It shows just how far the Philadelphia Union has come that surrendering a last-minute goal against Seattle on Saturday in a 1-1 tie at PPL Park in Chester, Pa. is causing so much consternation. Despite the stoppage-time goal by the Sounders' Alvaro Fernandez, the Union put in another solid performance to go to 3-1-1 on the young Major League Soccer season.
This team is so much more solid than the squad that fashioned an 8-15-7 record in its debut MLS season in 2010. Just two goals conceded in five league matches is a testament to the backline of Jordan Harvey, Danny Califf, Carlos Valdes and Sheanon Williams. Organized from the back by goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, the Union is tough to beat.
Unlike their previous match - a 1-0 win over the New York Red Bulls that saw the Union rely on soaking up the pressure and counter-attacking - the game played in a howling rain against Seattle saw manager Peter Nowak's Philly side pull out the possession triangles and dominate the tempo of the game. The midfield of Stefani Miglioranzi, Kyle Nakazawa, Amobi Okugo and Keon Daniel showed a solid understanding of each other's spacing without sacrificing defensive integrity.
But it was the play of Carlos Ruiz in one of the striker's slots that really caught the eye. I was somewhat critical of the team's decision to sign a one-time MLS superstar whose better days might be behind him (especially when Juan Pablo Angel was available), but Ruiz was the best player on the pitch Saturday. Yes, he scored with a great free kick in the first half, but it was his positioning and touch that were first rate.
With college-age Danny Mwanga and the still-young Sebastien Le Toux coming into the season as the Union's most dynamic threats on the offensive side of the ball, it was important to provide them with a wily veteran cohort up top who could draw fouls and chip in with the occasional goal. Ruiz is still in phenomenal shape, and his reading of the game is top notch.
I still think the midfield needs the magic of Roger Torres over the full 90 minutes (the young Colombian was an unused substitute on Saturday), and the availability of U.S. National Team midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who has signed with MLS, is intriguing. The Union still look sturdy rather than spectacular, but that shouldn't come back to haunt them ... to a point.
This kind of form should help the team qualify for the expanded MLS playoffs this year, especially with 10 points already banked away. But in the playoffs, you still need that player or two who can unlock an opposing team's defense. No team that makes the postseason will have a weak backline, so the improvisational skills of players like Torres or Ruiz will be that much more valuable.
I remember the Philadelphia Inquirer's Jonathan Tannenwald saying, "Your team plays boring soccer - and I mean that as a compliment" to Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz in the locker room after the 1-0 win over Vancouver a few weeks ago. And, as long as the Union is winning, the fanbase gladly will put up with some defensive-first soccer if it means a place high in the standings.
But, the next few games are crucial. Five games into the league schedule, it's too early to tell if the Union can sustain this level of defensive brilliance over the course of a 34-game MLS season, plus playoffs (hopefully). With the San Jose Earthquakes coming to PPL Park on April 30, it just might be the right time for Nowak to let Torres loose and get Le Toux back in gear.
It would serve the Union well to cement themselves in the Eastern Conference playoff firmament well before the hot summer weather arrives. As the games pile up thick and fast and the injuries inevitably mount, Nowak's early season defensive gameplan could end up being a saving grace when meaningful October games roll around.
And a few goals to go along with the solidity of the defense would go a long way toward making that a reality.