When Philadelphia Union drafted Danny Mwanga number one overall in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, the club clearly had high hopes for the dynamic striker out of Oregon State University.
Mwanga had it all – size, strength, vision, dribbling skills, a nose for the net and the work ethic to maximize his many talents. But Mwanga hit a funk after starting the first match in Union history, appearing in only two of the next five league matches and often looking tentative when he was on the field.
Then came the turning point.
In Philadelphia’s second home game in club history against FC Dallas, Mwanga’s game-tying, stoppage time strike helped the Union earn a point in thrilling fashion. The rookie’s first career goal was an obvious confidence booster - he went on to score stoppage time goals in the next two games including the game-winner against Houston.
WATCH: Mwanga’s first career goal
What wasn’t so obvious at the time, though, was that the goal effectively commenced a potentially record-breaking season.
The MLS record for goals scored by a rookie in a season is 11, set by Damani Ralph in 2003 with the Chicago Fire. Mwanga has seven goals with 11 league matches left to play, putting him within reasonable striking distance of making history.
While he still has his work cut out for him, Mwanga’s odds of catching Ralph have never seemed so favorable. He’s scored in two straight matches after missing two in a row with a groin sprain, with his latest tally serving as the equalizer against Colorado on Saturday.
“He (Sebastien Le Toux) was fighting for the ball and no one was in the box so I just had to make sure I got there just in case the ball came across,” Mwanga said when asked about the goal after the match. “I made a perfect run in the right moment and he played a perfect ball right in front of me so I just had to control it because I had a defender on my back and hit it in the goal.”
The goal and subsequent 1-1 draw may not be enough to help the Union enter the playoff picture, but yet again Mwanga and Le Toux confirmed that the club managed to find two elite attackers between the SuperDraft and MLS Expansion Draft.
Regardless of Philadelphia’s record come season end, having the luxury of building for the future around a 26-year-old with all the qualities of a perfect superstar and a teenager already showing signs of his unlimited upside is more than anyone could’ve expected just over halfway through the club’s inaugural season.
After surprising some with the selection of Mwanga over other highly touted college options such as number two overall pick Tony Tchani and number three pick Ike Opara, Union Manager Peter Nowak is understandably pleased with the progress of his prized rookie.
“He is becoming a really great player,” Nowak said after Saturday’s match. “He’s still young, still developing in the right direction, but it’s great to see his first touch, his finish, is very cool. He doesn’t need to have five or six chances, he’s going to bury it when he has one, and that’s great to see.”
A quick glance at the statistics proves Nowak is on to something. In fact, Mwanga’s finishing efficiency is unrivaled amongst the top scorers in MLS this season.
The 19-year-old has notched his seven goals on only 20 total shots and 12 shots on goal. To put his 35% shots-to-goals rate in perspective, Edson Buddle is at 19%, Juan Pablo Ángel is at 15%, Le Toux is at 14%, Fredy Montero is at 12.5%, and Ralph finished his record-breaking campaign at 12%.
Accounting for all players with seven goals or more this season, the next lowest number of total shots is 31 by Seattle’s Steve Zakuani, 55% higher than Mwanga’s 20. Within the same elite group, only Buddle is scoring goals at a more efficient per minute rate than Mwanga.
According to Mwanga -- whose goal total is currently tied for seventh in the league and first among rookies -- following the lead of Le Toux and veteran forward Alejandro Moreno has a lot to do with his emergence in such a short time frame.
“It is great that we (Mwanga and other young Union players) were given the opportunity of playing with great guys such as Alejandro Moreno and Sebastien Le Toux, and we have to make sure that we can learn from them so that we can get better and better because the future of the team should be us.”
If Mwanga’s goal scoring prowess this season is any indication, one large part of the club’s future is already prepared to take center stage. That doesn’t mean, however, that he can’t continue to get better and better.
“It definitely gives you a lot of confidence when you score a goal and it gives you motivation telling you that you should be able to do it more,” Mwanga said. “I will keep working hard and hopefully I will keep doing what I am doing right now until the end of the season.”
If Mwanga keeps doing what he’s been doing, the Union will have more than just a talented young striker on their hands – they’ll have a record-breaking one.
Five goals, 11 matches.
As they say, the chase is on.