Four games into the MLS season, the Philadelphia Union have plenty of questions to answer - Press of Atlantic City: Soccer Blog

Four games into the MLS season, the Philadelphia Union have plenty of questions to answer

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Posted: Saturday, April 7, 2012 10:43 pm

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 observers.

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 nothing.

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 front.

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 at worst.

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 recently.

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 result.

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 Year 4.

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.

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