Sitting in his office in a near-empty PPL Park on a brisk November morning, Union Manager Peter Nowak took some time to discuss a variety of topics with philadelphiaunion.com.
As he sipped a cup of coffee, Nowak leaned back in his chair and reflected on the first season in club history as well as what the future may hold.
philadelphiaunion.com: Is it tough sitting here with the regular season completed?
Nowak: “We had a difficult start with eight of the first 10 games away from home as the stadium was going to be finished. We left points on the road that we could have gotten. I don’t know … if we were at home, maybe we would have gotten some of those points. We had a sluggish start in some of those away games. We put ourselves in a hole at times and had to fight from behind. On the flip side, we found ways to improve. Now, we have to find ways to take that improvement and work it in our favor for next season. We addressed the players about what to do and look for next season. Whether you’re starting or coming in as a substitute, everyone has to look at each other and find that way to improve. I think as an expansion team, we did a lot of things well. I think next season when we’re sitting here, we’ll see a lot different things to talk about. The players will come back stronger, as will the coaches and everyone in the organization.”
philadelphiaunion.com: How will the experience of this season help the players?
Nowak: “I think the experience of a season is going to help all of them. They know the shape they need to be in and what to expect during a long season. They know how important their offseason training will be and to put on that soccer hat 24 hours a day. This is a full-time job and it needs to be treated that way. I think some of them wore down a little bit with the long season. We’ll have end of season physicals and meetings and give them programs to work on. I think all the players will be better off for next season. I think there is a lot of excitement ahead for all of us.”
philadelphiaunion.com: Were you impressed with the improvement of the club as a whole between the beginning and the end of the season?
Nowak: “Certainly, from the way we played, I got a good feeling from how they improved. They learned a lot of the nuances of the game and how they need to play every night. I think when we got to home games against L.A. and New York, they saw they could play with and beat anyone. The quality was there. They saw the little things they need to improve on. There was inexperience in some games where we had a 1-1 game and the other team scored. Instead of struggling with confidence, it needs to be a matter of, ‘Hey, let’s do it again.’ To win the game, we have to score the big goals and not be dissuaded when things don’t go our way. You can’t have the fear of falling behind and not being able to win. It’s got to be like, ‘Oh man, we can win this.’ Confidence is a big thing in this league. We need to keep pushing and pushing for the win. Overall, I thought it was a good year from the start. We did a lot of things well. And I think we’ll keep pushing forward from here. I saw a lot of good things from the guys that will carry over into next season, and I’m very optimistic and excited about the second season here with the Union.”
philadelphiaunion.com: What did you think of the fans and the overall atmosphere of playing in Philadelphia and PPL Park?
Nowak: “It was great from the very beginning. The fans here made it easy for our players to perform because they were behind us all season. The starters, the reserves, everyone were cheered by the fans. Whether you’re the top guy or the 15th, 16th or 18th guy on the roster, the fans cheered for them. I thought that was great. The celebration song, the Doop song, was for the fans and from the fans. They were part of everything we did. This is a great soccer area and we connected with the fans, the community and the youth level from the start. We made that a priority when we got here. We had a real homefield advantage here. I think going forward there will be a great relationship between our club and the fans and community here. There are a lot of things to look forward to.”
philadelphiaunion.com: PPL Park, especially, was a tough play for visiting teams to win. Is it nice to have a whole season ahead at PPL Park with home games early in the schedule?
Nowak: “I think it is for sure. Especially with our first game here early on next season will help our club. We have to have the mindset at the same time, though, that we have to prepare to win anywhere, whether it’s at home or on the road, five or six hours away from home in Seattle or L.A. We practice and train to win every game the same way. It will be a nice step for us to play games here in our home stadium with our fans behind us. At the same time, we still have to go out with the mindset to win no matter where we are.”
philadelphiaunion.com: Sebastien Le Toux meant so much to the Union. Was he more impressive in person on a daily basis?
Nowak: “I had watched him (when I was) with U.S. Soccer in the past and saw him score a lot of goals in Seattle. I knew he had the talent to do well. He had some very good years and some so-so while dealing with injuries. Seba is a quality player, and he did a great job for us this season. He has all the tools to be successful in MLS. He’s an all-around solid player. He’s very mobile and very fast and he keeps himself in great shape. He’s a multi-dimensional player. He’s dangerous in the open field and on set pieces. His work, at the same time, is not over. He had some chances on the road for some more opportunities to make things happen and he’ll be the first one to tell you that. He has work to do and he’ll do it. His future is so bright and he will come back stronger than ever.”
philadelphiaunion.com: Speaking of Le Toux, did you think his hustle and desire rubbed off on the rest of the club, especially the younger players?
Nowak: “Sure, Seba always hustled and ran hard every game. I know he talked to Danny (Mwanga) in the first few weeks and that helped Danny. At the same time, Seba needs to understand you have to run hard and smart. You can’t just run, run, run and exhaust yourself in a 90-minute game. You can’t just run and chase. We all loved Seba’s hustle. He wants to do so well and he’ll work to do that. Seba is a good example for all players with his work ethic. That’s always a good thing to see.”
philadelphiaunion.com: How about the improvement and progress of No. 1 overall pick Danny Mwanga?
Nowak: “Look at the numbers and expectations and Danny did very well in his first season in MLS. There were some people who were surprised we took Danny with the No. 1 pick in the first place. I thought as the season went on, Danny saw the things he needed to improve on. I talked to Danny a number of times this season about what he needs to do. He knows the push forward he has to make. Danny understands. He’s very smart, very bright and a very intelligent kid. He’ll keep getting better and better. There are some things in the game, little things that he has to work on. He’s 19 years old and the skills are there. The most important thing is to keep pushing forward and working on them and work to his strengths. Sometimes, you can work too much on your weaknesses like 65-70 percent and not work on the strengths. I think the potential is very high for Danny Mwanga. I think we’ll see even more improvement from Danny. He’s a very talented and capable player.”
philadelphiaunion.com: Did any players surprise you this season?
Nowak: “I think that Sheanon Williams comes to mind. He was a great find by John Hackworth. He really stabilized the back side. I thought that the keepers (Chris Seitz and Brad Knighton) did well a lot of the time. I think we’ll see their best work ahead of them. There are times for them to work on making a save or not making a save. I think they’ll come back very confident with this year’s experience. We’re still looking at ways to improve the roster overall. I thought Amobi Okugo developed very fast but hit a little bit of a wall with the long season. Kyle Nakazawa improved a lot. Jack McInerney is still the guy. He will keep pushing forward to be a very effective player. If not for an injury, Shea Salinas progressed quite nicely. Michael Orozco Fiscal and Jordan Harvey were very solid for us.”
philadelphiaunion.com: How important is season No. 2? Is it strictly wins and losses? How do you move forward?
Nowak: “First of all, we feel very good moving into next season. We expect to be a contender for the playoffs regardless of a tough schedule or not. The point is to be there and to contend for the playoffs. Once you get in, anything can happen. Everything is possible. You steal a road win in the first game of a series and then anything and everything can happen. In ’98 with Chicago when I played and in ’04 when I coached in DC, we won titles, but there were fewer teams. We didn’t want to blow this out of proportion in this first season saying we had all these expectations of making the playoffs. That wouldn’t have been fair. We’re an expansion team and we were always aware of who we were. We were confident we could win games this season, and some things didn’t go our way. In the second season, I think we will have higher expectations. I think this first season will help us. I think we’ll be more confident going into next season.”
philadelphiaunion.com: It’s a short offseason for MLS clubs. What do the players and the entire organization need to do to come back even stronger next season?
Nowak: “We’ll talk to all the players and have exit meetings. They know it’s a year-round job now. They’ll go through physicals and testing and stay busy. They’ll come back full speed and so will we for next season. I think the coaching staff will be stronger. We had basically a three-man coaching staff. We plan to add scouting and strength and conditioning to the staff. That’s our hope. I was very proud of the fact that we didn’t have a soft tissue injury from any of our players. From the top on down, I know this organization knows we are moving forward. They’ll see what we need to improve. It’s a daily process, and we’re on the right path. We’re not where we want to be now. We will keep moving forward to where we want to go and where we need to go.”