Wow ... so where, exactly, do you start? The smoking ruin that
serves as the opening sequence of the Philadelphia Union's
third-ever season in Major League Soccer has left a lot of us
searching for answers, assurances, ports in the storm, even.
The progress made from Year 1 to Year 2 was so palpable that
supporters started to expect a similar climb in the 2012 season.
While that jump into the MLS stratosphere still might be possible
this seaon, the hole that the Union have dug themselves by starting
0-3-1 (with just 2 goals scored) makes such a big stride improbable
at best ... and nearly impossible in the minds of most informed
When you're a passionate fan of any sports team, laying
blame is always the first instinct ... the default option, if you
will. It's actually kind of fun. People may think I'm
ungrateful for what Union manager Peter Nowak
"accomplished" in his second season (2011) at the helm of
the team, but that's not really the case.
There's no doubt that Nowak's teams have been extremely
fit over the course of his MLS managerial career, but when it comes
to tactics it seems the coach facing him across the touchline has
held the trump card each and every time. That fact has become
embarrassingly clear four games into this MLS campaign.
It took about 20 minutes of watching the Union's rain-soaked
2012 debut at Jenn-Weld Field in Portland, Ore., a few weeks ago on
ESPN2 to deduce that new left back Porfirio Lopez, a new addition
from Costa Rica, was ... shall we say ... just a little bit soft.
I've been watching MLS since its debut season in 1996, and I
don't think I've seen any player turn his back or shy away
from contact as much as Lopez did that night.
His palpable decision to play a non-contact-based style set the
tone for a second-half disaster that gave Portland a distinct
advantage. Union central defender Carlos Valdes and midfielder
Gabriel Gomez were the only players to show up that night.
Then we have the case of young striker Jack McInerney. When
Nowak decided to cut loose proven striker ... and fan favorite ...
Sebastien Le Toux, the manager basically pushed some of that
scoring pressure on to a youngster in McInerney who is still
finding his feet in the league. Jack Mac, as we call him, does all
the right things ... he runs around the pitch, launches himself
toward balls crossed into the box and then ... nothing. Absolutely
I've never doubted the kid's commitment, but when you
decide to don the No. 9 shirt you had better back up that bravado
with some goals. So far, there's nothing doing on that
And then there's Lionard Pajoy. This is a 30-year-old
Colombian striker who, we're told, was a ready-made replacement
for Le Toux. Well, despite what out-of-touch, hyper color
commentator Bob Rigby says about this guy, I see an overaged,
sloth-like poacher at best and a lazy, slow-moving carthorse/donkey
Yes, Pajoy has scored a goal, but he's not Le Toux ... in
any way, shape or form. This is where there must be some sort of
arrangement where the Union's Colombian scout/front-office guy
Diego Gutierrez must have some sort of incriminating pictures of
Nowak and CEO Nick Sakiewicz. How else does this happen?
Last year's Union goalkeeper ... Colombian Faryd Mondragon,
who at his zenith played for Galatasaray in Turkey, a perennial
UEFA Champions League participant ... decided he wanted to head
back to his homeland, thus leaving Philly in a serious lurch. Nowak
has been forced to play Zac MacMath.
His shaky play in the first few matches conjured up images of
rookie keeper Chris Seitz in his disastrous 2010 campaign, but
MacMath puts forth a much more polished, talented persona than
Seitz could have ever dreamed of. But the rangy MacMath has righted
the ship, displaying his unique, athletic talents on many occasions
When a team has played with such a passionless posture over 360
minutes like the Union has, you can't dismiss the fact that the
coach has lost the locker room.
Especially in the home games against Colorado and Vancouver, one
would think that the partisan crowd would have been in a position
to will the team forward to the point of getting a positive
However, the Union players didn't seem able (or willing ...
in a reverse of the wordplay) to feed off the negligible noise and
thrust the team forward. In a season that's quickly losing its
promise as far as the playoffs are concerned, this could become the
norm at PPL Park.
And if that's the case ... if Nowak's intransigence and
"my-way-is-the-highway" approach leads to a season
outside the MLS playoffs ... then the ownership group had better be
ready for crowds closer to 12,000 than 18,000 as the team enters
As a seasoned (read 30-plus years) Philly sports fan who
happened upon English soccer in 1999 when I attended a West Ham v.
Watford English Premier League game in east London in the fall of
1999, that's not an outcome anyone will have planned for.
And if losing becomes the norm for the Union, good luck getting
a bunch of people out to Chester, Pa., on a cold spring night.