Union's defense committee impenetrable
"The whole is more than the sum of its parts." - Aristotle IN THE CASE OF the defensive corps of the Union, it has been the sum of many parts making up a whole that has been virtually unstoppable.
"The whole is more than the sum of its parts."
IN THE CASE OF the defensive corps of the Union, it has been the sum of many parts making up a whole that has been virtually unstoppable.
Faryd Mondragon, Danny Califf, Carlos Valdes, Jordan Harvey and Sheanon Williams have allowed just two goals in five MLS games. Mondragon has been near perfect; his 0.40 goals-against average sits just behind Real Salt Lake's Nick Rimando (0.33 GAA) for best in the league. But Mondragon can't - and won't - take all the credit. Thanks to the defense, he has made only nine saves on 12 shots toward his net in 450 minutes of work.
"We have been very organized, very disciplined, and everyone is doing what exactly has to be done," Mondragon said. "The thing is that usually the ball doesn't get to me a lot but that is a credit to the defense around me; they do a very good job and we need to be concentrated on continuing that success."
What makes this bunch so effective? You find out when you break down the parts.
* Faryd Mondragon (aka El General)
Mondragon speaks softly, but he commands with a poise that mimics an Army general. He doesn't scream - at his teammates, anyway - but it's as if subconsciously the four in front know where he needs them to be. Mondragon, 39, is a spiritual man who prays before and after every game and has been divine intervention for the Union since he was announced as the replacement for Chris Seitz.
"He has just brought a lot of the experience and confidence that we just didn't have," Califf said. "He hasn't had a lot of work to do, but he does a lot of the work in the back that you don't see: being vocal, communicating. and with his presence."
His presence itself is intimidating. At 6-3, 207 pounds, Mondragon adds a menacing, glass-eyed stare.
"He hasn't seen a lot of shots, but a guy of his pedigree doesn't rest during the flow of a game," said goalkeeper coach Rob Vartughian. "With a guy like Faryd, as a coach you never have to worry about him taking a mental break. He's just not wired to be that way."
* Danny Califf (aka the Live Wire)
Califf's playing style was best described as having a "switch" that he turns on and off. Califf, who makes tackles so violent at times, you wonder whether he realizes he's playing soccer and not rugby, is the same player postgame you can find kicking a soccer ball and tossing around his three young kids on the pitch. Califf, 31, came to the Union last year as its most experienced player. A former U.S. national teamer and winner of two MLS Cups (2003, 2005) during a 6-year stint Los Angeles (Califf also played a season in San Jose), the former Union captain is a true veteran champion.
"He has an awareness in the back that is reassuring," said Harvey. "Danny doesn't give up - especially on a challenge. You need guys like him as your center back. With his experience, very rarely does a guy like him get beat."
But, last year, cohesion was something missing alongside Califf. It arrived in February by way of . . .
* Carlos Valdes, (aka Senor Garantia/Mr. Assurance)
At only 25, Valdes has already led by example on multiple fronts. Before joining the Union, Valdes captained Colombian clubs America de Cali and Independiente Santa Fe. His locker at PPL Park sits adjacent to Mondragon's and the two share a connection that closes on brotherhood.
"I have a lot of appreciation for Faryd," said Valdes, who has also played with Mondragon on the Colombian national team. "I know how he likes to play his football, and I like to play that way."
In the case of Califf, one wonders whether Valdes knows that the feeling is mutual.
"I think it's relatively easy to develop a partnership when you are playing with a good player," Califf said. "I think he and I actually are pretty similar in the way that we think about the game and go about playing. We're both ball-winning center backs, and we read each other nonverbally pretty well. It's good, because you don't always have the luxury of hearing each other on the field all the time."
* Jordan Harvey (aka the Quiet Consummate)
Maybe it's the Southern California in him that makes Harvey so relaxed. You'd never know by the way Harvey goes about his work that his quiet demeanor is just a front. He loves the limelight. One Union office type joked, "He'll do any appearance, anytime. He loves that stuff."
But that off-field persona doesn't translate onto the pitch. Taking up space as starting left back, Harvey is the overshadowed one who does everything right. Since last season - hell, since his days in Colorado with the Rapids - Harvey has been the defender who does all the little things exceptionally well, providing security that doesn't just make him a cog. Spreads the field? Check. Good on clearances? Check. Known to lay out a well-timed hit on a 50-50 challenge from time to time? Double check.
"There aren't words to describe a player like Jordan, his soccer is just effective," Union manager Peter Nowak said. "His work ethic speaks for itself, and he is one of the guys on this team we rely on to impact the game."
Even if it goes unnoticed.
* Sheanon Williams (aka the Welcomed Surprise)
When Williams was brought up from PDL affiliate Harrisburg City, a fan wrote an email to the Daily News that read: "Who the hell is Shannon Williams? I never heard of this player. Please provide insight, thanks."
To which the reply simply stated: "Well first, it's spelled SHEA-non, and just wait and see . . . "
Soon after, the 20-year-old made himself a Union mainstay and a must to round out Nowak's 4-4-2 formation. As an outside back, Williams has speed that is perfect for the formation, allowing options down the right flank. His speed and low center of gravity are also effective in getting inside and taking the ball off an opponent. It's a style he displayed in a systematic shutdown of the Red Bulls' designated player Thierry Henry earlier in Week 4.
"Sheanon is that spark we needed to be effective," Harvey said. "He is a big-time defender and has the talent to push forward and create chances. He's really good at what he does and proves it when he's out there on the field. He's just another guy that makes our group that much better."
The last part of Harvey's statement can be applied to all the parts of this quintet and still make perfect sense.
SHOTS ON GOAL
Upcoming game: San Jose (1-3-2, 5 points) at Union (3-1-1, 10 points)
When: Tomorrow, 4 o'clock
Where: PPL Park, Chester
On the web: Streaming video at MLSSoccer.com
For kicks: San Jose sits in last place in the Western Conference and is coming off a 2-1 loss to Chivas USA in which Chivas rallied from behind to win . . . Frustration has set in for head coach Frank Yallop, who publicly chastised his team's lack of "fight and endeavor" following last Saturday's loss . . . Yallop has used six different lineups in all games with little result. He told MLSSoccer.com: "I need to shake it up now, because what is out there ain't good enough. Not even close." San Jose still remains a threat with such players as forward Chris Wondolowski, local product Bobby Convey, goalkeeper Jon Busch (his 1.50 goals against average ranks 12th in MLS) and budding rookie Anthony Ampaipitakwong . . . The Union is coming off a week break, with the game against Real Salt Lake rescheduled for Sept. 3 . . . Tomorrow is Autism Awareness Day, in addition to Dollar Dog Day at PPL Park.
INJURY REPORT (as of Tuesday)
Doubtful for the Union: Gabe Farfan, MF (right little toe dislocation); Probable: Jordan Harvey, DF (left hamstring strain); Brian Carroll, MF (right hamstring strain); Justin Mapp, MF (left hamstring strain).
Out for San Jose: Andre Luiz, MF (left knee injury); Doubtful: Tim Ward, DF (right hamstring strain); Questionable: Joey Gjertsen, MF (right groin strain); Matt Luzunaris, MF (left hip flexor strain)
DID YOU KNOW . . . San Jose has had a partnership with English premier league giant Tottenham Hotspur since 2008? The two clubs have held matches at their respective grounds, and San Jose has sent many of its youth players to train with the London club. Though it's yet to lead to any loan spells or major transfers, the deal is a trend beginning to take hold among MLS teams.