I was listening with keen intent on Saturday morning when commentator Ian Darke broke down exactly what was wrong with Bolton’s season-long attack in the English Premier League during ESPN2’s broadcast of the Bolton v. Queens Park Rangers game.
Darke, the best in the business, pointed out to his broadcast booth-mate Steve McManaman that the host Wanderers got 10 goals last season from Johan Elmander, as well as 8 each from Kevin Davies and on-loan Daniel Sturridge. Of the three, only Davies reamained on the roster ... and he was marooned to the bench Saturday.
Bolton has not found a way to replace those goals, and it’s a similar lack of attacking options I fear may scuttle the Philadelphia Union’s third-ever season in MLS, which begins tonight with a nationally televised road game against the Portland Timbers (9:30 p.m., ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes).
No amount of wishful thinking can bring 28-year-old French striker Sebastien Le Toux back to the Union after his offseason trade to the Vancouver Whitecaps. Le Toux continued to display his predatory instincts by grabbing a goal and an assist in his debut for Vancouver in a 2-0 win over the Montreal Impact on Saturday night.
I can’t really tell if I’m more angry at the Union front office for jettisoning a player who scored 25 goals in the first 62 games of the team’s existence or at the fanbase for publically swallowing the management Kool-Aid that Philly’s a better team without him.
Mark Melhorn, my colleague and the sports editor of The Press of Atlantic City, said it best about a week ago ... when we were perusing a few online pieces about how the Union is “building for the future” with this move.
“How can a team be building for the future when its only in its third season?” Melhorn said to me. “Isn’t every day the future at this point?”
So true, and the only factor of the whole Le Toux departure that keeps me in reserve and from unloading on the Union braintrust of president/CEO Nick Sakiewicz, manager Peter Nowak and assistant John Hackworth for the Le Toux decision is the fact that the talented right boot of young striker Danny Mwanga may still rescue them from this mess.
Beacause if we’re talking about boneheaded moves, the only one worse than letting Le Toux (yes, the “face” of the franchise, a term much-mocked by Sakiewicz during a recent appearance on Comcast SportsNet) hit the road was Nowak’s decision to start the little-used Stefani Miglioranzi as a fifth (yes, fifth!) defender in the home playoff leg against the Houston Dynamo last October.
The lumbering, rusty Miglioranzi was all at sea when attempting to mark the Dynamo’s Andre Hainault as Brad Davis pinged one of his trademark free kicks into the box, and Hainault made the Union pay dearly with the opening goal in a 2-1 first-leg win. Le Toux scored the only goal for Philly that night, and he and the team were virtually invisible a few nights later in Houston.
The Union’s 1-0 loss in the second leg put paid to a promising second season, but that was a small ripple in the pond compared to when the news broke that Le Toux wouldn’t be returning.
In trying to appease the fanbase with a holier-than-thou attitude, Nowak said one of the benefits of allowing Le Toux to leave was the team’s financial ability to acquire dynamic midfielder Roger Torres on a permanent basis from his Colombian club.
Sorry, but I’d be more apt to swallow Nowak’s line if he actually played Torres in the minutes that matter ... such as from the start of either playoff leg against the Dynamo last season or, more crucially, from the opening whistle when the Union could have clinched the Eastern Conference title in a late-season game at New York.
Don't get me wrong ... even though I'm a "jaded" journalist who's meant to have a critical eye, I've never hidden the fact that I'm a Union supporter. The new realities of blogging (as opposed to beat writing) have blurred those lines, and I will always consider it my proudest sporting moment that I was in Seattle with my good friend Andy Stubbs for the team's debut on March 25, 2010.
But that doesn't mean Nowak, Sakiewicz and Hackworth can take me for being an idiot. We've given away a guy who puts the ball in the back of the net on a regular basis in MLS and have staked the third season, basically, on a goalscoring-by-committee approach.
Again, I sense a hint of Andy Reid-esque "I know more about the sport than you do" in this. Media reports have uncovered that the main reason the Philadelphia Eagles and Reid didn't pursue Peyton Manning was because Reid didn't want to relinquish control of the offense to a Hall-of-Fame quarterback. In other words, Reid likes the perception that he ... not the player ... is the brains behind the operation.
Based on my impressions of Nowak over his first two years in Philly, I think he's exactly the same way. He's a "system" coach ... someone who thinks the way he assembles the pieces is more laudatory than actually having a gifted player (such as Le Toux) that you can just feed the ball to and watch him work his magic.
But the good news for Union fans is that Nowak's ego still could be rescued by the sheer talent of Mwanga. Two seasons ago, Mwanga's sleek movement in the box belied that of a player who seemed destined for the English Premier League or the other main playing fields of Europe.
But Mwanga regressed last season, and I wonder if Nowak's old-school approach to training didn't cloud his judgment when it comes to his naming his starting 11. Without Le Toux, this manager just might need the swagger that a young-but-unvarnished Mwanga brings to the table.
Not to mention his goals.