2010 Philadelphia Preview: Nowak starts with an eye to the future

Young players will carry big expectations

Peter Nowak, Philadelphia Union

Photo Credit: 
Getty Images

The Tweet and Lowdown:

“The Philadelphia
Experiment” is high on youth and sprinkled with veterans. How will the new kids
on the MLS block fare in year one?

Setting the Scene:

After a two-year
campaign by local fans raised the eyebrows of a few well-heeled investors,
Philadelphia was awarded MLS’s 16th franchise. They immediately made
the smart decision to hire sought-after coach Peter Nowak and eschewed big-name
players. The side has taken on an almost working-class identity, relying on
untested rookies and a handful of largely low-profile MLS veterans.

With a roster
that values youth over experience, Nowak looks to be building for the future: Of
the 21 players currently with the team only four are over the age of 30 while four
are under 19. The remainder of the roster is comprised of players like Shavar
Thomas and Stefani Miglioranzi,
serviceable if underwhelming journeymen.

To find success
out of the box, the Union will have to organize quickly. With a brutal schedule
that sees them play 8 of their first 10 games away from home, any lack of
consistency or team chemistry will swiftly put them on the road to ruin. It’s a
tough break for a new club but tough is something that Nowak does well.           

Star Attraction: Fred

It’s hard to pin
the word “star” on any member of the Union just yet. With so many young and rookie
players it may be a while before any one of them becomes a box office draw.

Currently the
closest thing to a household name, in MLS circles at least, is Brazilian
midfielder Fred. While his 2009 campaign with D.C. United didn’t hold his best
performances, his speed, flair and creativity are hard to ignore. Give him an
inch and he’ll take it all the way to goal.

Unsung Hero: Danny
Califf

Defenders rarely
get the glory but they are often integral to obtaining it. If the Union are to
ride off into a victorious sunset this year they’ll have to count on recent MLS
returnee Califf to lead from the back.

The hardened
defender can not only organize the men in front of green keeper Chris Seitz,
but also play the role of enforcer and add a bit of bite to the defense. More
than any other player on the roster, it is Califf that will be the key man in
Philly this year.

“I don’t play to lose, I don’t think anybody on this team does,”
Califf recently said. “I don’t see why we can’t win.”

Ready for Primetime: Sebastien
Le Toux

Last year with Seattle,
Le Toux played a few roles that he were atypical for him. A holdover from the
USL Sounders, the Frenchman was accustomed to playing forward and playing
often. So much so that in 2007 he was the USL MVP and in 2008 he scored 14
goals.

But in 2009, Sigi
Schmid deployed Le Toux mostly as a midfielder, behind Freddie LJungberg and
rookie sensation Steve Zakuani in the pecking order. And with Fredy Montero
around his time at forward was just as limited. But with only one other
experienced forward on the roster, Alejandro Moreno, look for the Frenchman to
see plenty of playing time.

Storylines to Watch:

With the current
roster, year one for Philadelphia may test the patience of both fans and the
coaching staff. Will Nowak resist the urge to bring in new talent should his
brood of rookies prove to be not quite ready for the MLS stage? And will the
fans have patience with Nowak if he doesn’t deliver a winner from the
beginning?

The progress of
forward Jack McInerney will be watched closely as his path to the pros
surpassed college soccer altogether, a very unusual feat for a 1st
round SuperDraft pick. Was he selected as a project or is the 17 year-old from
Georgia expected to contribute immediately.

Also look for
the Philadelphia fans to make their presence known especially, later in the
season once the Union’s home field, PPL Park, opens in July. With a large &
loud constituency that predates the actual existence of the Union, the Sons of
Ben are poised to be a true 12th man in Chester.

What He Said:

“I think overall, we’ve been fortunate with this group because
they have been working very, very hard. Everything on paper looks good right
now. We have to go and play it on the field now.” —head coach Peter Nowak

If everything goes right:

For MLS
expansion teams, the inaugural season is always a crapshoot. They could be in
for a year of disappointment or a run at MLS Cup like Nowak’s’98 Chicago Fire team.

Unfortunately, the
Union, as things stand, lack the veteran players needed to go all the way and
more than likely have a long, tough year ahead of them. But Nowak seems to be
building for the future and 3-4 seasons from now the results could be starkly
different. Until then though, fans would be well advised to keep their
expectations in check.