HOUSTON - MARCH 19: Goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon of the Philadelphia Union celebrates after the final whistle as the defeated the Houston Dynamo 1-0 at Robertson Stadium on March 19, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
During the entire 2010 season, the Philadelphia Union were able to accumulate a mere seven points away from home. After their first game in 2011, they already have three.
The Union opened their second season in Major League Soccer with a valuable away win against the Houston Dynamo at Robertson Stadium. Defender Danny Califf, in his first game since losing the captaincy to newly signed Colombian goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, netted the winner in the fifth minute after a scrum in the six yard box.
The goal sequence was initiated by a long throw-in from right back Sheanon Williams, who has displayed himself as something of a long throw specialist in his time with the Union. The ball came to Sebastien Le Toux, who struck the ball with power only for it to carom off the crossbar. Califf shrugged off a Dynamo defender and slotted home his first goal in a Union uniform.
Houston then applied significant pressure in the lead-up to the halftime whistle, but were unable to capitalize. Newly acquired Union striker Carlos Ruiz came close to seeing red for a hard aerial challenge on Dynamo defender Andrew Hainault, but the Guatemalan escaped with only a yellow.
In the second half, the play became highly physical and chances came at a premium. Danny Mwanga, who came on as a substitute, had a good chance at a goal but put it into the side netting. Dynamo forward Dominic Oduro had a golden chance as well, as Brad Davis made a run down the left flank and served the Ghanian a beautiful cross. Oduro, who is known as a speedster but also as a poor finisher, skied the ball over the crossbar.
The Dynamo were unable to find an equalizer as the final whistle sounded. Mondragon was extremely solid in goal after being given the captain's armband in a change that the Union had not announced previously. It seemed to work, though, as captains new and old worked in tandem to give the Union the lead and preserve the clean sheet. The Colombian national team veteran exuded confidence from his spot between the pipes and the defenders responded well to his instructions.
With rivals New York Red Bulls and DC United both earning opening day wins as well, the importance of the Union's victory is hard to put into words. The Union were a terrible road team in 2010, but this year's new look side seems to have, at least for now, put that behind them. Philadelphia has already earned nearly half the road points that they managed to obtain all last season, and it came against a solid Eastern Conference opponent.
Tactically, coach Peter Nowak had some surprises up his sleeve at the beginning of the game. Danny Mwanga was on the bench for the start of the game, as Nowak opted to play Kyle Nakazawa in the right attacking midfield spot and move Le Toux up to striker. Nakazawa was average at best, and didn't seem to be able to provide that killer pass into the penalty area that the Union needed.
In the second half, Nowak opted to bring Mwanga on for Justin Mapp, as Le Toux dripped back into the midfield. Shortly thereafter, new signing Gabriel Farfan came on for Nakazawa. Much later, Amobi Okugo was brought on for Ruiz, in order to get another defensively minded player on the field and also to waste some precious seconds off the clock.
Next Saturday, the Union will host Vancouver Whitecaps FC, who opened their first season in MLS with a sensational 4-2 win over Canadian rivals Toronto FC. Whitecaps striker Eric Hassli, their first Designated Player, netted two goals for Vancouver, and will be a handful for the Union defense. This will be the first time that PPL Park plays host to a home opener, and one of these young, upstart teams will be looking to get a surprising six points out of their first two games.