[MLS] On the field and at the gate, the expansion Philadelphia Union gave its fans and league officials optimism for next season and beyond, despite missing the playoffs.
ROUGH START, GOOD FINISH. The Union scratched for points while awaiting completion of its permanent home, PPL Park, and struggled to a 2-7-1 start in league play. Yet it won its first game in Philly; at Lincoln Financial Field, Sebastien Le Toux hit a hat trick in a 3-2 thumping of D.C. United, which eventually would occupy last place in the Eastern Conference.
It also opened PPL Park June 27 with a 3-1 defeat of 2009 expansion team Seattle and while it never got into serious contention for a playoff spot, it could finish as high as fourth in the Eastern Conference if it can beat Columbus in its season finale. It is also fourth in average attendance with 19,254 fans per game.
STARTING YOUNG. Philly started its youth movement full-bore by trading up to nab three of first seven players in the SuperDraft, and using each pick on a young player. Oregon State striker Danny Mwanga went No. 1, and a few picks later the Union took UCLA midfielder Amobi Okugo and U-17 forward Jack McInerney. Nowak also acquired 18-year-old Colombian midfielder Roger Torres and drafted another Bruin, Kyle Nakazawa, in the third round.
The coach spotted those youngsters into a lineup with veterans Fred, Alejandro Moreno, Danny Califf, Stefani Miglioranzi and Le Toux. A late-season acquisition of Justin Mapp added more flair to the midfield; with a game to play, Le Toux ranked among the league top scorers and viable MVP candidates with 13 goals and 11 assists, and Mwanga led all rookies with seven goals.
“We play the ball on the ground and there’s pressure, most of the time,” says Nowak of his team’s playing style. “There is a good part of being physical and we never stop playing. We never give up and never back down regardless of the result. That’s our trademark, with crazy coach on the sideline.”
PROBLEM SPOTS. Former U.S. U-23 goalkeeper Chris Seitz began the season as the starter yet gave way to former Rev Brad Knighton for the final two months of the season as Philly conceded 46 goals, third-worst in the league. Cristian Arrieta couldn’t hold down the right back slot and Sheanon Williams came over from Harrisburg City Islanders (USL-2) to finish the season. After Le Toux and Mwanga, the scoring drops off sharply; Fred has four, and Moreno has managed just two goals in 25 games though does have six assists. The central defensive pairing of Danny Califf and Michael Orozco needs to be tighter and more consistent.
OUTLOOK. A year after filling its roster from the expansion draft, Nowak and his staff will plot which players to protect with the two newest teams, Vancouver and Portland, preparing to make their selections Nov. 24. Though team management has stated it’s not interested in pursuing a Designated Player, it is definitely expecting to make the playoffs, which would require an improvement of at least 10 points from its total of 31 this season (8-14-7). With Nowak’s contacts in Europe and powers of persuasion, a move could be made if the right player is found at the right price. He’s already instilled a work ethic and spirit that a raucous fan base in a sports-crazy city demands.
“The expectations are good but they are realistic,” says Nowak. “We have done a lot of work with the players and they have pushed themselves very hard to be better. That’s a very positive sign. But we are still developing as a group. We are pleased with where we are right now but we are looking for more. That is the future.”