After major steps forward in 2011, the Union are currently going forward in reverse.Just over six months ago, the Philadelphia Union were a Major League Soccer playoff team.
They were coming off their second and best season in the league with a roster that had standout players up and down the pitch. Despite an unfortunate postseason ouster at the hands of eventual MLS Cup participants Houston Dynamo, you’d be lying if you said you weren’t excited about what year number three would bring.
This was a team on the rise. Backed by a rabid fanbase, adventurous owners and an experienced head coach, many predicted big things heading into the 2012 season.
Nine matches into the current campaign, the Union are a complete shambles. If it weren’t for Toronto FC’s complete ineptitude, Philadelphia would be dead last in the Eastern Conference, having taken seven points from a possible 24. The team has managed only seven goals and allowed nearly double that.
Don’t let those numbers fool you though, the club hasn’t been nearly that good. The style of play has been disjointed and uninspired. The rare time that it has played well this season, it somehow manages to shoot itself in the foot. No, we aren’t talking about its expansion year either.
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Case in point: a 3-2 loss to the New York Red Bulls in the team's most recent match.
For the first 15 minutes, Philadelphia looked like it was going to run all over the Red Bulls, a team coming into the contest was in second place in the East. A tweak in formation saw the oft-isolated Lionard Pajoy joined by a strike partner and worked wonders as the likes of Freddy Adu and Keon Daniel blitzed the visiting New York side with a combination of dazzling footwork and well-placed crosses.
This was to be the game in which manager Peter Nowak turned everything around. After two straight losses to San Jose and Seattle, respectively, a win over the club’s most bitter rival would be exactly the kick it needed as the season opened up, especially given the painful nature of the two prior defeats.
It was not to be however. Adu, who was playing his best game in recent memory (certainly his best with Philadelphia) was shown a second yellow card for simulation in the Red Bulls’ penalty area. And like the Union’s dismal record in the first quarter of the year, his dismissal was completely warranted.
From there, the club even took the lead in the match and still looked like the better of the two sides on the pitch. But where the offense picked up, the defense decided to slip and two late strikes by the Markus Holgersson and Kenny Cooper gave the Red Bulls three points and more heartache for the blue-clad droves in attendance at PPL Park.
As New York headed back up I-95 basking in the glow of an important inter-conference victory, Philadelphia is again left to try and pick up the pieces of an already broken season, one that is dangerously flirting with being irreparable.
Unlike last season, one that had its share of rough points, the club doesn’t have those familiar faces to come in and save the day. With Adu, easily the team’s most talented player, now suspended a match and constantly searching for some consistency in his form, who will step up?
| A UNION DIVIDED
| PHILADELPHIA THROUGH NINE GAMES (2011)
|PHILADELPHIA THROUGH NINE GAMES (2012)|
Last season’s biggest addition, goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, is back in Colombia playing with his hometown club, Deportivo Cali, after teasing the Union faithful with a year of dependency between the sticks. Nothing against Zac MacMath, of course, but the jury is still out about whether he was ready for the duty laid before him after Mondragon’s abrupt departure.
Even current captain Danny Califf, a veteran of both the league and the international scene, and one of Philadelphia’s five remaining original players (yes, only five are left from the inaugural season in 2010) is seemingly on his way out of the club amid rumors that offers have been made for his services. Can’t have a captain who has been subject to a number of mysterious injuries and supposed bust ups with the manager, can you?
These three names are arguably the most recognizable and certainly the most influential players in the team’s short history...and now all are gone. Cast aside is another way to put it.
Even without them, this isn’t a bad team. At least not as bad as its laughable early-season record would suggest.
As we all saw against New York, when lining up a certain way, Philadelphia can produce some lovely attacking soccer. Pajoy looked fantastic with someone next to him. Danny Mwanga, the first overall pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, didn’t have a great game but he was actually on the field and temporarily delayed the stamping of the “bust” tag by being among the starters for only the second time this year.
The midfield looked lively at times with Adu darting through it as he pleased. The more positive approach taken by Nowak seemed to be the way forward, in both the match and the season. In the end, he was undone by an untimely red card and mental errors at the back, two things the team seemingly worked through in 2011. Maybe playing Sheanon Williams, a natural wing back, at center back wasn’t the best idea. Who knows.
Just think, only six month ago you could attach words like “playoffs” and “promise” and “excitement” to this team.
After the trading of the franchise's star player, over a dozen new players and a miserably slow start, what does it have now?
25 games left in a season that may be over before it hits the midpoint. An obvious lack of leadership, organization and understanding. A terribly frustrated set of fans that expected and deserved so much more than what they have all seen in the season’s first two months. Freddy’s tweets. Quite the amalgamation of inferiority.
Considering what once was and what is now, one can only imagine where the Philadelphia Union will be six months from now...
Shane Evans is an editor for Goal.com USA. His feature, "The Full English" appears every Friday morning. Contact Shane at email@example.com with questions, comments and concerns, follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/shanEvans
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