Union the biggest surprise in MLS so far

By Brian Westfall, Soccer Editor

MLS Features Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Philadelphia coach Peter Nowak said "being at the top of the table is always a big deal" on Saturday night, following his club's third shutout win in four Major League Soccer games this season. But if last year taught Nowak anything, 30 more matches could produce anything.

"It's still a work in progress," said Nowak, who had the second-year club atop the Eastern Conference standings and tied with Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids on nine points for the best total after four weeks.

As an expansion team last year, the Union had just two shutouts, struggled all season defensively as inexperienced goalkeepers Chris Seitz and Brad Knighton allowed 49 goals between them, and finished with just an 8-15-7 record.

Although it's not unusual for an expansion team to struggle, the amount of key mistakes in the back - especially by Seitz and Knighton - haunted Philadelphia for most of the season.

Nowak managed D.C. United from 2004-06, but spent the next three years as head coach of the United States U-23 side and assistant to the senior U.S. national team. In his return to MLS, he overlooked just how important his goalie was.

Peter Nowak
"It's still a work in progress," said Peter Nowak, who had the second-year club atop the Eastern Conference standings.
Enter Faryd Mondragon. The 39-year-old Colombian international, who started in the 1998 World Cup and enjoyed a long club career in South America and Europe, was signed by the Union in January.

Mondragon will turn 40 during the season, but his presence in the back has led to a renewed confidence in the defense, even though center back Danny Califf and left back Jordan Harvey remain two key pieces of the defense.

Nowak also brought in Colombian Carlos Valdes in January, and he has paired in central defense with Califf to form a solid duo. And Sheanon Williams, who had eight appearances late in 2010, has started all four games at right back.

With Mondragon's experience holding the unit together, Philadelphia has posted three impressive victories and its lone loss was a 1-0 loss at the Los Angeles Galaxy, who had the best record in the league last season.

Wins at the Houston Dynamo and expansion Vancouver Whitecaps FC, both 1-0, did leave some doubt about the makeup of the Union this season - although that did match last season's shutout total.

But after the slim loss at L.A., Philadelphia defeated Red Bull New York, 1-0, last week to deal an early blow to their local rival.

"This kind of victory will build the confidence we need," Mondragon said. "We need to believe that we are not an expansion team anymore."

Mondragon praised the defense and the midfield after the most recent win, and knows "having shutouts means we have an 80 to 90 percent chance of winning the game."

The Union host Seattle Sounders FC on Saturday, visit Real Sal Lake - who will likely rest a number of starters with the match sandwiched between the legs of the CONCACAF Champions League final - and host the San Jose Earthquakes before the end of the month.

Although the sample size is relatively small, the Union are easily the biggest surprise in MLS this year. A few more good results before April is over and it could be a preview of quite a turnaround for Philadelphia season.

What exactly the next 30 games - the season was expanded from 30 to 34 matches this season - has in store remains a huge unknown. But if the work in progress continues to get better, Nowak's entire season could be a big deal.

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Contact Brian Westfall at bwestfall@sportsnetwork.com.

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