If a soccer club is traditionally more representative of its supporters than is any other sports team, than Philadelphia’s would be blue-collar, fiercely territorial and easily provoked towards fisticuffs. How appropriate, then, that the Philadelphia Union’s preseason tour of Costa Rica was marred Thursday afternoon by a fight in their finale, a friendly in name only, at A.D. Belén.
The first-half fracas, set off by a risky tackle from Union midfielder Michael Farfan, put one last black eye on what was an all-around dismal trip for the North American side. A 3-0 victory against Costa Rica’s U-20 team was bookended by goalless losses to two Costa Rican first-division clubs – 1-0 to Pérez Zeledón and 2-0 in the Belén fixture.
Team manager Peter Nowak, entering his third season with the Union, must find some scoring punch amidst a new-look squad facing heightened expectations – even more so than last season. Coming off a berth in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Philadelphia controversially traded All-Star forward Sébastien Le Toux to the last-place Vancouver Whitecaps. In exchange for securing financial flexibility in the coming years, Nowak loses the face of the franchise and a double-digit goal scorer.
“While this decision wasn’t easy, we are confident the allocation money we receive will provide the flexibility for us to compile the best possible roster for 2012 and beyond,” the coach told reporters.
Although only eight players in all of MLS tallied more goals, the Union had trouble creating chances even with Le Toux, and are now bringing in younger, cheaper options to put the ball in the net.
Hoping to fill the attacking void left by the Frenchman are newcomers Josué Martinez of Costa Rica, MLS SuperDraft first-round pick Chandler Hoffman, and Colombia’s Lionard Pajoy. Joining them in the offensive third will be 20-year-old striker Danny Mwanga, who has scored 12 goals in his two seasons in blue, and dynamic sprites Freddy Adu and Roger Torres, both capable of creating havoc from an advanced midfield position.
Mwanga, who despite his youth is now Philadelphia’s most veteran MLS forward, recognizes the team effort needed to replace his former partner’s nose for goal.
“I’m pretty confident I’m going to be one of the guys out there that will bring danger to the opposing team but for sure it’s not going to be a one-man show,” he said to MLSsoccer.com.
Not just looking to retool his attack, Nowak faces roster shakeups at every level of the pitch. Farfan, Torres and Adu, who have all spent much of their Union careers as substitutes, must adjust to the rigors of playing a full 90 minutes after the departures of midfielders Kyle Nakazawa and Justin Mapp.
On defense, center back stalwarts Danny Califf and Carlos Valdés return, flanked by Sheanon Williams and December signing Porfirio López. Jockeying for position in the defensive rotation will be MLS veteran Chris Albright and the other Farfan twin, Gabriel, a holding midfielder likely to be pushed backwards by the team’s depth at the position.
Behind them, Philadelphia enters its third season of existence with its third first-choice goalkeeper, but 20-year-old Zac MacMath has already proven himself under the bright lights of MLS. After starter Faryd Mondragón fractured his finger, MacMath ably stepped between the posts without missing a beat, going undefeated and allowing only eight goals in his eight appearances. He also held both Everton and Real Madrid scoreless in limited action when the storied European clubs visited Philadelphia last summer for exhibition matches.
While MacMath looks like a future star in goal, Mondragón’s fire and off-field leadership will be sorely missed. The 40-year-old captain was freed of his contract in January, allowing him to return to his native Colombia to play a final season with his original club before retiring. He also served as a big brother to countrymen Torres and Valdés, helping the youngsters adjust to the life of a professional athlete far away from home.
“He was the player with the most experience of this group, so it’s a difficult situation for us,” Valdés said of Mondragón. “His experience was very important for us. Maybe now we are more motivated.”
They’ll have to be, after shedding the players responsible for 24 of their already meager 44 goals in 2011. While the departures have opened up two international roster slots for possible in-season personnel additions, the Union as currently constructed will have a hard time creating enough scoring chances to ensure a return trip to the postseason.