The Philadelphia Union, last year, had some problems. They also had some great players, but at the end of the day mediocre defensive play, poor goaltending, and a lack of scoring in depth doomed them to a non-playoff season. They weren't dreadful but they weren't great either. Respectable. Let's go with that. They were respectable.
Unfortunately for us, the Vancouver Whitecaps seem to be the second stop on Philadelphia's New Look Tour. Who the hell are some of these guys? Faryd Mondragon? That's not a name, that's the villain in a fantasy novel. But whoever these guys are, they did just knock off the Houston Dynamo 1-0, and while the Houston Dynamo aren't exactly legendary the game was in Houston. And some of the familiar names in that Philadelphia lineup are disconcertingly familiar. Like, "I've seen them on the scoresheet a few too many times" familiar.
The Union's new-look team is, naturally a bit of a mystery to us in Vancouver. And so, with less than a day to go before the Whitecaps kick off their first road game of the season, I decided to sit down and, with nothing more than my trusty brain and a tab open to Wikipedia, compare the Union and the Whitecaps position by position. The Philadelphia starting lineup is taken from the Vancouver Whitecaps' preview sheet; the Whitecaps eleven is my own conjecture.
Goal: Joe Cannon (Vancouver) v. Faryd Mondragon (Philadelphia). Advantage, Philadelphia
In the battle between two teams with goalkeepers who are most of the way over the hill, Mondragon has a clear advantage. The 39-year-old Mondragon is a legendary Colombian national team goalkeeper and famously played well starting for Colombia in the 1998 FIFA World Cup. Mondragon joined the Union after three seasons and part of a fourth with FC Köln of the German Bundesliga, where he played ninety-four league matches and was, for a couple years, one of the better veteran goalkeepers in Germany.
Joe Cannon is still nursing an ankle injury, capped twice for the United States, never played in a World Cup, and was just let go by the San Jose Earthquakes in the Expansion Draft. I don't think Cannon is bad, but in this case Mondragon is clearly ahead.
Defense: Either Bilal Duckett or Blake Wagner, Alain Rochat, Greg Janicki, and Jonathan Leathers (Vancouver) v. Jordan Harvey, Carlos Valdes, Danny Califf, and Sheanon Williams (Philadelphia). Advantage, Philadelphia
This ranking would probably be different if the Whitecaps defense was at full strength. Throw Jay DeMerit in for the turd sandwich we currently have on our left side and I give Vancouver the advantage. But DeMerit is off with the American national team and his would-be replacement, Michael Boxall, is making his debut with New Zealand. I think that's just enough to nudge the Union in front, particularly playing at home.
Philadelphia's defense still isn't great. 27-year-old Jordan Harvey, um, how do I put this gently... he sucks. He's a crap-ass left back. I don't have much time for Sheanon Williams, either, who at least has the excuse of being young but was only an occasional player for Philadelphia's crappy back four last season and is making the jump from the USL Second Division look awfully hard. But Danny Califf is a fine veteran centre back who plays an attractive, simple game and is great on the ground. He may miss the game with a meniscus problem but the only lineup card I have currently lists him as in the lineup. 25-year-old Carlos Valdes is a new recruit to MLS trying to get used to another league, but he seems like a good player so far. Besides, it's not like Vancouver's defense is loaded with MLS experience.
Vancouver has just as many holes and not quite as much strength. Alain Rochat is the best defender on either team, of course, and can make up for a lot by himself. But this is only his second MLS game and, frankly, at times against Toronto he did seem to underestimate his opponents. Greg Janicki will be making his Whitecaps MLS debut: he looked great last year in the second division but awful last time he was in Major League Soccer and, as much as we Whitecaps fans like him, we can't be sure he'll be good enough. If Bilal Duckett starts, well, he sucks. If Blake Wagner starts, well, he doesn't suck exactly but he's still not good. And I'm still not sold on Jonathan Leathers, who seems like a right winger pretending to be a fullback and might get his butt kicked by some of Philadelphia's attacking players.
Midfield: Russell Teibert, Terry Dunfield, Gershon Koffie, and Nizar Khalfan (Vancouver) v. Brian Carroll, Justin Mapp, and Stefani Miglioranzi (Philadelphia). Advantage, Vancouver
Ha! Eat it, Union! Philadelphia has former United States international Justin Mapp, who is a fairly good player but nothing you'll write home to Mother about. Stefani Miglioranzi is an aging midfield playmaker who gets passed around more than the clap and is a classic example of the decent-but-underwhelming player that so many expansion teams rely upon. Brian Carroll is just some guy: he's capped a few times for the United States national team but he's not exceptional, being a fairly prototypical defensive midfielder who also single-handedly put the Columbus Crew out of the playoffs last year. None of them are bad players; none of them are likely to cost the union this game. But on the other hand, none of them are real gamebreakers either. There's no creativity, no flair, no individual talent. Not one player who scares me and arguably a couple who we can pick on (Miglioranzi, your old ass is grass).
The Vancouver Whitecaps, of course, counter with the idol of this site Terry Dunfield, who is probably the best tackler and the smartest passer on either team as well as an occasional goalscorer, defensive stalwart, and vocal midfield general. Gershon Koffie is young, quick, talented, and tough in a way that none of the Philadelphia players can match. Russell Teibert is Canadian soccer Jesus, although injury is a concern with him and he's almost certain not to go ninety minutes. Nizar Khalfan is somewhat mercurial, but when he's on his game he is very good at retaining possession, controlling the movement of the ball, and occasionally gets a goal or a valuable assist.
Forwards: Eric Hassli and Atiba Harris (Vancouver) v. Carlos Ruiz, Danny Mwanga, and Sebastien Le Toux (Philadelphia). Advantage Philadelphia
This is a difficult one to call, but I think the Union have it.
Obviously, Eric Hassli is a terrific player. Any doubts we had left about him were erased in the Toronto game. He's strong, he's tall, he's quicker than he looks, he can handle the ball at his feet with trivial ease and he plays all three zones of the field well. No complaints. But Atiba Harris, though he posted the numbers against Toronto, is just not a legitimate MLS forward. He'll have to do far more than put up numbers in one match for me to change my mind on that.
Meanwhile, Sebastien Le Toux might just be the best pure scorer in Major League Soccer. Carlos Ruiz is old and a bit fat and hasn't actually been a big-time scorer since 2009 in Paraguay, but even at age 31 he's not to be underestimated. And 19-year-old Danny Mwanga already has seven goals in Major League Soccer. No, really. Mwanga is big, quick, has touch, knows the way to the goal, and is basically a poor man's Omar Salgado. Even if Eric Hassli winds up being the most talented forward in the game (which is unlikely), the Union can come at Vancouver from all sorts of angles with their scoring depth. Vancouver can't return the favour.
Overall Verdict: Advantage Philadelphia. But boy, I hope I'm proven wrong.