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Do We Know Who This Union Team Is?

I’ve not been writing as frequently as I had been during last season.  The reason is that for the first month of the season, we don’t necessarily know what this season’s edition of the Union is.  Last season’s group was creative, if not flawed, in attack, and unstable and fatally flawed in defense.  Dan K. and I started this blog part-way through the season, so when we started writing, we already had an idea of what that team was and was not.  I’m wondering if now, 5 games into the season, is that enough of a sample to form my idea of the identity of the 2011 Philadelphia Union?

I’ll operate on the assumption that it is a large enough sample, first.  The side has gone from offensively creative, but impatient and jittery, to altogether sluggish and disjointed.  The key to goal scoring has been opportunism, rather than through the merits of their talent.  Introducing new personnel into the starting eleven has caused more headscratching than a bad case of dandruff, yet the new editions have been pivotal to the team’s success to date.  In that category, either Carlos Valdes or Faryd Mondragon would be 2011 MVP.  Brian Carroll’s contributions are less noticeable than Carlos Ruiz’ goal-scoring (though we’d like to see way more of it from him) and Valdes’ play-breaking tackles and clearances.  Largely, we have seen Union as a side that is difficult to score on.  No team has tallied more than once against them in League play.  Defense being the key to a championship, as the popular credo goes, Union have certainly done well to put themselves in that position.

This year’s team seems content to generate their offensive salvos only after thwarting those of their opposition.  Their back line and defensive midfield, in tandem, do great work to frustrate opponents.  Their sure tackling and cohesive organization allow for smooth transitions into the attack.  Except for one small problem:  This team appears to not have the foggiest friggin’ clue of how to organize a decent attack! (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)  They don’t possess terribly well, and the midfielders don’t seem to link up with their strikers particularly well, either.  It looks as if those groups practice separately and catch up with each other on match days.  And, to further exacerbate the problems, the strikers don’t seem to have any idea what Ruiz is going to do, so they look out-of-sorts, as well.  The game plan seems to be to take time assessing what their opponent is bringing that day, then make sure they keep the game scoreless until Coach Nowak can tactically substitute in more attacking players to steal the game with just a single goal.  That may be the best rationalization I’ve come up with for why Danny Mwanga rides the substitute’s bench.

However, the converse is that maybe this is still an evolving team.  Every team evolves from the beginning of a season to its end.  A team is who they are, fundamentally, from the beginning, and the season serves as time to be the best version of themselves through season’s end.  This unexpected off-week in the schedule may have served as a blessing in disguise for this team.  The offensive struggles, which have been noted, could be worked out in this time.  It’s conceivable that Nowak has had his team reviewing game films and is getting everyone on the same page.  Maybe, after further review, Ruiz will learn how he can spring Sebastien Le Toux, and how he can get himself open for Le Toux’s low crosses (just no more free kicks from him.  Please!)  Maybe Nowak will realize he screwed up and he’ll just start Mwanga with Le Toux again (but probably not).

This was an expansion side last season whose team was begun from scratch.  This season’s team has had quite a bit of turnover on top of that.  It could be that this team needs a few more matches to truly find its identity.  2010’s early performances were eratic.  They got shut out in their first match, but came back to score three the next week.  It took the better part of two months before we had a solid grasp on what that team was.  Maybe the 2011 version deserves that same patience.

Nick Y., the other .5 of Unholy Union

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