So, this is what first place feels like. After an inaugural season that saw the Philadelphia Union go 8-15-7 in Major League Soccer, a 3-1-0 league start in Year 2 has buoyed the fanbase into thinking that all things are possible.
Saturday night's hard-fought 1-0 home win over the New York Red Bells has the Union in the lofty heights of first place in the Eastern Conference, a perch that was unimaginable as the losses kept piling up in the early part of 2010.
The fact that the victory came after two tough defeats (1-0 to the Los Angeles Galaxy on the road the weekend before in the league, then a 2-2, 4-2 loss on PKs to D.C. United in a U.S. Open Cup play-in game) was a real bonus for Philly.
But the ramifications can't be ignored. This win signals that the Union mean business in the Eastern Conference, and with goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon at the back the signs are oh-so-positive. Who would have thought that the Union would be so solid?
This game was a real role of the dice, however. The Red Bulls opened the match with some real intent. They dominated the possession at a 2-to-1 clip and earned the first five corner kicks of the match. The Union seemed a little off with their touches early on.
But Union manager Peter Nowak is nothing if not flexible. He made a surprising move when he took striker Carlos Ruiz off for Danny Mwanga, especially when the Union's Sebastien Le Toux was producing a subpar performance. But his best move was yet to come.
Sensing that there was no real cutting edge for the Union, Nowak sent midfielder Roger Torres in for teammate Justin Mapp. I had e-mailed and texted many of my friends in the great-and-large soccer community at halftime that Torres should enter the fray, and I soon seemed prescient.
"Wow! You called it," said a text from ESPN's Max Bretos when Torres produced a beautiful left-footed finish off a pass from Mwanga in the 68th minute. It was his first touch of the game, and boy was it a sweet one. The goal allowed the Union to go completely defensive afterward, and that tactic worked to perfection.
The Red Bulls had to be wondering how they entered halftime at 0-0 after a first-half barrage did everything but produce a goal. Teenage striker and former Barnegat, N.J. resident Juan Agudelo (whom I was lucky enough to interview in the midweek for a future story in The Press of Atlantic City) even hit a post and a crossbar.
But the ball just wouldn't fall for New York. Star striker Thierry Henry, of France, Arsenal and Barcelona fame, continues to show that his game might not be suited for MLS, while Mexican defender Rafa Marquez, who starred so many years for his country and Barca as well, looks like his tank is empty, too.
But, at the risk of sounding like the glass is half-empty, the Union are winning games without playing cohesive soccer. That's not a bad thing, and when this team finally clicks you get the feeling there could be a few 3-0 wins on the cards, especially at PPL Park ... where the noise is so often cascading down from the stands in spades.
With 10 of 18 teams in the league making the playoffs, MLS looks a lot like the National Hockey League. As I said earlier this week on the "Philly Soccer Show" podcast put forth by KYW and Philly Soccer Page, if the Union can get into the postseason, the team can ride Mondragon a long way.
But so much can happen between now and then. I really think the Union is that one player short ... that midfield linchpin ... from becoming a truly elite team in MLS. Perhaps Torres can be that piece, if only Nowak would trust him. But when the ball is at his feet, magic truly happens.