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

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.