Friday, March 09, 2012

Union bank on youth

By John McMullen
jmcmullen@phanaticmag.com

Chester, PA (The Phanatic Magazine) - An impressive sophomore season in MLS that saw the Philadelphia Union finish third in the Eastern Conference and capture their first postseason berth has morphed into an uncertain future.

Despite the 2011success, Peter Nowak decided to overhaul things a bit by waiving goodbye to the franchise's only two All-Stars, popular French striker Sebastien Le Toux and veteran goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon.

The decision to trade Le Toux to Vancouver Whitecaps FC in exchange for allocation money was a a tough one for the Union faithful to get behind. After all, Le Toux garnered MVP consideration during his two years in Philadelphia, delivering 25 goals and 20 assists, and showing his ability to
create for his teammates as well as finish with the best in MLS.

In fact, Le Toux had a hand in 56.3 percent of the Union's markers over two seasons, 45 of 80.

Nowak, however, has received criticism in the past for letter younger talents languish without playing time. Perhaps,  letting Le Toux walk for allocation money helps the team's bottom line as well as forcing the stubborn mentor's hand.

"We were able to have Carlos Valdes back and give a new contract to Roger Torres, and we believe that it was important to make this move for the long term," Nowak said of trading Le Toux.

With complementary veteran pieces like Justin Mapp, Veljko Paunovic, and Stefani Miglioranzi also out the door, Nowak will have to rely on young talents like Torres and Danny Mwanga as well as Freddy Adu.

Mwanga, still only 20 years old, is entering his third season in MLS and has contributed 12 goals and eight assists in his 30 appearances with the club.

Adu, a longtime star in the league who made his MLS debut at age 14, has shown bright spots during his career but will be looking to put together more consistency over a full season.

The 30-year-old Lionard Pajoy is the one veteran added to the mix up front. Pajoy had significant scoring success for Itagui last season, scoring 10 goals in 18 games, tops in Liga Postobon.

"After meeting him, we're very pleased, and it just confirmed our suspicion that he's a guy that can come in and not only score goals, but be a good impact on the team," Diego Gutierrez, the Union's Head of Scouting, told PhiladelphiaUnion.com.

Jack McInerney, rookie Chandler Hoffman and Costa Rican international Josue Martinez will also be in the mix up front.

As a big a loss as Le Toux is, Mondragon's exit may be even tougher to overcome. After suffering through Chris Seitz's poor play in their inaugural season, the Union inked Mondragon and he immediately provided stability and a veteran presence at the game's most important position. He returned to Colombia to join his former club, Deportivo Cali.

Zac MacMath, the team's No. 1 pick in the 2011 SuperDraft, was adequate when Mondragon went down with a broken finger last season but certainly doesn't have the presence or the ability to direct traffic like the Columbian. Meanwhile, the depth behind the University of Maryland product is virtually non-existent.

Trying to make things easier for MacMath will be veteran Danny Califf as well as the emerging Sheanon Williams. Carlos Valdes and Porfirio Lopez also figure to start in Nowak's preferred 4-4-2 operation.

Williams is the key in helping the offense from the back end, often pinching up with his speed to create havoc. Califf, on the other hand, lacks speed and gets by and guile and smarts these days.

NEWCOMERS: Chris Albright (D), Gabriel Gomez (M), Nizar Khalfan (M), Josue Martinez (F), Jimmy McLaughlin (M), Porfirio Lopez (D), Lionard Pajoy (F).

LOSSES: Levi Houapeu (F), Sebastien Le Toux (F), Justin Mapp (M), Stefani Miglioranzi (M), Faryd Mondragon (GK), Kyle Nakazawa (M), Veljko Paunovic (F).

Projected starting XI: 4-4-2 - MacMath (GK), Porfirio Lopez (LB), Califf (LCB), Carlos Valdes (RCB), Williams (RB); Adu (LM/LCAM), Gabriel Gomez (LCM/LCDM), Brian Carroll (RCM/RCDM), Michael Farfan (RM/RCAM); Pajoy (LS), Mwanga (RS)

OUTLOOK: Philadelphia appears ready to take a significant step backwards. Le Toux was well over 50 percent of the team's offense during his two seasons on the Delaware Riverfront while Mondragon was the heady veteran who calmed everyone down and replacing those two isn't going to be easy.

Mwanga has the straight-line speed to be a dominant scorer in this league while the diminutive Torres has shown flashes in limited minutes. Adu, however, is the real wild card. He certainly has the skill but that needs to meet production and quickly if Philadelphia plans on another trip to the
playoffs. MacMath, meanwhile, is more athletic than Mondragon but doesn't offer his size or presence.
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