[MLS SPOTLIGHT] Peter Nowak is regarded as among the more secretive of MLS head coaches, but in his own way he hinted last month during the MLS SuperDraft that the renovation of his roster was far from finished.
“We don’t want to scramble at the draft table and thinking how it’s going to be and what it’s going to be,” he said at the time, in the wake of several foreign signings and other moves. “We addressed these issues with Gabriel Gomez and Perfidio Lopez and Josue Martinez, and we’re still looking.”
Long before a trade that sent Sebastien Le Toux to Vancouver was announced Tuesday morning, the club’s interest in Colombian forward Lionard Pajoy had been reported. His signing was announced Wednesday.
He is not the mix of creator and finisher that is Le Toux, and he won’t be asked to be. At age 30, he’ll be the senior member – at least for now – among a pool of strikers that includes the much younger Danny Mwanga (20), Jack McInerney (19), Martinez (21), and SuperDraft pick Chandler Hoffman (21).
“The more, the better,” Nowak told reporters in a conference call Wednesday. “I’ve always expressed we need to have options and we need to have healthy competition.”
Pajoy’s move to Philly is his first foray outside his native country, where he’s scored 47 goals in 215 appearances for several teams. The 6-foot-1 striker is unlike any player the Union has signed since it commenced MLS play as an expansion team in 2010; while physically he resembles Mwanga, he’s much more experienced than the 2010 No. 1 SuperDraft pick.
“He’s very physical and very fast,” Nowak said of Pajoy. “He can change the game with everything. He’s a different option. He’s all over the place and very mobile and he can always create something for whoever is gonna play up top with him.”
Nowak rejects assertions that perhaps the Union is too young, though it did ship out Le Toux to raise the allocation money to sign former loanee Roger Torres(20) to a permanent deal, and also features Freddy Adu (22) and Amobi Okugo (20) among its midfielders. There’s experience on board with MLS veteran Brian Carroll(31) and Panamanian international Gomez (27), so Nowak is perhaps not as dependent on his young players than his statements indicate.
“Experience is at the end of the list,” Nowak said. “Everyone started freaking out how young we are but they forget that most of these guys have already played one or two seasons in Major League Soccer, and they’ve already scored goals in Major League Soccer.”
The addition of Martinez is another indication Nowak wants a more fluid, quicker attack. Though Carlos Ruiz scored six goals in 14 games in 2011 before being sold to Mexican club Veracruz, the attack sometimes stagnated when the play went through him to the detriment of Adu and Torrres, which left Le Toux probing futilely for the right run or pass.
“I’m fast, I’m always trying to get inside the box, I can move with the ball really well, and I’m trying to support the team constantly,” said Martinez (5-foot-10, 160), a former star of Costa Rica’s U-20 team who scored 19 goals in 66 games for Deportivo Saprissa, for which he played against Real Salt Lake and Seattle in the 2010-11 Concacaf Champions League. Martinez set up a goal for Saprissa in a 2-0 defeat of the Sounders in group play and started both legs of the semifinals that RSL won, 3-2, on aggregate.
The changes also suggest that Mwanga and McInerney won’t be playing much if they don’t improve significantly, and that Adu’s probable absence to play for the U.S. Olympic team doesn’t guarantee added playing time for anybody. Nowak wants tough competition on the training field to produce greater intensity in matches.
Veljko Paunovic has retired after scoring three goals in 17 matches last year, bringing the number of goals lost from last year’s squad of attackers to 23, counting goals scored by Ruiz and midfielder Justin Mapp (three), who was claimed by Montreal in the Expansion Draft. Le Toux led the team with 11 after bagging 14 in Philly’s expansion year and only time will tell if that drastic change and other moves have been the right ones.
“I think this is a great combination right now,” says Nowak. “I’m very happy what we have in this group.”