Rookie forward Danny Mwanga may have started slowly this year amid enormous expectations, but he’s sure making up for lost time.
Mwanga is only now cracking the starting lineup again after coming off the bench for eight straight matches, which included a few DNP, following his start in the club’s first ever match.
To say he's making the most of his playing time would be a understatement. With four goals in only three starts and a total of 326 minutes played, the 18-year-old is averaging an incredibly impressive 1.1 goals per 90 minutes.
Sebastien Le Toux had been the only player shouldering the scoring load early in the season, and the Union needed someone to follow in his footsteps. With Alejando Moreno playing some of the best goal-free soccer you’ll ever see from a forward, Mwanga stepped up and filled the void.
By Mwanga’s own account, Le Toux and Moreno have been ideal mentors for the young striker with enormous potential.
“Both guys are doing a good job at helping me keep my head in the game and helping me to work on some areas of the game,” Mwanga said following Philadelphia's 3-1 win against Seattle at PPL Park. “Both of them are doing a very good job and have such a big impact on our team.”
In many ways, Mwanga’s trajectory mirrors that of his club. Philadelphia are 2-2-1 over the last five matches, during which the Oregon State product has come alive in a big way. Mix in another 12 homes games at PPL Park this year and it’s clear that both Mwanga and the Union have a real shot at making their presence known the rest of the season.
"I think the fans here are the best,” Mwanga said after Sunday’s match. “They are always behind us. They never stopped chanting and cheering the whole game. I think it gave us a big lift. I'm very excited about the rest of this season and the future here with the Union.
“Home field is definitely a big advantage for us. We all knew that during the first game we had a couple mistakes, and we watched the video from the first game and we learned from our mistakes and went out there and tried to correct them and come out strong.”
With Mwanga's help, the Union did just that in their new home.
One of Mwanga’s strengths is being in the right place at the right time. So much of attacking soccer is finding spaces and angles to receive the ball in dangerous positions. In both the Houston and Seattle matches, Mwanga’s timed runs have been perfect, putting him in ideal locations to receive service. With Le Toux streaking down the right side of the field on both occasions, Mwanga showed the experience and field awareness of a seasoned veteran.
But even when you’re in the right position, you still have to finish. Mwanga has done that incredibly efficiency too, with his four goals coming on just six shots on goal and 10 shots overall. Against Seattle, Mwanga showed yet again his natural nose for the net.
“I hit it the first time and (Seattle goalkeeper Kasey Keller) did a good job,” Mwanga described when asked about his goal. ”He had his foot left behind him and just like I do at practice I didn’t stop following the ball. I knew that I had a second chance and I just had to tap it in.”
The key to the goal scoring sequence was Mwanga’s determination to see the play through until the referee pointed to the center circle. That mentality has and will serve him well, and it’s a big reason why manager Peter Nowak and coach John Hackworth selected him where they did in the SuperDraft.
"Playing for a manager like Peter is special because of his experience,” Mwanga explained. “He knows how to assist you in getting better every day. I feel like I'm a different player from the first day to now, and a lot of that credit goes to Peter and coach Hackworth.
“They have been so positive with me from the beginning. I knew it was going to be quite an adjustment coming into MLS. I accepted the challenge from the beginning and I knew I had to earn playing time. I feel like I'm getting more and more involved, and I'm thankful for the opportunity."
The defining moment of the match may not have been his fourth goal of the season, however.
Ten minutes in, Mwanga had possession about 30 yards from goal with multiple defenders between him and Keller. Earlier in the season, Mwanga may have been hesitant or looked to distribute, but not anymore. Mwanga attacked the goal with a series of stepovers, simultaneously showing quickness and aggression on the ball. The play was broken up, but that’s not what matters in the long term. What does mean something -- a lot in fact -- is that Mwanga has found a new level of confidence that has enabled his immense talent to shine through.
And to think he’s still 18 years old.
If Mwanga keeps playing this way, he’ll run away with MLS Rookie of the Year honors. 21-year-old Michael Stephens from the LA Galaxy has a goal and six assists, but he’s put up those numbers in over three times more minutes than it’s taken the Union’s prized youngster to put up his four goals and one assist.
While the Congolese striker has admitted that he had always planned to make the leap straight to playing professionally in Europe, it’s safe to say Mwanga made the right decision. Against Seattle, Union fans saw up close and personal why Philadelphia also made the right decision to select Mwanga. You can bet that he’ll do everything possible to reward the organization’s confidence in him, and it certainly helps that he clearly feels at home with the Union.
“I knew it was going to be a very good game, especially because we were going to be in front of our fans,” Mwanga said. “So it was extra motivation for all of us just being able to do that for them, to win that game for them for the first time in our new stadium. It was just the best feeling ever.
"I think with so many home games coming up, we have a chance to gain a lot of ground in the standings. But we have to go one game at a time. We can't look ahead."
Ignoring the urge to look ahead is always difficult. But doing so when thinking about Mwanga’s limitless upside?