Faryd Mondragon admitted that while he was sidelined for seven games, the inactivity was tough to take. The Union captain had suffered a broken finger in a 2-1 Major League Soccer loss Sept. 3 at Real Salt Lake.
In his place, rookie Zac MacMath more than held the fort, going 3-0-4 and showing why the Union chose him as the No. 5 overall selection in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft.
Still, the 40-year-old Mondragon provides a veteran's presence that is even more valued in the playoffs, when defenses tighten and goals seem to be more difficult to come by.
Mondragon promises to be a huge presence as the Union begin the first of their two-game aggregate-goal semifinal series with the Houston Dynamo on Sunday at PPL Park. (The game will begin at either 4 or 5 p.m., depending on the results of this week's wild-card matchups.) Game 2 is Nov. 3 at Houston.
What truly helped Mondragon was his return for the final two regular-season games, a 1-1 draw against visiting Toronto on Oct. 15 and Thursday's 1-0 loss at Red Bull Arena against the New York Red Bulls.
"It was very important getting 180 minutes in before the playoffs," Mondragon said this week after a Union practice. "Now I am focused on the playoffs and concentrating on what we have coming up."
Mondragon was able to shake off the rust.
"It was really frustrating, especially since we had seven games in that time and I am not used to being out," he said. "It was really hard to see the game from the outside."
Mondragon had a strong game in his last outing despite the loss. He kept the Union in the game by making two big first-half saves, coming off his line quickly to stop potential New York scoring chances.
But he disagreed with a suggestion that the regular-season finale was among his better performances this season.
"No, I think the first half I had to make a couple of saves, but the second half I didn't have much work," he said. "If the team got the win, then I would have been more than happy."
Mondragon doesn't like to talk about his formerly broken finger, but basically if he's out there, he's fine.
"It is feeling very well, and hopefully we can do the job here in the playoffs," he said.
During his first season with the Union, Mondragon was the team's lone all-star representative. In 27 games, he was tied for third in MLS in goals-against average with 1.06.
"He's a great goalkeeper, a great leader, and really seems to have the respect of his teammates," Houston coach Dominic Kinnear said Tuesday in a phone interview. "He has a great feel for the game and putting his teammates in the right position."
Rob Vartughian, the Union assistant coach/goalkeeping coordinator, said those last two games were extremely important and even more so was Mondragon's playing so well in the finale.
"He was moving well, seeing the ball well," Vartughian said. "He had a great week of practice and it extended in the game."
More than anything, Mondragon offers the Union a certain level of comfort entering the postseason.
"This is obviously where you will see his experience and leadership," Vartughian said. "Hopefully, that will translate into a good collective defensive effort on our part and it's good to have such an experienced player in goal as we enter the postseason."