About a month ago, it appeared as though Philadelphia Union's promising second season was at risk of collapse. The early-season euphoria that had accompanied the club's first foray to the top of the Eastern Conference table had quickly turned into fear of a late-season meltdown.
Then, straight off an eight-match winless streak – the longest in club history – the Union reversed course and began an unbeaten streak that currently sits at seven.
So what turned Philadelphia's regular season around, setting up a potential playoff clincher in the club's home finale Saturday against Toronto FC?
Here are five key factors.
The revival of Sebastien Le Toux
Le Toux's return to form has been the most commonly cited factor during the club's unbeaten run, and rightfully so. Le Toux has launched himself into MVP contention with a flurry of goals and, most recently, a deadly assist last Saturday against Seattle. Le Toux has silenced any critics who were calling his breakout 2010 a fluke, and more importantly he's provided the scoring spark the Union were seeking.
It's not as if Le Toux wasn't a valuable piece of the puzzle even when he wasn't scoring – he was, without question – but Philadelphia needed him to start finding the back of the net with some regularity.
Mission accomplished, and then some.
The collective impact of twins Michael and Gabriel Farfan – especially recently during the club's unbeaten streak – has been tremendous.
In fact, perhaps no factor can be as closely traced to Philadelphia's reversal of form than the emergence of Michael as a full-time starter. After coming on at halftime when the Union were down 4-1 to the New England Revolution on September 7, Michael has started and played 90 minutes in six consecutive games. Not coincidentally, the Union have not lost in the same span.
The rookie from UNC has blossomed into one of the most exciting young midfielders in MLS, displaying ankle-breaking dribbling moves, pinpoint passing and a flair for the dramatic goal. Both of his tallies this year have given the Union a lead, and let's not forget his sublime goal against Real Madrid. Michael's make-something-out-of-nothing assist on Le Toux's equalizing goal against Sporting KC may very well have tipped the balance of power in the East this season.
Then there's Gabriel, a preseason trialist who transitioned from his natural midfield role to become the club's starting left back. His learning curve has seen some minor speed bumps along the way, as can be expected, but overall he's been an undeniably pleasant surprise.
And when Gabriel ventures forward into the attack, it's apparent he's been there before. Case in point: his assist on Freddy Adu's game-winner in Seattle. On a play eerily similar to Michael's assist in Kansas City, Gabriel had the offensive wherewithal to keep a ball in play inches from the endline and turn it into a game-changing dagger.
What, exactly, is the younger Farfan brother, Louie, up to these days?
MacMath to the rescue
When Faryd Mondragón went down with a broken finger in Salt Lake, no one quite knew how Zac MacMath would respond. The first sign was positive – a scoreless second half. The second? Not so much. A four-goal first half against New England marked the low point of Philadelphia's season. The goals weren't MacMath's fault, but the veteran leadership of Mondragón appeared sorely missed.
585 minutes – and only four goals – later, MacMath looks every bit like the franchise goalkeeper he was drafted to be with the fifth overall pick of the 2011 SuperDraft. The Maryland product is mobile, decisive, fearless, and positionally-aware beyond his years. The Union are unbeaten with MacMath in net, a testament not only to his form but also the confidence his teammates have shown with him protecting the net.
While MacMath will likely take a backseat to Mondragón when the veteran returns to action – which could be as early as this weekend – the 20-year-old has made a lot of people feel very comfortable with Philadelphia's long-term goalkeeper prognosis.
Keepin' it fresh
Aside from Le Toux – the only non-goalkeeper in MLS to play every minute of every league game this season – the ever-reliable Brian Carroll, and the rock solid backline trio of Sheanon Williams, Danny Califf and Carlos Valdes, no Union field player has logged more than 1715 minutes. While at times the lineup decisions of the technical staff are surprising, it's easy to lose perspective.
When manager Peter Nowak doesn't play Danny Mwanga or Roger Torres for 90 minutes, he may be making a purely tactical decision for a specific game. Or he may be preserving his talented young guns for later in the season. Or maybe a little of both. Point is, the strategy appears to have worked. With rested players at a premium this time of year, the fresh legs of youngsters like Mwanga, Torres, Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo, Kyle Nakazawa, and the Farfans, among others, will come in handy.
One could easily argue they already have.
Taking care of business in the East
Even when the Union have struggled this season, there's one thing they've rarely done: lose to Eastern Conference opponents. On the season, Philadelphia boast a 7-1-6 mark against their East foes, losing only to Columbus away.
Over the most recent seven-match unbeaten run, the Union are 2-0-2 within their conference, including massive wins against Columbus and DC, as well as an equally important comeback draw at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park. What that means, of course, is that while the Union were racking up points en route to the top of the conference, they were preventing other teams in the East from keeping pace.
Regardless of past success, however, the final two games of the regular season – against two East teams – will determine whether the Union head into the postseason as the East's top seed. That is, unless the Union take three points from Toronto and Kansas City don't from New York this weekend. Should that scenario unfold, Columbus would need to win their last two games and make up a goal differential of at least 13 – a virtual impossibility – to prevent Philadelphia from finishing in first place, irrespective of how the Union fare in New York to close out the regular season.