Watching the Union "clinch" a spot in the playoffs (and the thought of the Union hoisting the MLS Cup trophy) brought back a lot of memories from when the Union were last in the playoffs. The team looks very very different, but have the changes been for the best? I'm going to pit the 2011 team against the 2016 team and see where the club has improved, and where they still may need improvement.
GK: Faryd Mondragon vs. Andre Blake
This is actually one of the closer contests. I think both were essential pieces to the team's regular season success leading to the playoffs, Mondragon with many clean sheets and Blake with heroic saves on countless occasions. Mondragon ended his run with the Philadelphia Union in 2011 after the playoffs ended in the first round, but he finished with an average of 1.06 goals allowed per game (Including post season) and picked up 56 saves in 29 games. While he was not as flashy with his saves as Andre, there is no doubt in my mind that Mondragon commanded the defense from the 18 yard box. He was the veteran leader the team needed, and they succeeded because of it. Now, Andre Blake may not have the experience of Mondragon, but he certainly has kept the Union close in games that they had no right to be close in, and may be the very reason the Union are still in the playoffs. Let's not forget, they are in the playoffs off of goal differential - a stat that without Blake, would not be very high in their favor. Blake has recorded 99 saves this season alone, giving him 132 saves in his three years with the Union. His average goals allowed per game is 1.56, so not quite up to par with Mondragon's stats, however I do think that he helped keep the Union in playoff contention throughout the year. Personally, I think that this victory goes to the 2016 team, but it is a very close call.
LB/RB: Sheanon Williams & Gabriel Farfan vs. Fabinho & Keegan Rosenberry
This one isn't super close for me, each team has a rookie starting as a fullback, each team has offensive contribution from the fullback position, each team has a fullback with a giant throw in, but the 2016 line stands out. Sure, in 2011 Sheanon Williams and Gabe Farfan were good, for 2011. But MLS has since expanded and grown incredibly. Sheanon WIlliams and Gabe Farfan would not have been able to keep up with players like David Villa or Sebastian Giovinco back in 2011, they were a rookie and a 2nd year player. The fact that Keegan Rosenberry has shut down some of the greatest players in MLS on multiple occasions, played every minute of every game and has been in contention for being named Rookie of the Year all season puts him head a shoulders above both Sheanon Williams and Gabe Farfan. Fabinho has also been playing extremely well as of late, even in the loss to New York Red Bull in the final regular season game, Fabinho did a great job of winning balls, shutting down players and making great turns and breaking opponents ankles. I give this one to the 2016 team.
CB: Carlos Valdes & Danny Califf vs. Richie Marquez & Ken Tribbett
Its no secret that the center back position has been the weak point in the Union this year. While Richie was pretty consistent all year, Josh Yaro and Ken Tribbett seemed to alternate spells of poor form and both picked up injuries throughout the year. All three center backs are good, but when you compare them to the Union's first captain and Carlos Valdes, they are not on the same level yet. Keep in mind this was before all the Carlos Valdes drama, back when he played (and played well) for us. If you exclude what happens in 2012-2014 with Valdes, its hard to deny that the pairing of Califf and Valdes is better than our current situation. I give this one to the 2011 team.
DM/AM: Brian Carroll, Veljko Paunovic & Stefani Miglioranzi vs. Brian Carroll, Alejandro Bedoya & Tranquillo Barnetta
Brian Carroll is the only player from the 2011 playoff team to still be with the Union after Sebastian Le Toux's summer exit to Colorado, and it seems as though he has found the fountain of youth in his Union career. He has gotten better and better despite his age (35). Carroll served as the Union's captain up until Maurice Edu came around in 2014, and has filled in as the captain during Edu's injuries and other player's absences. Moving on to the older international player. He only played one year with the Union after he landed for free and at first didn't quite fit in. He found his stride later in his career and helped boost the Union to a playoff position, and is absolutely one of the greatest attacking midfielders in the Union's history. I am talking about both Veljko Paunovic and Tranquillo Barnetta. To me, Paunovic paved the way for Tranquillo to come to Philadelphia, as Paunovic was the first European "big name" (unless you want to count Freddy Adu) to sign for the Union and he was a free agent signing. Barnetta obviously is the better player, but again, Paunovic was fantastic for 2011. As far as Alejandro Bedoya vs. Stefani Miglioranzi, there is really no contest. Bedoya is obviously a huge upgrade to what we had back in 2011 by any means, but even without Bedoya, I would take the 2016 defensive mids and attacking mids over the 2011 side any day.
LM/RM: Michael Farfan, Sebastien Le Toux & Justin Mapp vs. Fabian Herbers, Chris Pontius and Ilsinho
There are a lot of similarities in this grouping as well, again you have rookies who were highly valued by their manager, a player with tricks up their sleeves in Ilsinho and Farfan, fan favorites in Le Toux and Pontius, and people who just got assists and not much else in Mapp and Herbers. Lets get one thing out of the way, Ilsinho is the least fit of all of the players mentioned, but he also has the best dribbling technique and skill moves of any Union player ever. The contributions of rookie Michael Farfan (2 goals 3 assists) don't add up to the contributions of Herbers (3 goals 7 assists) but I would say that Farfan plugged in with the Union better than Herbers has now. Sebastien Le Toux primarily played as a striker for the 2011 team, however Nowak did put him on the wing in the second game against Houston in 2011 so he is included in this list. He was the main contributor on that team, something that the Union lack now despite the large amount of goals. That being said, I would take the 2016 left and right midfielders over the 2011 mids for one reason and one reason only: Chris Pontius. Pontius has arguably been the biggest offensive contributer. I know that having Barnetta has been huge for the Union, but Pontius has delivered for the Union more than any other midfielder this year. Pontius ended the regular season of his first year with the Union with 12 goals and 6 assists, and was a main part of the Union's offense all year. He and Blake are the two reasons I believe the Union had the goal differential that they did. Without Pontius, the 2016 Union does not make the playoffs.
ST: Danny Mwanga & Sebastian Le Toux vs. CJ Sapong
Oh dear. 2011 takes another victory on this one. In 2011, we had a striker who we knew would score in Sebastian Le Toux, and we had a striker who could feed him and occasionally get a goal himself in Danny Mwanga. Now, here in 2016, I can't even remember the last time our front man CJ Sapong scored a goal. This is a no brainer for me, 2011 strikers were significantly better and had more impact than CJ has for the Union this year. I am not saying we should cut ties with CJ, but I do not think he should be our go to striker after the train wreck his season was this year.
Most Used Subs: Freddy Adu, Roger Torres & Jack McInerney vs Roland Alberg & Charlie Davies
Yes, Freddy Adu was on the Union when the Union made the playoffs and even played in both playoff games as a sub, and Jack McInerney was also on the team. Dark times. However, Roger Torres was also on the team, and I have yet to meet a fan who didn't like him while he was here. He was like our 2011 Eric Ayuk - maybe not the greatest player on the team, but a fan favorite for his passion for the Union and a guy fans saw tons of potential in. None of these subs were particuarly great, so I will give the nod to the 2016 bench. Charlie Davies has yet to get to full health again for the Union so I don't think its completely fair to judge his impact on the team just yet, but Roland Alberg has been a big contributor off the bench scoring 9 goals in his first year with the club. Alberg has been our power sub which was something we lacked in 2011, so I prefer the 2016 subs.
Overall that I feel that the 2016 team is stronger than the club that went into the playoffs for the first time in 2011, however there are considerable gaps in our positions that need improvement. This would be my dream starting XI based on the two teams that have made the playoffs
GK: Andre Blake
DEF: Keegan Rosenberry, Danny Califf, Richie Marquez, Fabinho
MID: Alejandro Bedoya, Brian Carroll (2016), Chris Pontius, Michael Farfan, Tranquillo Barnetta
FOR: Sebastian Le Toux (2011)
Subs: Roland Alberg, Roger Torres, Sheanon Williams, Carlos Valdes, Faryd Mondragon, CJ Sapong