Twitter, Facebook and the Brotherly Game exploded with comments about Piotr Nowak, the Philadelphia Union's head coach, deciding to start newly signed striker and central attacking midfielder Veljko Paunovic against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday night. Those comments ranged from interest in seeing what the 33-year-old can do to criticizing the Union's technical staff for playing Paunovic over the team's leading scorer Danny Mwanga.
Union head coach Piotr Nowak had the following to say about Paunovic's first start for the team:
"We'll see how he will adjust to the speed of the game, and of course he's not match fit." Nowak also added, "I think that for the 60 minutes we prescribed for him in this game, he did pretty well. You can see that he still needs match fitness, but I think it was a good chance for him."
If a player isn't match fit, then why is he playing, let alone starting for a team that only needed a single point to move into sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference? At 67% match fitness (the team felt he could only go 60 minutes of a 90 minute game, or two thirds of the total), does it make sense to start any player in any league on any team?
Nowak's non-chalant attitude about starting Paunovic at a fitness level that does not hold up for a full game is appalling. Danny Mwanga once again sat on the Union's bench to start the game. There has yet to be any explanation from the technical staff as to why Mwanga continues to be looked over for a starting role in 2010. All the former number one overall pick has done is lead the team in goals and continued to create through some great runs in open play in the games he's been involved in.
Paunovic, for what it's worth, managed to keep playing soccer during his two plus year absence from professional soccer by playing in a 'top' indoor soccer league with Atletico Madrid in Spain. His time was mostly served by coaching, which shows that other than his trial with the New York Red Bulls in 2009, and of course his trial with the Union that lead to his signing, Paunovic wasn't fully focused on trying to do all the necessary things to stay in full soccer shape.
That's not to knock Paunovic in the least. He had a good career in Europe, which is shown not only by his statistics, but also by the quality of the teams he played with - mostly in Spain's top league, La Liga. It's just that Nowak seems to consistently want to outsmart the opposing technical staff with a lot of his moves, but in reality he tends to outsmart himself. It's indicative of Nowak's long history in MLS coaching.
Moves like starting a 33-year-old who hasn't played in over two years instead of a leading scorer who is supposed to be the future of the franchise aren't unusual within Nowak's coaching career. Nowak has done a fantastic job with every team he has dealt with in MLS, but he's made some major mistakes along the way, even while he was winning.
Back during Nowak's time with DC United, he chose to sit Ben Olsen, current the United head coach. Olsen at the time was a stalwart for the team and part of the reason that Nowak had success. The next couple of games were disastrous for the team, as Nowak had decided to start a recently acquired player, who was much older than Olsen. The situation is an almost perfect parallel to Nowak's apparent snub of Mwanga, although the Union have only lost one game directly because of such a coaching action.
It's frustrating to see such a young talent forced to the bench in favor of a Lazy Susan approach to figuring out a starting XI.
Eli Pearlman-Storch of the Philly Soccer Page had the following to say today about this very subject:
Nowak was quick to point out that Paunovic is still working his way back to full match fitness.
I am quick to point out that maybe he should have spent more than one subpar game in the reserves before being thrust into the starting lineup.
Paunovic shouldn't be playing at all. Yet, if he MUST play, doesn't logic dictate that you give him 20 minutes in the second half to evaluate his performance level and to see if he has anything left with which to provide a spark? Then again, this is clearly not a team based on logic. If it was, I wouldn't even know who Paunovic was.
Man, I wish I didn't know who Paunovic was. Talk about blissful ignorance. If I didn't know the name Paunovic, I'd probably be writing about a Union victory and the buzzsaw that Sporting Kansas City was about to walk into. Instead, I'm sitting here writing about this crap.
I am on record saying that if Paunovic gets minutes ahead of either Danny Mwanga or Jack McInerney then the Union are in big trouble. I stand by that and say again, The Union are now in big trouble. When Carlos Ruiz arrived in Philadelphia he at least had a strong pedigree for scoring goals in MLS and, while the Greek league is not considered amongst Europe's elite, it is still a strong league, one in which he was earning valuable minutes.
I'm with the Human Storch. Sacrificing the youth movement for what appears to be a pick-and-play managerial technique is not the way that the Union were last year or this year. Enough is enough. Stop messing with a good thing. The age old phrase is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Was a team that was 2-0-2 in its last four, with the two draws coming against Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids, in need of such a drastic move up front?
In the words of one of the Brotherly Game's shirts, "Me Wanna Mwanga."