Goal.com MLS Guidebook: The 2011 Philadelphia Union

Last year’s expansion squad enter the new year looking for their first playoff berth.

What went right?

In 2010, their debut year, the Union played with aggressiveness and spirit, even when talent-wise they were at times outclassed. Forward Sebastien Le Toux broke out as a bona fide star, leading the team with 14 goals to become a league MVP candidate.

The Union’s first draft pick, Danny Mwanga, started slow, but came on in the middle of the season, making a charge for Rookie of the Year honors.

What went wrong?

At defense and keeper, Philadelphia were as leaky as one of the city’s notorious water main breaks. The club were tied for second-worst in goals allowed with a startling 49 balls hitting the back of their own net. Keeper Chris Seitz added the prefix “much-maligned” to his name with a 1.80 goals against average, worst in the league among netminders who logged at least 1000 minutes.

Biggest surprise?

Le Toux by a landslide. If anyone told me before the season started that a Frenchman in pink boots would become the most popular soccer player in Philadelphia, I could have been pushed over with a croissant. The stats show how good of a goal-scorer he was; but fans had to watch him play to see his remarkable work-rate, his deceptive toughness, and his penchant for never giving up on a play. Seattle fans knew Seba was good, but no one knew how good.

Biggest disappointment?

It’s hard to find too much wrong with the 2010 Philly season, defense aside. The club debuted in front of 35,000+ fans in Seattle, opened a new soccer-specific stadium, sold out season tickets, and played an active, up-tempo brand of football. Missing the playoffs was disappointing, but somewhat expected for an expansion side. Perhaps the only reasonable item on fans’ wishlists not delivered was a big-name designated player.

Biggest need?

Team manager Peter Nowak opted to upgrade the keeper position by signing 39 year-old Faryd Mondragón, a veteran of Galatasaray, FC Köln, and the Colombian national team. But the other half of the defense—the back line—remains a concern. Gone are Michael Orozco Fiscal and Cristian Arrieta. Disappointing 2010 draft pick Toni Stahl has been sent packing as well.

Former America de Cali and Club Santa Fe man Carlos Valdés has been added, but the feeling among fans and league observers is that Danny Califf, Jordan Harvey, and Sheanon Williams could use more help to bring that sky-high goals allowed number down.

Union will do better in 2011 if...

If the strike force of Le Toux and Mwanga continue to gel and improve—and there’s no reason to think it won’t—the upgrade at keeper should mean more goals in the opponents’ nets and less in their own.

Union will do worse in 2011 if...

Philadelphia may have a problem with cohesion this season. In 2010, the club cycled through what seemed like 437 midfielders (numbers approximate). I’m pretty sure I came on a sub at one point. Seven out of the 10 original Union members from the expansion draft are gone, including fan favorite Shea Salinas and Andrew Jacobson. Fred and Eduardo Coudet—the former a stalwart in the middle last season--were likewise sent off. For the Union midfield, it will be just like starting over.

Players to watch in 2011?

Almost everyone on the club has something to prove this year. Was Le Toux a one-year wonder, or is he a legitimate front-line MLS star? Mwanga will have to continue to improve to keep pace with the expectations of being a first-overall pick. How much does Mondragón have left in the tank? Was Justin Mapp’s Union resurgence for real? Young and old, from the top of the roster to the bottom, everyone with new shirt sponsor “BIMBO” plastered on their chests will be worth keeping an eye on in 2011.

Goal.com contributor Ramin Majd has covered the Union since their inception. You can follow him on twitter @raminmajd.

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