Union Shed Expansion Label
As of Sunday, the Philadelphia Union are no longer a first year expansion team. The newcomer tag? History. That distinction now falls to the Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers.
In some ways, being an expansion team can be a positive. In other ways, it can be a negative.
Some would argue that an expansion team gets a "free pass" in year one. But there are reasons expectations are lower, including unfamiliarity playing as a cohesive unit and the time it takes to establish an identity both on and off the field.
Whether it's fair or not, Seattle's success in 2009 set the bar for Philadelphia. Did the Union have as much success as the Sounders? No. But Seattle, like Vancouver and Portland, had the benefit of a USL squad to build off of, and the reality of a flourishing league like MLS is that coming in as an expansion side gets tougher with each passing season.
So what now? There aren't many "firsts" left -- although the Union will still be in search of their first winning streak when the 2011 season kicks off -- but the next to tackle is the team's first full offseason.
With year number one in the books, the squad can officially cast off the "expansion" tag and spend the winter months doing what every other club will try to do: get better.
How will Philadelphia go about accomplishing that goal?
"We start by breaking down each individual and their strengths and weaknesses," Coach John Hackworth told philadelphiaunion.com. "We do some exit interviews and some physical testing. And then we design an individual training program for each one of them, so that hopefully they can work on their weaknesses, and build upon their strengths. When they come back, they're recharged and fresh, and ready to start this long and very difficult process all over again."
"Recharged" is the key word for the winter. Those nagging injuries and knocks can finally heal. Tired legs will return to 100 percent.
And while improving physically and technically is the focus, the offseason intangibles can be just as important. Athletes can visit their families for the holidays. They can spend time with the wife, the kids, the girlfriend, or maybe the Xbox. However players decide to use their time, it's all about the mental restart that comes with a brand new season.
First Year Experience
The Union selected their first players in last November's Expansion Draft. Then, they added a crop of young talent through the January Superdraft. By the time the roster was set, game one was just ten weeks away. It was a touch-and-go scenario, the Union technical staff trying to mold together a brand new team in a short amount of time.
Perhaps the most critical improvement the Union will experience in 2011 is the natural development of their many young players. Jack McInerney, Danny Mwanga, Amobi Okugo and Kyle Nakazawa will no longer be rookies, while both Sheanon Williams and Roger Torres will be a very important year older. Each player on the roster will have an extra season's worth of experience not only playing, but playing together.
"It's everything," added Hackworth. "When you break it down, game experience - it's the first step. But for a player, a team, an organization, to have a season under your belt is the next phase. We already feel really good, because we have so many young guys who have never even been at a professional level before, and now they're coming back with the experience. We've had some really good experiences and we've had some really bad ones, and our hope is that will make us stronger for the future."
There's No Place Like Home
The Union already have another thing going for them in 2011 - a stadium of their own from the get-go. Think back to 2010 when eight of the first 10 matches were on the road, with Lincoln Financial Field serving as a temporary home.
Peter Nowak's squad went 2-7-1 in that stretch.
It was a rough way for an expansion team to start out, but fortunately PPL Park and the Union faithful will be waiting when the club's encore campaign begins.
Taking the Next Step
Does the expansion label allow for a free pass? It's open to debate.
But no matter what opinions are out there, they'll no longer apply to the Union, and that's a good thing. Philadelphia showed first-year immaturities all too often in this inaugural campaign, but one would think they'll be reduced next season. There was certainly progress throughout 2010, proven by the club's 6-8-6 record after the first 10 matches.
Expectations will rise in 2011, but that's natural and healthy. The recurring theme in Union camp is growth. Hackworth has spoken about the club's desire to create a "soccer culture" in Philadelphia - a brand of football that defines a club and an attitude that reflects a city.
That process began in 2010. In 2011, it'll continue.