Before the 2011 season began, few predicted that the Philadelphia Union would be in the mix for the top spot in the Eastern Conference midway through the regular season.
Yet, that's exactly where manager Peter Nowak's side sit, a point behind the New York Red Bulls with two matches in hand and level with the Columbus Crew, who have played one extra match.
So what has gone right for a second-year club that finished near the bottom of the table a year ago? In a nutshell, stellar defense and timely scoring.
Before the second half of Philadelphia's season begins this Saturday in San Jose (10:30pm, Comcast SportsNet), let's take a look at the two most prominent themes in a successful first half.
The reversal of fortune between 2010 and 2011 begins with the defense. After giving up the second-most goals in MLS as an expansion club, the Union's goals against average is currently best in the East and fourth overall in MLS.
The lone newcomer to the starting unit, Carlos Valdés, has been nothing short of sensational. The 26-year-old Colombian center back has been a rock in the middle, playing at an All-Star level all season. It's difficult to pinpoint a flaw in Valdés' game; his speed, physicality, distribution and ball-winning have elevated Philadelphia's defense into one of the league's elite units.
Valdés hasn't been alone. Danny Califf has been dominant alongside Valdés in the middle, Sheanon Williams has emerged as one of the best right backs in MLS, and Jordan Harvey — who was traded to the Vancouver Whitecaps on Thursday in exchange for allocation money, presumably in preparation for the upcoming transfer window — was consistently reliable on the left. The replacement for Harvey will go a long way towards determining the unit's second half success.
It would also be foolish to ignore the impact of Faryd Mondragón in net and Brian Carroll in front of the back line.
Simply put, Mondragón's veteran leadership has re-shaped the identity of the club. He demands respect in the locker room and on the field, and it shows. Opponents have only mustered 2.71 shots on goal per game against the Union, a testament to Mondragón's organization of the back line and the fact that defenders take pride in keeping the ball away from the World Cup veteran. While Mondragón hasn't been tested as much as other elite 'keepers around the league, he's proven more than capable of making the big save when his club needs it most.
As for Carroll's impact, Union and FOX Soccer play-by-play commentator JP Dellacamera summed it up best in his latest blog post.
"Focus on him some night when you’re watching the Union play," Dellacamera wrote. "See how many passes he breaks up, how he disrupts the other team. Look at how many 50/50 balls he wins. To appreciate his play, forget the scoresheet or the stats, just watch him during the game."
Philadelphia scored only six goals in their first nine matches of the season, raising the obvious question: Was the addition of Carlos Ruiz hurting the established chemistry between Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Mwanga?
Ruiz, the third-leading scorer in MLS history among active players, returned to the league after a two-year hiatus with clubs in Paraguay, Mexico and Greece. While at times Philadelphia's attack hasn't been cohesive with Ruiz in the lineup, there's no doubting his production in key moments.
Despite missing time for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the Guatemalan international has scored all five of his goals in Union ties or wins, with all three victories decided by a single goal.
17 matches into the season, the offense still isn't fully clicking. But fortunately for the Union, the attack has shown signs of life since their anemic early form. Highlighted by a six-goal outburst in Toronto, Philadelphia's attack has had its moments, including five goals in the last two matches, a 3-2 comeback win vs. Chivas USA and a 2-2 comeback draw in D.C. on Saturday.
After a two-match adjustment period, the acquisition of Veljko Paunović is beginning to pay off. The Serbian registered a goal and an assist against Chivas and sent in the cross that led to Perry Kitchen's own goal this past weekend at RFK Stadium.
Justin Mapp has continued to re-establish himself as a dangerous winger after being relegated to a bench role in his final days with the Chicago Fire before a midseason trade to Philadelphia last year. Trinidadian midfielder Keon Daniel has also been very effective in a wide role when called upon.
Midfielders Roger Torres, Michael Farfan, Gabriel Farfan and Kyle Nakazawa have all chipped in a goal apiece, proving that this year's Union are far more offensively diverse than last year, when Le Toux contributed to a record 71.4 percent of the club's goals.
After an impressive rookie season, 19-year-old Danny Mwanga has taken the next step in his development. The 2010 number overall draft pick added noticeable bulk to his frame in the offseason, using it to shield the ball from defenders with regularity, an element of his game that was missing last season.
Mwanga's five goals, in only eight starts and 862 minutes, are tied for the club lead with Ruiz. Whether Mwanga should start or come off the bench — a role he has flourished in — has been one of the hot topics in the first half.
Then there's Le Toux, Philadelphia's lone All-Star in 2010, who led the league in combined goals and assists last year en route to a MLS Best XI selection. The Frenchman hasn't scored from the run of play this year — his lone tally coming off a penalty kick — but his impact has been undeniable.
Le Toux sets the tone with his relentless hustle, and his six assists are triple that of anyone else on the club. There have been chances missed for Philadelphia's first superstar, however, ones that must be converted more frequently for the club to reach their offensive potential.
It's difficult to imagine the Union ending the season atop the Eastern Conference if the offense doesn't improve in the second half. The Union have scored multiple goals on only four occasions this year, less than 25 percent of the club's matches.
With a healthy stable of offensive weapons, which includes second-year striker Jack McInerney, Nowak and Co. have the pieces to form a dynamic attack.
Whether Philadelphia can find a way to get their offense clicking consistently, while simultaneously maintaining a stingy defense, will determine the club's position in the table come season's end.