Photo by Patricia Globetti/ISIPhotos.com
By JOSE M. ROMERO
PHILADELPHIA — Danny Mwanga, for once, looked around and saw that he was the grizzled vet on the field at one point in the second half of his Philadelphia Union's friendly against Everton of England last Wednesday night.
The Union had brought in subs — academy players and young senior roster guys — and Mwanga, at the tender age of 20, was older than half of his teammates on the field.
"I was able to stay up top and try to be strong, and try to direct the young guys what to do and where to be on the ball," Mwanga said.
Mwanga has some leadership credibility. He's been a part of the Union as long as any original member of the club — a total of one full season and a half. The former first overall pick in the 2010 MLS Superdraft — to the expansion Union that January — is starting to put it all together in his second season.
Not that his rookie season was a bad one. Mwanga, the native of Congo by way of Portland, Ore., scored seven goals in 24 games in 2010, starting 17 matches. This season, Mwanga is a part-time starter with five goals and three assists in a total of 17 MLS matches.
He's one reason for the Union's success this season, some pressure taken off of him to produce with Carlos Ruiz and Sebastien LeToux taking most of the shots on offense.
At 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds, Mwanga is wiry but not widely viewed as imposing. Still, Union fans saw something from the striker they probably liked against Everton — Mwanga exchanging some contact and not backing down from Dutch national team and Everton defender John Heitinga during a scuffle in the box.
"It was our home field," Mwanga said. "I don't think playing at PPL Park that we're going to back down from anyone. Just coming in here and playing against them I think was really good confidence for us… we really showed that we were capable of playing against them."
Mwanga, like his teammates, is quite pleased with the Union's performance this season. Philly is unbeaten at home this season, undefeated in its last five league matches and tied for first place in the Eastern Conference at 31 points with Columbus. That's the season point total for the club in 2010, and it has already attained that level. Plus the Union have two games in hand over the Crew and four over the second-place New York Red Bulls as the MLS All-Star Game approaches this week.
"It's something that we have had to work for, starting from the preseason to now," Mwanga said. "Everyone's done a really good job of working on some areas of our game. We're definitely moving in the right direction… we're capable of doing much better than we're doing right now."
The foundation for 2011 was put in place last season, when Mwanga felt the Union was a better team with little to show for it because of key mistakes that cost the team games.
"My confidence level is really high," Mwanga said. "I'm telling myself that I'm capable of playing in this league. I'm capable of coming in and doing some damage."
Mwanga is motivated by being able to see the improvement in his game from one season to the next. He's headed back to Portland to spend some time with his family this week, and he gets another crack at his hometown team, the Timbers, at PPL Park on Sept. 10.