By Paul Gardner
When Bob Bradley led the Chicago Fire to the 1998 MLS championship he set down a marker for first-year expansion clubs in the league: they didn't have to be doormats.
So far, no one has repeated his success. Rather the opposite. In 2005, Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake were the expansion teams, and they turned out to be the two worst teams in the league. In 2007 it was Toronto’s turn, and they also were the league’s worst team. And the same thing happened in 2008 with San Jose.
Sigi Schmid did a lot better with Seattle last year -- only three teams had more points than the Sounders in the regular season, and they made the first round of the playoffs -- the first expansion team to do that since the far-off days of 1998, when both Chicago and the Miami Fusion managed it.
Last season also saw another expansion-team achievement when Real Salt Lake took the title -- the first to do so since Chicago. It took Salt Lake five seasons to get to the top.
I don’t see much of a pattern in all of that -- it’s pretty random, I’d say. But then again ... maybe there is a similarity between Bradley’s Fire and Sigi’s Sounders, the only two expansion teams that have known instant success. Namely that they owed much of their success to two or three imported foreign players. Schmid had two Colombians, Fredy Montero and Jhon Hurtado, and a designated player, the Swede Freddie Ljungberg; Bradley had his Eastern Europeans, Lubos Kubik, Jerzy Podbrozny and Peter Nowak.
The last of those key players is now at the center of the latest expansion activity. As the coach of the nascent Philadelphia Union, Nowak is busy piecing together his new team -- and evidence of a rather unusual approach to the matter has emerged from the Union camp.
Firstly, in facing up to the age-old chicken-and-egg coaching conundrum, Nowak has apparently decided that the players come before the system. “It’s not about one system,” he told Marc Narducci of the Philadelphia Inquirer, “and we are not telling them, but instead we’re trying to work with them on the best system.”
Both unusual and intriguing -- my experience is that it is far more common for the playing system to be the primary consideration -- and players who don’t fit that are shown either the bench or the door. To some extent the alternatives, in the case of a newly assembled team, are academic, because one can surely assume that the players already selected -- in the expansion -- and SuperDraft - will have been chosen by Nowak with some definite criteria in mind.
Needless to say, “the right attitude” is one of them, so says Nowak’s assistant John Hackworth. From the second of Nowak’s unconventional approaches one can infer that this means a high priority is placed on the team approach. Nowak doesn’t think much of the idea of singling out a team leader: “I don’t believe in leaders. I believe in the whole team.” He has a point. I have learned to view the words “leadership qualities” with suspicion. Far too often they are applied to average players who have no other obvious qualities to praise. And far too often the leadership turns out to be of little consequence, or it turns sour.
It is only a week or so ago that Chelsea’s John Terry undermined his leadership label with his sexual shenanigans -- which ended with Fabio Capello stripping him of the England captaincy. In the midst of that upheaval, Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger had his say, remarking that he thought the role of the captain was “overplayed” -- at least in English soccer. If Nowak is making the same point about American soccer, I agree with him.
Nowak believes that leaders -- more than one -- will emerge naturally as the team beds down, and that seems to me a likely way for things to happen.
We’re just a few months away from finding out what the Union will look like. Nowak was a creative, attacking midfielder, and I always hope that such a player will produce a team in his own image. I’m not sure things work that way, and I will admit to not having found Nowak’s 2008 U.S. Olympic team overly impressive. Nonetheless, two of Nowak’s midfield signings are promising: the Brazilian Fred, an intelligent playmaker, and Shea Salinas, who struck me last season as being one of the brighter and more skillful of the young players in MLS.
Based on previous MLS experience, the Union is twice as likely to be a first-year flop (like Chivas USA, Real Salt Lake, Toronto and San Jose) as it is to repeat the success of Chicago and Seattle.
But there may be another factor at work here that will work in the Union’s favor. Possibly, the MLS rosters now contain fewer poor players than in the past -- in which case those picked up by Nowak in the dispersal draft can hardly be dismissed as “rejects” -- certainly it’s difficult to think of Salinas, Sebastian Le Toux, Alejandro Moreno and Shavar Thomas in that light.
In DC Fred showed himself to be a sometimes effective attacker, but rarely an "intelligent playmaker." If Nowak build an offense around Fred, the result will be more Toronto than Chicago.