With tonight being MLS All-Star Game night, now is probably a good time to pause for just a moment and reflect on the unofficial first half of the Philadelphia Union's season, as well as look ahead to the remainder of their regular season fixtures (unofficial because they, like all MLS teams, are already a couple of matches into the second half of their schedule).
What we've seen this season from the Union, given their form last year, is nothing short of remarkable. They've gone from seemingly defensively inept to tied with the LA Galaxy for the second stingiest defense in Major League Soccer. (The Galaxy have played three more regular season matches than the Union to this point, but still.) Full credit for this turnaround must go to four people: Faryd Mondragon, Carlos Valdes, Piotr Nowak and Diego Gutierrez.
What can you say about Mondragon? His play has been everything Philadelphia has hoped for, and then some -- and not because he's made dozens of outlandish saves (although he has made several). It's the fact that he hasn't had to make that many difficult saves because of how superb his backline organization has been that is most impressive. Every Union player has the utmost respect for Mondragon, and the feeling seems to be mutual. And it shows. Big time. As for Valdes? Well, he's right at the top of the list for MLS All-Star snubs. His instant chemistry with Danny Califf and his immense talent has many observers wondering just how long he'll be with the Union before getting plucked off by a European side.
Full props to Diego Gutierrez, who is now the Union's Head of Scouting and Player Development, for working to acquire Mondragon and Valdes (and Roger Torres, too, a year ago). Goodness knows who he'll bring to the Union next. And you can't forget Union manager Piotr Nowak, whose player decisions are sometimes questioned (especially when they come without an explanation of any kind), but you simply cannot argue with the results of his work. This team is fun to watch, and their record speaks for itself.
A look at the Union's unofficial second half of the season after the jump.
The Union have 15 regular season matches remaining this season, starting on Friday when the team hosts the defending MLS Cup-champion Colorado Rapids (7:30 PM EDT, Fox Soccer). Eight of those matches (including this Friday) will be at PPL Park, compared to seven on the road. It's a nice balance, which is incredibly important, given the Union's unbeaten record at PPL Park; the last thing you want to do, however, is start playing there so many times in a row that you maybe become a little complacent (we'll see whether Sporting KC, whose season is backlogged with home matches like the Union's was last year, is able to overcome that).
Their fourteen opponents for these fifteen matches (they will both host and play at Columbus) have a combined record of 88-91-114, which basically tells you that the Union are playing an even mix of top teams, middling teams and struggling teams. A look the combined away record of the teams they'll be hosting (14-34-29), and the combined home record of the teams they'll be visiting (32-12-27), you see the same thing. (Note that both Columbus's home and road records have been factored into to these numbers.) While there are some outliers on both ends (for example, Dallas is 4-3-3 on the road, while Chicago is 1-2-6 at home), you get the sense that, as a whole, the second half for this club will be much like the first half. And that's a good thing -- this Union side will be able to continue to play and train methodically, and there will generally be continuity with regard to the level of competition they're facing.
Except, that is, for the biggest stretch of games in the year, which comes in October. After a tough second half of September that sees the Philadelphia hosting Eastern Conference challengers Columbus, visiting Sporting Kansas City's sparkling fortress, and hosting D.C. United (who have a very solid 3-3-3 record on the road thus far) in three consecutive weeks comes another West Coast swing.
The Union will visit Chivas USA who -- don't look now -- are unbeaten in their last five in MLS play and find themselves in competition for a wild card berth. Six days later, they're at CenturyLink Field to take on the Seattle Sounders. After flying back Philadelphia to take on Toronto FC, it's up I-95 to Harrison, New Jersey to take on the New York Red Bulls in the regular season finale. Depending on how things go over the next eight weeks or so, these four matches in 18 days could make or break the Union's season. They could propel the team to a first-place finish in the Eastern Conference, see the team drop to a lower playoff seeding (or a wild card play-in berth)...or worse. For what it's worth, as of today, Sports Club Stats lists the chances of the Union earning a playoff berth somewhere around 99.2%.
Whatever happens, it ought to be a hell of a ride.