As I stood there at Kildare's in Manayunk and watched the minutes tick off the Philadelphia Union's 2011 Season, I was struck by a few things. The first being that we deserved to lose this series. Now, don't mistake me I am as huge a fan as you will find of all things Philadelphia and Union related. But we honestly weren't going to come back from losing at the fortress of PPL, 2-1 to the Houston Dynamo.
But you know what? I can stand that. In all honesty if you look at the season objectively, the team can be justly proud of what they accomplished. In merely our second season we placed third in our conference and made it into the playoffs for the first time ever. A relatively inexperienced team showed during the regular season that it wasn't going to be the pushover that it was last season. The team as a whole had no playoff experience so it's not entirely surprising that we were bounced by the more experienced Houston team.
The playoffs should have been a learning experience for the Union. Going into the series, people proclaimed, "We haven't lost to Houston yet!"
To me it smacked of the bravado that many Philly fans had before the 2005 NFC Championship game between the Eagles and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I remember distinctly people saying, "Tampa Bay hasn't won a playoff game below 40 degrees!"
If you remember, Tampa Bay shellacked the Birds 27-10 in the final Eagles game at the Vet.
You can never lean on history either good or bad to help you get the win. You must prepare for the here and now of the situation which the Union didn't. We relied on history, Houston had never beaten us either at home or away. Well now they have. Twice. Both times when it mattered most.
I was immensely frustrated by the first game. This was the first playoff game ever at PPL Park, where the team had lost exactly ONCE during the season, you were guaranteed a sellout crowd, the Sons of Ben would be rocking and we needed a win to take to Houston and we could grind out a draw there.
That of course didn't happen.
Drawing the ire of nearly every single Union fan that has watched the team play during the season, Peter Nowak started Stefani Miglioranzi and even more criminally, he had the equivalent of a 5-3-2 formation on the field. Now look you might be a fan of the 5-3-2, it can be a good formation, if your team has used it. I can't truly recall a time during the season when the team did start five defenders during any match of the season. So for the first playoff game ever, the team basically came out with a formation so conservative with it's mindset, I'm convinced that if it ran for office it might get the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination.
Walking out from PPL after our 2-1 loss, all I could think was, "What the hell happened?" We had everything to play for but just didn't.
Though we needed just a goal to force extra time in Houston, as soon as Ching headed that goal in the dying moments of the first half I knew our season was over.
But honestly? I'm proud of our boys. They played with a huge amount of talent and skill, we lost our leading scorer midway through the season and still were able to recover to make the playoffs. Sebastien Le Toux recovered from his first half slump to show the touch, speed and scoring ability that made him so dangerous last year. Both Farfans showed that they can be dangerous players with a little more time and training. Sheanon Williams made a case that he deserves a US national team call up (at least over Tim Ream) and Zac MacMath showed the Union faithful that when Faryd Mondragon hangs up the gloves, we're in good hands.
The Expansion Draft
However we first have to look at the upcoming expansion draft on November 23rd. The Montreal Impact will select 10 players and we have to assume that more than likely, at least one will come from the Union, we have too much young talent that we can't protect and Montreal certainly won't overlook.
My Protected 11
Sebastien Le Toux
Now some players are exempt from the draft due to Homegrown status or Generation Adidas contracts. Some of you might have read my list and said, "Wait a minute, Danny Mwanga has a Generation Adidas contract!" True, he does. However, the signs point to him graduating this season, if you historically look at past players and minutes played and whether or not they graduated, Mwanga easily fulfills that requirement. Expect him to graduate and for the Union to protect him.
Now on to the Generation Addias (GA) players that most likely will not graduate or are homegrown players (HG).
Zach Pfeffer (HG)
Amobi Okugo (GA)
Jack McInerney (GA)
Zac MacMath (GA)
Now, on to the players that will be exposed.
Out of those players, the two I think most likely to be grabbed are either Nakazawa or Mapp. If they take Mapp, Montreal gets a more "proven" commodity but Mapp is 27 so basically, he's not going to develop any further. If they take Nakazawa they get a younger player with more "upside" but has anyone been blown away by Nakazawa in the time he's seen the field?
However, an interesting storyline might be whether or not Torres gets protected. Some people don't realize that we don't own Torres' contract, we merely have him on loan. If the Union leave him exposed, that might be a sign that they don't intend to buy his contract outright or extend his loan. I love Torres, he's a spark of energy and seems to be doing better than last season, I do hope to see him in the Blue and Gold next season, but this is a business and with the arrival of Adu, Torres may be deemed expendable.
Off season moves that should happen
First of all, Juan Diego Gonzalez and Stefani Miglioranzi should be let go or traded. The combined base salaries of both is about $320K. For a bit of perspective, the combined salaries of Michael and Gabriel Farfan, Keon Daniel, and Roger Torres are about $275K.
Look, I understand that Migs is a nice guy and maybe JDG has pictures of the Union coaching and front office staff in "questionable" actives (hence why despite never seeing the field he hasn't been released) but we can do so much more with that money.
For example, during the season, the Union tried to buy a player from Costa Rican club Saprissa by the name of Josué Martínez. Martinez is 21 years old and apparently Saprissa wanted more money than the Union were willing to pay at that time. In case you're wondering, Martinez is a forward. Which tells me that the Union aren't confident that Mwanga will recover from his sophomore slump next season and are also not totally sure that Jac Mac is the answer either.
I expect them to make a run at Martinez again, or perhaps another young forward. Sebastien Le Toux can't score all of the goals by himself, he needs help.
Also I expect the Union to try and make a run at a LB, Gabriel Farfan was serviceable, the fact that he isn't a natural defender definitely hurt his play but the Union did make a run at Fabio Grosso who didn't want to leave Europe. Which also tells me that the front office wasn't confident that Gabriel Farfan is the answer at LB.
The 2012 MLS Draft
What should we be looking for in the 2012 MLS draft? Well, depending on how our hunt for talent in the off season goes, I would argue that defensive depth is needed here. From what I've read this upcoming draft will be heavy with attacking talent, which means that some good, young defenders could fall to the Union later in the draft. Its not that our defense is bad its that a serious injury or suspension could have meant disaster over the season. Plus, I would like to see Danny Califf groom his eventual successor as Mondragon is doing with MacMath. Plus if either he or Valdes get hurt, this young defender could step in at a crucial time. With only two rounds in the upcoming draft it'll be interesting to see whom the Union pick.
But I'm looking forward to this off season and the season itself.
Keep on Doopin'