MLS Cup Playoffs, 2011: How The Philadelphia Union Got Here

CHESTER, PA - JUNE 27: Danny Mwanga #10 (L), Roger Torres #20 and Sebastien Le Toux #9 of the Philadelphia Union celebrate Le Toux's goal against the Seattle Sounders FC at the PPL Park stadium opener on June 27, 2010 in Chester, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Brotherly Game's Scott Kessler walks us through the Union's largely improved, but still tumultuous season.

The Philadelphia Union have had an odd season for a title contender, to say the least. Attempting to improve upon an inaugural season in which the Union only claimed 33 points in  30 games, head coach Piotr Nowak brought in Colombian veterans Faryd Mondragon and Carlos Valdes, along with Guatemalan national team striker Carlos Ruiz, while letting of of players such as Toni Stahl and Eduardo Coudet. Along with Mondragon came fifth overall SuperDraft selection Zac MacMath, completely reshaping the Union's highly criticized goalkeeping unit of Chris Seitz and Brad Knighton from the 2010 MLS season. Those moves, coupled with the acquisition of twin brothers Gabriel and Michael Farfan changed the destiny of the the team's second ever season.

Early season success surprised nearly everyone outside of the Union's front office or fan base. While the Union did end the 2010 season on a high note after an eight-game run of good form, no one really expected Philadelphia to compete for a top spot in the Eastern Conference. A 4-1-1 start quickly catapulted the Union into first place in the East, a place they would stay for a good portion of the first half of the season. Wins over the Houston Dynamo and New York Red Bulls were the highlights of that early season run. Following the start was an 8-4-7 record by the time that English Premier League side Everton, and Spanish giants Real Madrid came to Philadelphia. The Union were able to beat Everton 1-0 and hold Madrid to only two goals (a 2-1 loss) during those two friendlies. Unfortunately, the two games came at the end of the first peak of the season.

Then came a dark period for the Union. A long winless streak followed that loss to Madrid, a period full of questions and criticisms for players and coaches alike. Ruiz was sold to the Tiburones Rojos de Veracruz, a second division team in Mexico, and starting left back Jordan Harvey was traded to the Vancouver Whitecaps for a what was reportedly $100,000 in allocation money. Even though Gabriel Farfan turned out to be a solid, if not spectacular, replacement for Harvey, the team suffered greatly from a sudden lack of scoring ability. This was despite Sebastien Le Toux moving into a more natural forward position, the same one from which he had scored 14 goals and assisted on 11 more in 2010.

From Aug. 29 to Sept. 10, the Union went seven games without winning and fell from near the top of the Eastern Conference into a position where Philadelphia may have gone so far as to fall out of the playoff race altogether. Thankfully for the club, Le Toux found his scoring touch and set off on a run of form that led to the Frenchman scoring 10 goals and two assists over his last 13 games. The Union took 10 points away from the seven games in which Le Toux scored at the end of the season, going 2-1-4 on their way to a third-place finish in the Eastern Conference. MacMath stepped in amiably for the then injured Mondragon, Michael Farfan played well enough to get into the Rookie of the Year discussion, Roger Torres showed a great deal of promise and Freddy Adu was signed. Things finally looked up heading into the playoffs, with the Union having increased their season points total from 33 in 2010 to 48 in 2011.

Then the Union lost to the Red Bulls in the last game of the season and had to sit around and watch as almost every game left in the season decided their fate. Luckily for the club, the Union avoided the Wild Card round and ended up with a bye, plus at least one more home game, which will be played against the Houston Dynamo Sunday night.

Scott Kessler is the managing editor for Union blog Brotherly Game. Follow him on Twitter at @ScottDKessler.

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