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2011 Season Eulogy

It’s been just over 2 weeks since Union’s 2011 season came to an end at Robertson Stadium in Houston, TX.  That doesn’t mean that I’m any less bitter about the confusing tactics by Peter Nowak that I believe are most responsible for Houston Dynamo advancing.  It’s also the reason that it’s taken so long for me to write my final post of the season.  Technically, it IS still the MLS season, as Houston plays LA Galaxy in the Home Depot Center for MLS (RBNY-Will-Never-Win-This) Cup.  So, before the season expires officially, I figure it was time that I come to grips with Union’s season.

It started with the nromal pre-season mix of question marks and anxiety, mixed with anticipation, that accompanies each sport’s season.  It’s a popular baseball saying that “hope springs eternal” as a play-on-words because their sport begins in the spring, as does soccer in the United States.  In similar fashion, it felt like hope was springing eternally for this Union side.  We saw their potential coming through the end of year 1, and felt like the additional time spent in training was going to make them a decidedly improved team.

But first place?  Not even I saw that coming.  Not that I’m the most kool-aid-drinking Union fan out there, but I felt really good about the team.  I just didn’t see them taking the league by storm out of the gate, winning in a Tim-Tebow-esque manner (not looking competent, but winning nonetheless).  They took advantage of teams making the same mistakes Union had the previous season.  It was extremely enjoyable being able to chant things like “We’re top of the table” to opposing fans on two levels.  1)  It’s a positive chant that doesn’t involve profanity so it’s great when you can be PG-rated and still make the oppositions’ fans angry, and 2) The utter shock they must have all felt that they were hearing it from fans of a 2nd year franchise that finished 3rd-to-last place in year 1.

They did come back down to earth, though.  Le Toux took forever to score the way we knew he could.  Nowak constantly confused us with his lineups.  The rest of the league got better as the season went on.  Sporting KC got to actually play home matches.  All of these things contributed to Union dropping in the standings, even to the point that they were outside of playoff position.  Those are the times that test the resolve of the fanbase.  No one knew how this mostly young team would respond to this period of adversity, what with the defense being exposed and the offense not rounding into the form we’d hoped for.  Then the captain broke a finger making a save.

The resurgence was nothing short of amazing.  I didn’t give Zac MacMath a lot of credit to start out with because of our checkered history with University of Maryland goalkeepers (yes, I mean Chris Seitz).  And then the first half of the New England match happened.  The only silver lining I could find for Zac was that he didn’t give up any more goals after he put them in a seemingly no-win situation.  Little did I know at the time that that second half would become a momentum-generating event in getting this team back into winning.  They scored 3 second-half goals, and kept New England out of the net all while playing a very stretched attacking style that left massive counter attacking opportunities all over.  The team grew in offensive confidence, and in confidence in their deputy ‘keeper.  The defense seemed to regain their early-season form as a response to not having Faryd Mondragon’s commanding voice behind them.  It was a period that righted the ship and steered it towards the postseason.

Zac Mac’s time in goal was short-lived in 2011, but the fire was lit.  The Union finished strongly enough to qualify for the #3 spot in the Eastern Conference.  That is a remarkable achievement for a 2nd-year franchise built on youth.  A lot of the players we’ve leaned on are not used to playing this many games in a season against full-grown men; veteran professionals.  They had a couple of chances to gain a better playoff position, but the draw in the home finale against Toronto FC and the loss to RBNY didn’t dampen the euphoria of making the playoffs.

They were matched with Houston Dynamo, a team that Union had not lost to in their brief history (2 wins, 2 draws).  So, it SEEMED like the ideal matchup to allow Union to play loose.  However, it lead to questionable starting lineups and two 1-goal losses in the 2-leg playoff round, which sent Union home for the season.  I may never understand why Nowak put two starting lineups out that he had not used at any point of the regular season.  I understand that you can’t use the same guys every single game, but the playoffs are not a time for a 4-4-2 team to put out a 5-3-2 and a 4-2-4.  I don’t even want to type any more about it because I want to remember the Union season as being a successful one.  They improved from 31 points in 2010, to 48 points in 2011.  Sebastien Le Toux proved that he wasn’t a 1-season wonder.  Danny Califf showed that he’s a great leader even without the Captain’s armband.  And, most importantly, this group has developed a hard-working, physically-defensive style that will hopefully keep them in the playoffs for years to come.

Nick Y., the other .5 of Unholy Union (@UnholyUnionNDY)

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