BRIDEVIEW, IL - JUNE 05: Head coach Peter Nowak of the Philadelphia Union talks to reserves on the bench before an MLS match against the Chicago Fire on June 5, 2010 at Toyota Park in Brideview, Illinois. The Fire defeated the Union 2-1. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
I don't think I exaggerate when I say that people were surprised by the Le Toux trade to Vancouver.
People understood why Le Toux might want to move to EPL club Bolton and many supported the decision even if they were sad about the possibility of losing our favorite Frenchman (I will post more thoughts on it in my second part of evaluating the Union off-season when the dust finally settles).
I won't go into all the sordid details that have emerged about the trade the circumstances surrounding it, I may never really address what Le Toux said to the press and what the Union said. It turns the entire thing into a "he said/they said" argument and frankly, I'm not a lawyer.
No, this article is not about that, more this article is about Piotr Nowak and the upcoming year.
I get why Nowak and Company moved Le Toux, I understand the business side of the game. However, what I cannot and will not do is ignore Piotr Nowak's role in this, his vision for the team, and the possible consequences of that vision.
First of all, I'm totally in support of the Union's vision of building up a team of young talent that will dominate MLS for years. Nowak himself said "To build a club, it’s all about the future."
However, if I may I want to step aside for a moment and tell you all a bit of a story.
Near where I live is a relatively new casino called the Parx. I'm not normally a gambler, but when I have some extra cash and feel up to it, I, my girlfriend and maybe a friend or two, travel to the Parx to play some games and hopefully win some money. Normally I walk in there with 40 bucks and the only thing I play is electronic blackjack.
Well, for one, I have no real clue of how to play poker and, two, I feel uncomfortable playing blackjack with a real person and three, blackjack is probably the only game that I feel isn't always stacked in the house's favor.
One particular time I was playing, I was down to my last 10 dollars. I'd lost it all on various hands before then and once I finish out my 40 dollars, I'm done. So I'm sitting there at the machine, and I see that I have my last 10 bucks there and I say to myself, "Screw it, I'm going all in."
Ironic using a poker reference, I know.
So I bet my last 10 bucks and after a very tense moment where I was waiting for the cards to flip over on the machine, I won and was able to keep playing (I actually came out with 70 bucks which means I came out with more money then I walked in with which is always a win-win for me).
Now, in case you're wondering what the hell the purpose of my story was, it was this.
I just as easily could've lost my last 10 bucks and came away with nothing.
Nowak has made no secret of the fact that he wants to build up a young squad that he can hold together for years at a time and do well with. The Union's dedication to the the draft and their youth academy is proof of this. However, there comes a time when you must question whether or not it is a sound strategy to rely solely on youth.
The average age of the team is 22.54, rounded up the average age is but 23-years-old.
According to Climbing the Ladder, the average age of the Union last season ranked sixth in MLS. This upcoming season, barring any further signings that push the age of the team up higher, we will most likely be the youngest team in MLS history come opening day.
Is this a good thing?
Well... let's see.
None of them made the playoffs last season.
Now, just above them is the Houston Dynamo, who made it to the MLS Cup final. A further breakdown needs to be done.
Dividing the league from the past season in half by "oldest" and "youngest", out of the top nine "oldest" teams (the Union included) only two of those teams didn't make the playoffs (San Jose & Chivas USA). Of the bottom nine "younger" teams only three made the playoffs (Houston, Colombus, Kansas City).
What do we infer from that?
Just because you're a young team doesn't mean that you're going to do well.
Now some of you may say, "there isn't that much separating the average age of most of the teams on that list" and it's a fair point. However, you cannot ignore that the five youngest teams last season did not even get the chance to get hot in the playoffs (as Houston did).
If you want to go back to 2010 then you'll see the MLS Champions, the Colorado Rapids had an average age of 27.54, which put them at eighth in MLS in terms of overall age. In fact, of the bottom five teams from the 2010 season, only one made the playoffs at that was the LA Galaxy (no. 12), who ended up getting trounced 3-0 by an "older" FC Dallas team (no. 5).
Basically, Nowak is taking a gamble and betting the farm that this young team will be able to put it together.
I want Nowak to prove me wrong, I want to eventually write you guys after the Union lift the 2012 MLS Cup and say, "I was totally wrong and Piotr was fully right to trust the young guys." You must forgive me if I'm a bit wary of the strategy.
Good teams and coaches find a way to make winners out of mixing older and younger guys. Very rarely is there a reliance solely on either. If the team is too old, they "lose steam" near the end of the season, if they're "too young" they "don't have the experience" needed to go far in the playoffs.
I'm willing to give Nowak a chance for this season. I want to see how this strategy pays off. However, this is where we get to the consequence part of the article.
If the Union make it into the playoffs, I will fully accept that Nowak was right to entrust the team to a bunch of young guys and say that he deserves another year to take this more "experienced" group of young guys through the 2013 season. However, if the Union fail to make the playoffs, if we miss them then it's simple. I want Nowak to go.
I'll pause so you can recover your socks that I have no doubt blown off.
This isn't because I "dislike" Nowak, I actually like him a lot. I like his fire and his obvious passion for the game and the fact that he seems to have laid the foundations for what will no doubt be a formidable youth structure in the coming years. I like the fact that he helped give the Union a solid identity by introducing Scooter's "Maria" (Doop Song) to the Sons of Ben.
All of that does not exonerate him from criticism.
Nowak himself expressed his disdain for people like me when he said on his twitter, "Pay no attention to what the critics say... Remember, a statue never has been set up in a honor of a critic."
Very true Pitor, but they also don't set up statues of coaches that fail to get anywhere in the playoffs. Just ask Buddy Ryan, Ray Rhodes, Gene Mauch and a whole list of Philadelphia managers who don't have statues in the city.
Piotr Nowak's gamble is huge if it pays off it could literally turn MLS on it's head. It would force many teams to suddenly take long, hard looks at their own academies and youth players as well as their ability to evaluate the draft. It would place an emphasis on the development of players that conform to a system that they have years of experience with rather than getting them from college and trying to get them to fit in over the course of their first off-season.
Hell I hope this happens, I would love to see more and more young Americans learning the game at a young age at MLS team sanctioned academies and see the game grow as a result.
Still, it could all backfire.
Piotr has bet his last 10 dollars on one final hand of blackjack and this season we'll be dealing and flipping over the cards. One of three things will happen
1) He gets blackjack (MLS Champions)
2) He wins the hand and gets to play another deal of the deck (Team makes the playoffs)
3) He busts or the dealer beats him (The Union fail to make the playoffs)
I really hope that #1 happens. I'd even take #2. If #3 happens then Nowak needs to be thanked for his service to the team and it's fans and politely but firmly shown the door and bring in someone who can make our young talent work with the older veterans.
As many have said MLS about the Le Toux trade, MLS is a business and sometimes you have to make the hard decisions without factoring in loyalty when it comes to players.
The same can be said of coaches. Nowak has done a lot for the Union, but he also needs to realize that whats good for the goose is good for the gander. Any player on the Union, even our best players are trade bait or available to be sold if the price is right.
Piotr should realize, very quickly that he can be fired at any moment if the ownership doesn't feel like the team is performing at the level it should. Management shouldn't care about what he's done for the Union, they should care about what he's doing for us and what he will do. That's the thing about gambling, when you go all in, you sometimes lose.
I refuse to let the losses of Mondragon and Le Toux change my perception of the team. I will cheer loudly from my seats this upcoming season, Adu, Martinez, Hoffman, some random guy from the street that they put a jersey on and throw out onto the field, I. DON'T. CARE. I will cheer for them as long as they're in the blue and gold. I love the team and any player on it is "my guy" despite any criticism I may have for them about their play won't change that.
So sit down everyone, sit down with me at the blackjack machine and let's get ready to watch Piotr Nowak do what could be his final bet. Let's see what cards get flipped over and see what happens.
Let's hope for blackjack.
Matt "Ascalz" Reppert out.