I was driving home along scenic Route 55 from my twin boys' freshman soccer scrimmages for St. Augustine Prep against Cinnaminson and Shawnee on Saturday afternoon when a little bit of nostalgia washed over me. U2's "Achtung Baby" from 1991 was on the CD player in the car, and I was thinking back to the so-called innocent years of being a soccer fan in America.
Just a few days earlier, I had happened upon a few of my old issues of Soccer America magazine ... not the slick, often-updated online versions I now get via e-mail, but the black-and-white, statistics-heavy version that hit my mailbox weekly in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As I was thumbing through the pages, I saw a picture of Peter Nowak wreaking havoc for the Chicago Fire.
Now the manager of the Philadelphia Union, Nowak was a hard-nosed, skillful midfielder for a Chicago team back then that seemed set to challenge D.C. United for early supremacy in MLS. The league title and U.S. Open Cup "double" that the Fire pulled off in 1998 was quite a feat, but the main image fans still remember from that era of MLS is the je ne sais quoi that D.C. played with week in and week out.
Players like Raul Diaz Arce, Marco Etcheverry, John Harkes and Roy Lassiter played the game with a spirit as close to the Brazilian samba beat as one can find in North America. But Nowak's Fire team was different. With fellow Eastern European players like Lubos Kubik and Dema Kovalenko, Chicago espoused a grinding game in which opponents were worn down and late goals were scored due to sheer physicality.
But, what's this all got to do with the price of eggs generally ... and the plight of the Philadelphia Union in particular? Plenty, I think. With Saturday night's 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, the Union find themselves winless in six straight matches. Over a 34-game league season, poor strecthes are to be expected, but it seems the Union are abandoning all the qualities that saw them start the season so promisingly.
When Nowak was named manager and, subsequently, head of "soccer operations" for Philadelphia, you knew his teams would be more representative of the Fire squads he starred for than the D.C. United teams that played a more free-flowing style of football. But did the Union starting 11 he named for Saturday's game in Utah have to err so far on the side of caution?
Amobi Okugo and Kyle Nakazwa in midfield over Roger Torres and Freddy Adu just makes no sense. Two athletic-yet-plodding players over a pair that can supply the killer ball? If anything, go for one of each (say, an Adu-Okugo pairing to start, with the others subbed in as game conditions dictate). If there's one thing the Union haven't been in their first two years it's boring; the team, even in losses, always entertained ... but that may be changing.
Nowak's built-in conservatism is starting to show, and its manifestation couldn't have come at a worse time for the team. At 8-7-10, they sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. Slip-sliding away. Yet, the MLS slowdown due to the FIFA break for international matches could work in Philly's favor. This coming Wednesday night's home match at PPL Park against a toothless New England is a crucial chance for 3 points, but the playoff system still could fail the Union.
Much like the NBA, the talent in MLS is heavily tilted toward the Western Conference. Whereas the Los Angeles Galaxy compares favorably to the Dallas Mavericks heading into the postseason, the Union is more like the up-and-coming Philadelphia 76ers looking to upset some one's proverbial apple cart when the weather turns cold enough for most people to start thinking about the "other" football. A first-round playoff win over two legs would be a huge step for a second-year team like the Union.
But there are many obstacles standing in Philly's way on that front. Still, in Roger Torres we hope. I have not been shy at all about my desire (demand, diktat ... you pick the term) for the slightly-built Colombian to be running things from the center of the park for the Union. When he came on late against Real Salt Lake on Saturday night, he started pinging killer balls all around the park like he always does.
The team woke up, and the entertainment factor skyrocketed. I really don't care about his defensive deficiencies when the dude can carry the night going forward like that. I say that not only as a fan of the game in general, but as a coach myself. Some kids just aren't meant to track back ... their dreams inhabit more salient places on the field. How a stubborn Nowak continues to deny this reality, I will never know.