CHESTER, Pa. – In his final press conference of the year, a few days after the Philadelphia Union were eliminated from the MLS Cup Playoffs with a 1-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, manager Peter Nowak discussed what was an eventful season – and looked ahead to a new year.
Q: Looking back on the season, in very general terms, what do you think went right and what didn’t go as well as you hoped for?
Nowak: We all have expectations. Like every team during the season, we had good stretches and bad stretches. We had a not-so-good stretch in the middle of the season without Carlos Ruiz and then Jordan Harvey, and I told you straight up the boat was rocking and we needed to stabilize it. And I think this group developed such a chemistry that you saw the results.
I told you guys at the press conferences we’ve had all year long that we believe in what we’re building, we believe what is the culture around the team. But having the real expectations – not being on the spectrum of one time very high, one time very low – I think it was a little bit too much for this group.
I think from this perspective, when I look back, I might need to do a better job to handle these things. I tried after the game against Toronto [a 1-1 tie on Oct. 15 that clinched a playoff berth] to pick them up because it was a very quiet locker room. Everyone tried to shower and go back home. Why? It was a big accomplishment for the group.
Q: How close is this team to being a championship team in your eyes?
Nowak: A championship is a funny thing because I always say when you look at teams around the world, even the best ones don’t win the championships every year. You want to win the championship and you put everything toward this goal and toward building and expanding the brand and expanding the culture.
At the end of the day, if you’re going to make the playoffs, anything can happen. For us, it’s more important to be consistent in this approach, to say we’re going to shoot for a championship. If you shoot high, you’re going to end up being somewhere over the middle. That’s the part we’re looking to establish: the culture and making sure we have stability and consistency during the season.
Q: In your eyes, do you need an upgrade at any position?
Nowak: Of course we’re going to look very hard. It’s not that we’re saying everything is fine. … You have to have guys who provide quality. Our guys were young and making mistakes and we have to accept that – fans, media, us. It’s a process and as much as I want to convince you that we have a championship team, we don’t.
We’re very close. We still need to get more understanding what it takes to be a very good team. I’ve told you before there’s a very thin line between being good and being very good. And that’s the part we need to take additional steps toward. This is our goal in the offseason: to make sure when we start in the preseason, we have a group that is going to win the championship.
Q: What are the plans for Freddy Adu? His playing time was really cut short toward the end of the season.
Nowak: I believe his best game was against New England [on Sept. 7]. In many factors, he was on top of his game. And then he picked up an injury, and his back was bothering him for a long time. He didn’t want to admit it. He’s a guy that doesn’t want people to have the opinion like, “OK, he played a couple of games and then all of a sudden he’s hurt or not fit or whatever.” He was worried more about that instead of saying, “You know what, I’m hurt, I’m not 100 percent.” I told him this is not the right approach.
I think being fair to him, he tried to do his best to play whenever the game was played because he felt it was his obligation, his responsibility. And I’ve always said if you’re not 100 percent, you’re not going to provide what people expect. I think he was not even [60 percent] and he struggled because of that. He could not cut inside, could not move from side to side. You could see it, you could feel it.
We’ve got to make sure in the preseason he comes in fit, comes in ready to roll. The most important thing for him to understand is that the public opinion is important but the most important thing is your health.
Q: Looking ahead to the SuperDraft, what might you guys be looking at in terms of needs?
Nowak: Of course, we know backline is pretty thin. We knew that from beginning and we tried to shift players here and there, which was important for us. We need to adjust to that and make a couple moves in there. I believe we have good players in the midfield but we still need to look into it to get a little more competition.
Sébastien Le Toux and all the youngsters up top, they need help as well and some competition. I always believe two players at the same position will give you more than you expect. We’ll be looking to make a little more competition. I think the group now will be better off to know there’s someone behind you that’s breathing heavy and keeping you on your toes.
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.