The lingering images of the Philadelphia Union's debut season in Major League Soccer revolve around the twin themes of hope and haplessness.
On the positive side, the team finished fourth in MLS attendance by drawing mostly sellout crowds to soccer-specific PPL Park (capacity 18,500) in Chester, Pa., and played a relatively entertaining brand of soccer. On the negative side, Chris Seitz's goalkeeping blunders and a leaky defense that allowed 49 goals in 30 games combined to deny the Union a playoff spot.
Team officials and manager Peter Nowak made significant moves to upgrade the team's on-field fortunes over the winter, adding Colombian goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon and Guatemalan striker Carlos Ruiz ahead of tonight's season opener at the Houston Dynamo.
Mondragon, a 39-year-old who has Champions League experience with Turkish club Galatasaray, should be a significant improvement over Seitz. At the other end of the pitch, the 31-year-old Ruiz will help take the scoring burden off 27-year-old Frenchman Sebastien Le Toux, who had 14 goals last season.
"It's great to have an experienced player such as Faryd show his desire and commitment to become a member of the Philadelphia Union family," Nowak told the Union's website. "We believe he will be a valuable mentor to our younger players."
Mondragon was a commanding presence for the Colombian National Team in a game at PPL Park against the United States last Oct. 12. The match ended 0-0, but Mondragon stood up well against the few flurries the U.S. sent against him. When he was introduced as a Union player at Fado Irish Pub in Philadelphia on Jan. 20, the 6-foot-3, 207-pound goalie sounded happy to be with the club.
"The dream came true for me," Mondragon said. "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."
Ruiz will add much-needed diversity to the Union's scoring options. In 2010, it was basically Le Toux and Danny Mwanga carrying the scoring load alone. This season, opposing defenses won't be able to mark Le Toux out of the game as an overriding strategy, as Ruiz's reputation alone will warrant some attention from defenders.
The player known as the "Little Fish" (El Pescadito) has scored 82 goals in 155 MLS matches, and he hopes a move to new waters in Philadelphia will help him recapture the form that produced 24 goals for the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2002.
The 31-year-old, 5-foot-9, 182-pound striker is glad to be back in the league after a multiple-year absence.
"My goal is to try to show from the beginning why I'm here," Ruiz told the Union's website. "I will try to work very hard and be an example for my teammates. I'm a very aggressive forward."
John Harkes, the native of Kearny, N.J., who captained the U.S. National Team and had a stellar career in the English Premier League and MLS, now serves as the color commentator for MLS and U.S. matches on the ESPN family of networks. On Friday, he gave The Press his thoughts on the Union's chances in 2011.
"It remains to be seen if the two major signings - Mondragon and Ruiz - will make an impact instantaneously," Harkes said. "Ruiz has been here before, and if he's fit and works hard, he will help. The Union should have the expectation of qualifying for the playoffs, as they have enough experienced, savvy veterans in the team."
One player who could swing the Union's fortunes is Carlos Valdes, a 25-year-old Colombian defender who served as club captain at Independiente Santa Fe in his homeland and was signed on the same day as Mondragon. The 6-foot, 176-pound Valdes is a bit of a wild-card, and MLS history certainly is filled with hits and misses from Central and South American leagues, but he's ready to give it his best shot.
"There's a definite (line of) thinking that this can become one of the greatest leagues in the world in a few years," Valdes said when he met with the media in January. "I'm proud to have the opportunity to play here."
Contact James Clark:
Key Union moves
Arrivals: Goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon; striker Carlos Ruiz; defender Carlos Valdes; midfielder Brian Carroll
Departures: Defender Michael Orozco-Fiscal; midfielder Fred; striker Alejandro Moreno; goalkeeper Chris Seitz
Key MLS facts
The league is in its 16th season. There are 18 teams, with the Montreal Impact already confirmed as the 19th team for 2012. The playoffs have expanded this season to include 10 of the 18 teams, and each club will play a 34-game regular season as opposed to last year's 30 games.