The Union are at the midway point of their 34-game Major League Soccer schedule with a 7-4-6 record, standing in second place in the Eastern Conference, one point behind the New York Red Bulls but with two games in hand.

For a second-year franchise the team has certainly exceeded expectations after going 8-15-7 in its inaugural season.

What's interesting is that the expectations have risen, and games such as 1-1 home draws with Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City actually felt like losses because the Union controlled most of the play.

Either way, team manager Peter Nowak won't allow the Union to become complacent, and when asked if he is surprised at where the Union stand, he replied: "Yes and no."

Nowak then expanded.

"We have had a good start and have gotten the attention from other teams," he said. "We have a team that is difficult to beat, and teams have to play their best to get a good result against us."

That is what Nowak likes most about his team this year.

"It is big progress," he said. "Of course everybody expects us to continue this way."

The biggest reason for improvement has been the defense. Central defender Carlos Valdes and goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon have been major additions. Valdes has arguably been the Union's best player and should be a lock to make the all-star team. Not flashy, he has brought stability to the back line.

It says here that fellow central defender Danny Califf should also be an all-star, and outside back Sheanon Wiliams also warrants consideration. The other outside back was Jordan Harvey, but he was traded on Thursday to Vancouver for allocation money. Harvey, who started 45 of 47 games with the Union was a solid performer whom the team deemed expendable.

The biggest weakness last season was in goal, and Mondragon has brought stability and veteran leadership. He hasn't had to make many outstanding saves, but as assistant coach John Hackworth pointed out earlier in the year, Mondragon does such a good job positioning himself that he doesn't often need to make that spectacular save.

If appears teams are sensing a potential weakness and are shooting low on him. Mondragon isn't the quickest coming off his line, but he has made a major difference and has given the Union great confidence.

The midfield has been solid, and it's the place where players have been rotated the most. One can see why Nowak is so high on Brian Carroll, a defensive midfielder, whose underrated play is truly appreciated when he's seen on a game-by-game basis.

The recent addition of Vejko Paunovic has brought an offensive presence to the midfield. The team has benefited already from his passing accuracy and field vision.

The one area that needs more consistency is up front. Carlos Ruiz has made some plays that few others in MLS can make, such as the spectacular goal in the 2-1 win over Chicago. He also goes long stretches without touching the ball.

Want to get Nowak going? Mention the inconsistency of Ruiz.

"I am angry with the whole assessment of when Carlos isn't scoring that he isn't working," Nowak said. "If you don't see what he brings to the table, then it's not fair. There are some guys who have one chance and will finish it, and that is Carlos."

Sebastien Le Toux has been a good distributor but is looking to find his scoring touch. A 14-goal scorer last year, he has just one this season, on a penalty kick.

Le Toux played up top last season and has been asked to move back to the midfield. He has had scoring chances but hasn't finished them. On the plus side, he has a team-high six assists.

"He works so hard, and I would be worried if he didn't have the scoring chances," Nowak said.

And then there is Danny Mwanga, who, along with Ruiz, has a team-high five goals and has improved his shot this season, evident by a blast in a 1-1 draw at Colorado and in scoring the game-winner in 3-2 triumph over Chivas USA. It says here that he is the team's most dangerous offensive player.

The fact that the team has allowed four goals in the last two games needs to be addressed, and the offense must be more consistent. But for a second-year team, the Union have shown that they are among the most improved MLS teams and, in a league with parity, a contender for the MLS Cup.

That's why they have to get a midseason grade of A. While championships aren't won on midseason grades, it's better to be in the Union's position today than the one they occupied at this time last year.