful game, but it sure does get the job done.
Those facts and results, by themselves, are not troublesome. Nowak has established the defensive foundation required to compete for a playoff berth and mount a decent playoff run. More than a few MLS teams would willingly change places in the table with Philadelphia at this point.
But there are concerns still to tackle if the Union want to cement a place in the upper echelon of the league and push for honors. Most of them arise in the final third.
For all of their strength at the back, the Union have looked less than stellar going forward. Philadelphia struggled a bit offensively last season (35 goals) and relied far too much on Sebastien Le Toux to produce the final touch, but there is enough talent involved to dictate play from time to time and produce more than the meager haul of six goals in eight matches generated during this campaign.
The emphasis on shoring up the defense and the modest endeavor generally shown has naturally detracted from the attacking punch. Livewire wingers Danny Mwanga and Roger Torres have started just five matches combined as Nowak has chopped and changed in the wide areas to find the proper balance in all departments with Sebastien Le Toux roving and Carlos Ruiz leading the line. The uncertainty has come complete with side effects: neither forward has produced anything like his best form so far this season given the constant rotation in the wide areas.
While those considerations (and, perhaps, the need for a more mobile striker than Ruiz to facilitate play centrally) have played their part in the stumbles and Nowak must settle on a pair of wingers, the Union perhaps most critically lack an orchestrator to bring everything together. Within the current 4-4-2 approach, there is little room for a designated playmaking presence in central midfield.
There is, however, room for a deep-lying distributor to further encourage and unify the Union's dynamic movement through midfield and into the attacking third. Adding such a player into the mix from outside the current squad could create a supply line to Le Toux and Ruiz through the middle and relieve some of the pressure in the wide areas. In short, it may just provide the boost the Union attack so desperately needs by diversifying the available routes to goal.
The recent string of results may not dictate such a drastic move to shake up this young team immediately, but it is one Nowak and the Union should contemplate this summer with an eye toward greater objectives. As Los Angeles showed again last night, the Union aren't quite on par with the top sides just yet. Stunning moments of kindness in home matches against sides like the Galaxy and New York may present the illusion of parity at the final whistle, but the Union must continue to improve to achieve it through more ordinary means.
FC Dallas continues to search for its post-Ferreira identity: Give FCD credit: it somehow managed to wring three points out of last night's 1-0 victory over Toronto FC.
It took a hotly disputed penalty award – the cries from a game TFC outfit rang a bit hollow when replays showed that Adrian Cann tugged George John to the ground by his neck – to settle a rather bland affair, but FCD has now suddenly cobbled together a four-match unbeaten run.
FCD coach Schellas Hyndman rather wisely did not let the recent string of success distract from the fact that his side – apart from Brek Shea and the defensive core – really hasn't played all that well since David Ferreira fractured his ankle last month.
Hyndman closed most of practice on Tuesday and shifted his side to a 4-4-2 formation during the first half against TFC. FCD settled down a bit after making the move and asked a few questions of a resolute TFC side, but it remains difficult to see how FCD will generate chances if other teams can cut off supply to the wide areas and stop the match from turning into a sprint.
It will take some time for FCD to develop attacking alternatives. Fortunately for Hyndman, his side has managed to pick up points as it continues to work through the hiccups of adjusting to life without the reigning MLS MVP.
Another dose of Empire magic hampers San Jose's progress: San Jose fell prey to yet another late home surge by Vancouver as the Whitecaps escaped with a 1-1 draw last night.
Earthquakes boss Frank Yallop will wonder how his side managed to come away with only one point. San Jose dominated from the run of play against an off-the-pace Vancouver side lacking much in the way of inspiration. Chris Wondolowski staked the visitors to a lead six minutes before halftime with a neat flick to consolidate that advantage and the Whitecaps struggled to ask too many questions before the final stages of the contest.
Despite the encouraging contributions from Sam Cronin, Ryan Johnson (who had a particularly effective shift on the left) and Wondolowski, the second goal never came. Vancouver schemer Davide Chiumiento – by far, the most effective player for the Whitecaps on the night with his active display – salvaged a fourth home draw in five attempts after his cross from the right somehow eluded everyone inside the Earthquakes' penalty area and nestled into the back of the net.
While Yallop will take heart in a considerably improved performance after the poor showings offered in recent weeks, he must wonder what more his side needs to do to collect a second victory on the campaign.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.