Game-changers will make immediate impact for Union

Sebastien Le Toux (right), an All-Star who scored 14 goals last season, will have more help this year.
Sebastien Le Toux (right), an All-Star who scored 14 goals last season, will have more help this year.
Posted: March 18, 2011

IN MANY WAYS, last season was the ultimate litmus test.

The Union. A team built from scratch with high expectations of what it wanted to become but still trying to figure out what it really is.

So the pieces believed to make an inaugural run at a Major League Soccer championship were put in place. It's not as if it hadn't been done before. Seattle nearly did it in 2009, and Chicago, led by current Union boss Peter Nowak, won the title as an expansion team in 1998.

With Nowak at the helm at Philadelphia, aspirations were raised even higher that soccer's rebirth in the City of Brotherly Love would be a success.

But while the Union developed a fan base even before anyone truly knew of its existence, that ardent support - translating into the fourth-highest attendance in MLS - meant little out on the field. Although its devout fan base would never admit it, "the U" was considered mediocre at best to a city that, despite a rich soccer past, was withholding judgment on whether its latest franchise, and for the truly stubborn, the sport of soccer itself, would survive.

Off the pitch, the Union was out to prove it would, establishing itself as a brand in the community through partnerships, sponsorships and the construction of PPL Park, its 18,500-seat palace on Chester's waterfront. Its security blanket arrived earlier this year when the team announced a 4-year, $12 million partnership with Bimbo, a Mexican bakery, as a primary sponsor. The capital generated from that merger allowed payroll flexibility, which totaled only about $2 million last season.

But on the pitch, the Union had a tough time defending soccer's return to the region. Sure, you can factor in a nomadic road stretch to start the season and early opponents ranking among the best in MLS, but ultimately the pieces in place didn't make things any easier as the team finished 8-15-7 (31 points) in MLS play.

"As I said last year, instead of winning the games, we tied the games," Nowak said. "Instead of tying the games, we lost the games. Now this kind of stuff needs to change.

"Of course, all the games [on the road] we need to improve dramatically. On the road, we got just seven points last year. We need to change that."

Lesson learned for the Union in Season 1.

Season 2 officially begins tomorrow night in Houston (8:30, 6ABC), but the work began long ago. Since the end of last season, the Union has added 11 players and gotten rid of 12.

On paper, this 2011 Union squad has game-changers at just about every position. At goalkeeper, the arrival of Faryd Mondragon, a 39-year-old World Cup veteran for Colombia who has competed for numerous clubs throughout Europe, brings a wealth of experience the Union didn't have last season in Chris Seitz, Brad Knighton and rookie Brian Perk. Defensively, the addition of countryman Carlos Valdes helps captain Danny Califf bolster the middle of the defensive third. Midfield newcomer Brian Carroll brings 8 years of MLS experience and two MLS Cups and is the best choice as a defensive-minded (holding) midfielder.

But the icing is the return of Carlos Ruiz to MLS, a deal fueled by Nowak to revive a player who terrorized defenses for 7 years during stints in Los Angeles and Dallas. Ruiz, who has 82 MLS regular-season goals and an MLS-record 16 postseason goals, speaks like a man who learned some lessons during a 3-year hiatus from the league. He is ready to be a mentor to youngsters Danny Mwanga and Jack MacInerney. He also is eager to take some of the pressure off Sebastien Le Toux, who remained the lone constant through last season's growing pains. Le Toux, an MLS All-Star midfielder-forward, scored 14 goals and added 11 assists and has looked in peak form early in the preseason.

All these upgrades come at a perfect time as one could readily see in the MLS season opener in Seattle on Tuesday night, when the Galaxy defeated the Sounders, 1-0. The mantra for this season seems to be that bigger and bolder is better.

"We are a different club than the one that started last season," Le Toux said. "We improved tremendously and the new faces that have joined us have come in and made an immediate impact. This city showed us a lot of support last season, and we owe our fans. We have a good team in place from what I have seen since preseason [in Orlando and in Greece]. We are much better . . . much more focused."

Make no mistake, this is a group that, though small in numbers (the Union has a 22-man roster; MLS allows for a maximum of 30), holds an immense wealth of improved talent. Yesterday, Amobi Okugo and Zac MacMath were called up to the Under-20 national team ahead of preparations for the CONCACAF Championship in Guatemala at the end of this month. The primary transfer window closes April 15, allowing the Union some time to add depth. And with the return of MLS' reserve league, that depth will continue to feed a first team whose collective mind-set is that anything less than a serious run at the playoffs this season is a failure.

"We know what we can do week in and week out and we have the pieces now to do it," Nowak said. "Now it's a matter of being consistent, of being mentally fresh . . . we need to go in with the same concept every week to win the games; if you win once, second, third, the whole thing will just follow and you are on your way, nobody can stop you. Timing is everything."

The opener is a day away. A perfect time for the Union to convey its lessons learned in what was a trial by fire.

Read Kerith Gabriel's column, Union Meeting, beginning next week. For breaking Union news, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/sprtswtr.

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