Union a success off the field but needs young talent to develop
The expansion Union have struggled both offensively and defensively
The club will build around offensive MVP Sebastien Le Toux
Off the field, the club already has a strong fan base and attendance
Major League Soccer's early history often fell into the embarrassingly comic realm when it came to team identities.
Fortunately for the American soccer community, some have learned their lessons from a history thankfully now devoid of the Burn, Clash, Mutiny and Wiz. It should come as no surprise that Philadelphia, a city so rich in history, achieved perfection in its branding and identity.
Philly got it right from the very beginning and its no coincidence that the Union name, logo and overall identity of the club gained immediate credibility from the Philadelphia soccer community.
The foundation of the Union's masterful beginning and the most proactive fanbase in MLS history launched the Union near the top of the league in terms of soccer culture. However in terms of the actual product on the field the Union certainly looked every bit of an expansion team. The defense, especially goalkeeping, doomed the club that was built behind a young core, which though promising, will certainly need more time to mature.
"We've had an incredible first year in terms of launching and marketing and the best thing is the fans in the Philadelphia market," Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz said. "The soccer fans here are numerous and they've come out in large numbers to support the team."
Sakiewicz said the club sold 12,000 season tickets before this year and will up the number of available season tickets next year to accommodate its waiting list.
The Philadelphia fans, highlighted by the Sons of Ben supporters group, and the waterfront ambience of PPL Park rocketed the Union into the upper echelon of MLS atmospheres. Philadelphia legitimately averaged 19,254 in 15 home games (4th in MLS).
Sons of Ben co-founder/president Bryan James said the relationship between the club and the Sons is solid but could grow deeper roots.
"From the supporters stand point I'd like to see the club develop an even stronger relationship with the supporters," James said. "I would like to see the club not focus overly on the family dollar, which is more fickle than the supporters even though it might be worth a little more."
There will always be a fickle nature to some sports fans. The challenge moving forward arises in maintaining the fair-weather fan after the newness has worn away. The truest formula for any team's sustained box office momentum comes from winning. This is where the Union has the longest way to go.
This task falls into the capable hands of boss Peter Nowak, who brought a physically tough style to the team early in the year. Fans and opponents were pleased to see it improve into a more appeasing brand of still tough but technically capable soccer.
Nowak certainly hit on his acquisition of forward Sebastien Le Toux, 26, who has been the bright spot for the offense with 13 goals and 11 assists.
However, Le Toux has too often found himself the sole inhabitant on an offensive island whether as a forward or midfielder. To his credit, Le Toux rose above a pedestrian 2009 campaign with Seattle (1 goal, 3 assists). His whirlwind of relentless activity throughout the attacking third has been a feature of his playing style. In fact, it's often proved to be the extent of the Union's attack as little help came from up the flanks from either the outside fullbacks or the midfield. The key for Le Toux now is to show he can be a consistent double-digit scorer.
Despite his best efforts though, Philadelphia sits ninth in goals scored with just 34 strikes in 29 games. The good news is that Nowak's gamble in building around a young squad shows the most promise terms of its attacking potential. The No. 1 overall draft pick in MLS historically has been hit or miss, but in choosing Oregon State-product Danny Mwanga, Phildelphia obtained a forward that flashed well-rounded, goal scoring potential. Mwanga displayed speed with serviceable technical skills, and his 7 goals and 4 assists make him a prime candidate for Rookie of the Year honors.
Another 19-year-old prospect, Colombian midfielder Roger Torres ought to be a top priority for the Union when it comes to wrapping up future talent. It's truly stunning to imagine that in a mere 934 minutes, the youngster created five assists or essentially one helper in every other start. He's on loan from America de Cali but inquiries for a permanent move should begin immediately on the Union's part. Both Torres (10 starts) and Mwanga (16 starts) received limited playing time this season, but expect Nowak to increase their roles next season.
It would also help to bring in a midfield veteran as Fred (4 goals, 1 assist in 24 starts) clearly hasn't been the answer. As one of the team's two highest-paid players at a base $250,000, the Brazilian has not come close to replicating his 2007 form in any of the past three seasons. Ideally the Union ought to look at acquiring a hardened holding midfielder to provide grit to the center of the park to protect Torres and the other youngsters.
Captain Danny Califf (also on a base of $250,000) provided the veteran leadership for the Union, but the defense was largely ineffective, averaging 1.59 goals allowed per game (46 total), which lands it 14th among the 16 teams.
"I think we have to learn to find a way to win," Califf said. "The best teams around the world don't play well every game but they find ways to win. That will be a big step forward is when we play well or not play well and win. We have to have the confidence to know we can win even when we're playing like garbage."
With his national team experience (22 caps), more was expected from Califf, who was solid but not outstanding in his role at central defender. Fringe U.S. international Michael Orozco Fiscal (1 cap) was paired with Califf in the middle but never appeared to fully make the transition from the technical Mexican League into the faster, more athletic MLS game. At 24 he falls into the category of younger players with potential but needs to remain consistently in one spot on the back line to polish his craft.
As far as the defense goes, the most glaring hole is at right back. Late-season addition, Sheanon Williams, 20, filled the role adequately as the Union spent the season auditioning for the spot -- including using Orozco Fiscal out wide on different occasions.
Until, the Union can find a consistent back line the results will remain shaky. However, an even more glaring issue is the goalkeeping situation. Former U.S. youth star Chris Seitz bungled his way to a 1.75 goals-against average (GAA) in 21 starts and displayed the uncanny ability to manufacture losses with some truly poor performances.
At 23, he remains extremely young by goalkeeping standards and still has some upside but you have to question Nowak's decision to sticking by Seitz for so long. Replacement Brad Knighton put up a superior mark with a 1.1 GAA in 8 starts. You also have to wonder if the Union wouldn't have been better served acquiring a veteran like former Kansas City keeper Kevin Hartman, who was available in the preseason for cheap. Instead, Hartman went to Dallas and turned in a league-leading 0.62 GAA for the year.
With both the offense and the defense requiring a lot of improvement, the Union still has a long way to go -- except of course in terms of its identity. In that sense Philadelphia proved to be a cradle of good ideas.