PHILADELPHIA - When a second-year Major League Soccer franchise such as the Philadelphia Union looks to upgrade its roster, it's understood that the new players will improve the side on the field.
But it's an added bonus when one of those newcomers brings experience, humor and what looks like a fair bit of presence to the team.
In front of a lunch-time crowd of about 300 at Fado Irish Pub in Center City on Thursday afternoon, the Union introduced two Colombian national team players - Faryd Mondragon, a 39-year-old goalkeeper, and Carlos Valdes, a 25-year-old defender - as new members of the team, pending international clearance. In keeping with MLS policy, the players' length of contracts and salaries were not disclosed.
The 6-foot-3, 207-pound Mondragon, especially, should solve one of the Union's weak points, and the double-signing signals a real intent on Philadelphia's part to make the MLS playoffs in 2011.
Goalkeepers Chris Seitz (who is now with FC Dallas) and Brad Knighton provided their fair share of shaky moments in the team's debut season. But Mondragon's experience can only work in the team's favor. Add to that the fact that he's fluent in English, as well as seriously good and surprisingly funny, and it resembles a recipe for success.
"The dream came true for me," said Mondragon, a player whose most high-profile seasons were spent with Turkish team Galatasaray, which qualified regularly for the UEFA Champions League during his tenure there. "No one has to tell me about the atmosphere of PPL Park (in Chester, Pa.) or the (supporters group) Sons of Ben. Their noise will be on my side and we will make sure every team in MLS knows they are playing a road game."
Mondragon started in goal for Colombia in a friendly against the United States at PPL Park on Oct. 12. The match ended 0-0, but the game was most notable for a weeknight crowd of less than 9,000. Despite that, Mondragon has fond memories of that evening.
"I've been thinking about my career with my head, but also with my heart," he said. "It was lovely that night and very exciting to play here. I have been doing my homework, and I know Philadelphia has a special attitude when it comes to their sports. It's an honor and a privilege to play here."
While Mondragon, who comes to the Union from FC Cologne of the German Bundesliga, is a proven commodity, the 6-foot, 176-pound Valdes is a bit of a wild-card. He was club captain at Independiente Santa Fe in his homeland, but MLS history is filled with hits and misses from Central and South American Leagues.
Valdes, who only speaks Spanish and answered questions through an interpreter, spoke about the lure of playing in MLS.
"The perception of MLS in Colombia has certainly changed," Valdes said. "There's a definite (line of) thinking that this can become one of the greatest leagues in the world in a few years. I'm proud to have the opportunity to play here."
One reason the Union might have such a high in Colombian players (defender Juan Diego Gonzalez is under contract, and midfielder Roger Torres could still return) is MLS veteran Diego Gutierrez, the Union's newly named head of scouting and player development.
But, whatever the reason, manager Peter Nowak is glad to have his new reinforcements in the fold.
"We believe their international experience and the leagues they've played in will bring great success to our team," said Nowak, whose team opens its season on the road against the Houston Dynamo on March 19. "We need stability in our backline, and they will make our team even better."
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