What a difference a year makes.
Heading into March 2010, the expansion Philadelphia Union knew they had a nearly insurmountable challenge ahead. Peter Nowak’s side needed to find a way to come together as a first-year squad -- without the benefit of a prior USL incarnation like Seattle had in 2009 or Vancouver and Portland will have in 2011 -- while playing only two of their first 10 matches at home. A murderous four-match stretch against New York, LA, Salt Lake and Dallas early in the campaign certainly didn’t help matters either.
While the young Union fought admirably and proved to be competitive, points were scarce in advance of PPL Park's opening. As a result, the balance of the club’s inaugural season was spent attempting to claw out of an early hole. That task proved unattainable, but Philadelphia will head into 2011 with a much brighter outlook.
The Union will open up their second season on March 19 in Houston, the scene of the club’s first-ever road win -- one of only two in 2010. A week later, the Vancouver Whitecaps will make their first trek to PPL Park, marking another first in Philadelphia’s milestone-filled existence. On March 26, for the very first time, the Union will feel like an established, been-there-done-that MLS side relative to their expansion counterparts. How's that for a role reversal?
In the end, though, the club’s success over the course of the season won’t depend on the structure of the schedule. Rather, as Manager Nowak has alluded to time-and-time again, the club simply needs to be better than they were last season.
“We knew all along that it was going to take time for the team to get together,” said Nowak. “We went through the pains of making mistakes -- I believe 70 percent of the goals we gave away were preventable. If we can prevent those goals and those mistakes, then we are a much harder team to score against.
“You have to make saves when there is a save to be made. You have to make a tackle when you have necessary tackles to make. We just went through pains and now we have to make it better.”
When Philadelphia’s remaining schedule is unveiled in late-January or early-February, there won’t be seven straight road matches following Vancouver’s trip to the Chester Waterfront. The club will also benefit from the players having a more thorough understanding of the technical staff’s demands and a year’s worth of cohesion from playing and training with one another -- not to mention an invaluable year of seasoning for a talented crop of youngsters.
[inline_node:288420]“I think the experience of a season is going to help all of them,” Nowak explained. “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. … 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."
Plenty of work remains before First Kick, and Nowak has indicated that roster reinforcements are on the way. Add in the SuperDraft, with the Union holding the fifth overall selection, and it's difficult to predict what Philadelphia's starting XI might look like in Houston. Regardless, beginning the season with two manageable matches -- the Dynamo finished only two points ahead of the Union in 2010, while the Whitecaps will have very little time to gel before visiting PPL Park -- provides an opportunity to start strong and build confidence for the rest of the season.
"From the top on down, I know this organization knows we are moving forward," said Nowak. "... 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.”
With the date of First Kick set, the Union now know exactly how long they have before their progress is once again measured in wins and losses. Surrounding conditions and inexperience are no longer acting against Philadelphia, meaning Nowak, for one, won't be pleased with anything less than a sizable ascent in the MLS standings.
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