It had been a tough expansion campaign in 2010 for the Philadelphia Union at 8-15-7 (31 points, 14th out of 16 teams). The Union entered the 2011 season with aspirations of qualifying for the Major League Soccer postseason in their second season of existence.
An improving young core of players and some key offseason acquisitions helped the Union achieve that goal. Philadelphia led the Eastern Conference for a portion of the season before finishing in third place at 11-8-15 overall and secured a spot in the Eastern Conference semifinals. However, manager Peter Nowak’s bunch didn’t last long in the postseason, dropping their first two playoff games in club history to the Houston Dynamo, 2-1 and 1-0.
One of the greatest moments of the season came late in an early-season contest against the rival New York Red Bulls. The Union received a sparm from reserve midfielder Roger Torres, as he tallied his first career goal (less than a minute after entering as a subsitute). Philly earned a dramatic 1-0 home triumph at PPL Park in Chester, PA.
Perhaps the lowest moment of the campaign had been a 2-1 defeat to Colorado on July 29 (their first home loss of the season). Nowak delivered what was considered a post-game bombshell indicating striker Carlos Ruiz (not the primary catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies) would be on his way out of Philadelphia (actually Chester). Finding a suitable goal-scoring replacement for Ruiz would be a major struggle as the Union didn’t enter the win column for nearly two months.
Anyway, Ruiz had been seen as a go-to goal-scoring threat before the late July shennanigans. What began as a botched set piece from Ruiz turned into a game-winning goal. On May 21, the Union and Chicago Fire were knotted at a goal apiecs at PPL Park. Ruiz followed a blocked free kick, turned and launched a left-footed shot from about 40 yards out which sailed over the head of Chicago goalkeeper Jon Conway, clanked the bottom of the crossbar and bounced straight down beyond the keeper’s defending line. The Union won, 2-1, and a few teammates called that tally the goal of the season at that point.
You may recall the Union had been trailing by a goal in their first-ever playoff game. The Union pushed numbers forward to try to tie Houston in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals when in the 86th minute, they were nearly scorched on the counterattack before Union goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón came off his line, slid and maneuvered his right hand up to swat away a wide-open look from Houston’s Brad Davis. The keen save provided life, but Philadelphia couldn’t push across the equalizer in the final minutes of a 2-1 loss.
Midfielder Sébastien Le Toux had been an engine propelling the Union to success. Although he endured a lengthy scoring rut, Le Toux posted a team-leading 11 goals and nine assists; moreover, he deposited 10 boom-shaka-lakas in the club’s final 12 games. Le Toux had also been the lone player on the Union roster to play every minute of every game as he rarely stopped running through all 3,060 minutes.
Mondragón finished 8-8-11 with 49 saves, 28 goals allowed (1.06 Goals Against Average), and seven shutouts in 27 starts. Another newcomer, Carlos Valdés, proved to be an imposing presence in the middle of the field with one goal, one assist, and a staggering eight yellow cards (no hesitation to foul). Veteran Brian Carroll, also a new acquisition, participated in the playoffs every year he had been in MLS and was known for being one of the few everyday starters in the midfield with one goal, zero assists, and five yellow cards in 30 games. Backup goalie Zac MacMath allowed eight goals (1.07 GAA) in eight games with 16 saves, a 3-0-4 record, and three shutouts,
Nowak had been able to find success by deploying a four-two-three-one formation. The Union’s lineup included Le Toux, Ruiz (14 games; six goals, zero assists, two yellow cards), forward Danny Mwanga (28 games; five goals, four assists, four yellow cards), midfielder Justin Mapp (29 games; three goals, four assists, one yellow card), midfielder Roger Torres (25 games; three goals, two assists), one yellow card), defender Danny Califf (33 games; one goal, zero assists, four yellow cards), Valdés, Carroll, midfielder Gabe Farfan (22 games; one goal, two assists, one yellow card), midfielder Kyle Nakazawa (22 games; one goal, three assists, one yellow card), midfielder Michael Farfan (21 games; two goals, three assists, one yellow card), midfielder Keon Daniel (18 games; one goal, two assists), forward Jack McIrnerney (18 games; one goal, one yellow card, one red card), midfielder/defender Amobi Okugo (15 games; two yellow cards), midfielder Stefani Miglioranzi (17 games; 980 minutes), forward Veljko Paunovic (17 games; three goals, three assists, one yellow card), defender Jordan Harvey (16 games; one assist, four yellow cards, one red card), and forward Freddy Adu (11 games; two goals, one assist, and two yellow cards).