SIX GOALS in nine matches do not make for an easy road being a contender.

But despite its offensive woes, the Union has somehow managed to do it.

The team is in second place in Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference, with 14 points, just behind Red Bull New York and its star-studded cast of designated players, rookie of the year candidates and Estonian stalwarts.

But it hasn't been because of the offense. Keep in mind it was Danny Califf, a central defender, who opened the Union's goal count this season in Dallas.

If you look at what the Union has put out on the pitch in terms of offense, much of it, other than Carlos Ruiz, is the same cast from last season.

So why is it so different from last year, when the Union had 12 goals in its first nine games of the season, yet remained buried in the standings?

"There is a lot of ineffective running going on," Union manager Peter Nowak said emphatically. "Don't get me wrong, I want guys to challenge for the ball, but we need to recognize that we don't need a Sebastien Le Toux running from one guy to another. We need to have the three or four guys behind him recognizing runs off the ball."

It's true. Take a deeper look, you'll find Le Toux is the Union's version of the Energizer bunny, tirelessly chasing down defenders and breaking up counterattacks. But once he has regained possession, who's making that supporting run to him? Who's making the runs out wide to stretch the pitch and deliver the cross? Who's crashing the box for the cross?

It's not only Le Toux. You have Roger Torres floating well-placed balls over the heads of the opposition's defense, with little to no avail; Amobi Okugo or Brian Carroll breaking up a play in midfield, only to see his efforts go flat on attack.

Scoring chances from multiple balls played across an opponent's goal mouth that have found no one on the other end to poke them home are too numerous to count. Don't get me wrong, the chances have been there and the Union is taking some, but of its 73 shots this season, only 24 have been on goal, and only six have found the back of the net - an MLS low.

"We need to do a better job of reading the game," Nowak said. "So that we don't have one guy chasing one guy to the other, to the other. That was my message to the team [this week] and it's something that will come with maturation and participation."

KICKING STEREOTYPES

 Peter Nowak was MIA from the sideline for the Union's game against the Galaxy. Many thought he was in his native Poland to play in a charity game called the "Match of Stars," and he was. But Nowak explained that the trip further enabled him to be an ambassador, not only to promote the Union brand, but to also promote the United States as a nation that has taken great strides to put itself on a level playing field with the rest of the world soccer powers.

"These guys don't respect the league, because they don't know the league, noted Nowak, who said his trip included a lecture on the American game at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, plus multiple television appearances.

"They don't know American soccer. They don't know the youth system in place or the structure. They don't know about any of the players except maybe [Landon] Donovan and [Clint] Dempsey, so my being over there was to introduce American soccer and the Philadelphia Union to the European world."

The MLS has strived to become a legit outfit and not a place for aging South American and European stars to finish out their careers. Efforts placed on developing homegrown stars, plus a mix of recognizable names in select markets, have sustained the league and brought much attention to the American game.

Many of the players who helped the United States get to the second round of last year's FIFA World Cup either still play or got their start in MLS. The United States ranks 22nd in the latest FIFA world rankings released Wednesday and hasn't dropped out of the top 25 in the last 5 years.

If not for a 1-0 loss to Monterrey in the CONCACAF Champions League final last month, Real Salt Lake would have become the first MLS team to qualify for December's FIFA Club World Cup.

"[Europeans] need to start looking at U.S. soccer and MLS as good players who can compete both over here and in Europe," said Nowak, who, before joining the Union, was an assistant under U.S. coach Bob Bradley and headed the Under-23 team that competed in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. "It was a trip to open the minds of the Europeans, and I am glad I was given permission to do that."

ODDS AND ENDLINES

 While scores of supporters are ecstatic now that the July 23 exhibition against Real Madrid match is official (9 p.m., Lincoln Financial Field), a few who already purchased airfare and tickets for the Union's previously scheduled affair against Seattle at Qwest Field aren't as happy.

For some, such as Mike Januszowski and his wife Peg, who were all booked for the Emerald City, a trip to see their favorite team has become just a trip.

"The worst part about it is that we won't even get to the see the Real game, because we're all set for this trip," Mike wrote in an email. "We are schoolteachers so it's impossible for us to make the [rescheduled date on] Oct. 8 match, too. Not cool, Union. Not cool."

Remember Robert Pires? He is the Frenchman the Union sought to bring to Philly until he dissed the city by calling it dirty. Well, he told the Associated Press this week that New York forward Thierry Henry, his good buddy and fellow Frenchman, has been lobbying to get him into MLS. We will let the Sons of Ben and the Illegitimates in Section 133 have fun with that one.

SHOTS ON GOAL

Upcoming game:

Chicago (1-3-5, eight points) at Union (4-3-2, 14 points)

When: Tomorrow, 8 o'clock

Where: PPL Park, Chester

TV: Comcast SportsNet; Galavision (hour delay)

On the web: Streaming online at MLSSoccer.com

For kicks: Don't sleep on Chicago just because of its poor start. The team is loaded with young stars and is coming off a 2-2 comeback tie against Toronto FC that certainly provides confidence moving into tomorrow's clash. Midfielder Corben Bone and 19-year-old forward Orr Barouch were heroes in last week's draw, making Fire coach Carlos de los Cobos look like a genius after bringing Barouch on as a second-half substitute . . . The Fire has offense fueled by forward Marco Pappa and Diego Chaves, who both lead Chicago with four goals apiece. However the duo accounts for two-thirds of the team's total (12), leaving a major dropoff in another offensive threat . . .The game will be a reunion of sorts for midfielder Justin Mapp, who spent eight seasons in Chicago before joining the Union last July.

INJURY REPORT

Out for the Union: Thorne Holder, GK (concussion); MF Zach Pfeffer (appendectomy). Doubtful: Stefani Miglioranzi, MF (right groin strain). Questionable: Juan Diego Gonzalez, DF (illness). Probable: Faryd Mondragon, GK (right groin strain); Gabe Farfan, MF (left hamstring strain); Danny Mwanga, FW (right shoulder strain)

Out for Chicago: Mike Banner, MF (left Achilles' tendinitis); Steven Kinney, DF (right Achilles' repair); Patrick Nyarko, MF (concussion symptoms); Michael Videira, MF (concussion symptoms). Doubtful: Marko Maric, MF (left deltoid sprain/contusion). Questionable: Pari Pantazopolous, MF (left quad contusion); Josip Mikulic, DF (left shoulder injury). Probable: Sean Johnson, GK (right quad strain).

QUOTABLE: "The loss wasn't a slap in the face, per se . . . but that game was a good wake up call for us." - Union manager Peter Nowak on his team's 2-0 loss to FC Dallas in last Saturday in Frisco, Texas.