The first soccer operations move the Union made was the one that sold me on the team. When, in 2009, the Union announced the hiring of United States U-23 coach Peter Nowak as manager, it signaled--at least to me--that the team was putting careful thought into how the team would be constructed. Nowak, even before becoming the face of the Union--and due respect to, at different times, Danny Califf, Sebastien Le Toux, and the Sons of Ben, he is--has been considered something of a legend in Major League Soccer. He was the first man to win an MLS Cup as both a player and a coach, and has played an instrumental role in developing the first generation of American players to grow up with soccer as a major league.
He was, at the time, the perfect man to build a franchise from the ground up in a sporting culture where delay and failure are both expected and punished mercilessly. So where has that taken the Union??
At the time, building without an established star seemed like the way to go. It worked for Seattle, who used Kasey Keller and Freddie Ljungberg to kick-start their franchise with a playoff run in the first season.*
*On a side note, I'm not sure MLS fans really appreciated how big a get Ljungberg was at the time. Of the big-time European stars to play out the string in MLS, he's among the biggest. Beckham and Henry are in a class of their own, but depending on how one feels about Roberto Donadoni, Hristo Stoichkov, Rafa Marquez, Youri Djorkaeff, and Robbie Keane, Ljungberg might be the third-biggest name to feature in MLS.
Remember--he was a key part of Arsenal's Invincibles, won two Premier League titles, featured in two World Cups, three European Championships, and a Champions League final, and if not for David Beckham would have gone down as the greatest combination passing right-winger and underwear model of his generation.
But where Seattle wanted to build a foundation of success quickly, Nowak's Union built from the ground up, an appropriate strategy for a manager without a big-ticket financial backer and possessed of a background in player development. Nowak famously traded established US international goalkeeper Troy Perkins, building instead on a largely unknown and very young group of players.
I went to the home opener against D.C. United at the Linc having heard of four Union players before the season: MLS veterans Danny Califf and Fred, goalie Chris Seitz, who backstopped a USA team that, through upsets of Brazil and Uruguay, became the darlings of the U-20 World Cup, and Michael Orozco Fiscal, whose senseless third-minute red card in the final group game of the 2008 Olympics was key in preventing the United States from advancing against eventual silver medalists Nigeria. I spent Orozco's season in Philadelphia actively not forgiving him for that red card.
Otherwise, who were those guys? I was fresh off two years covering college soccer, but my beat was limited to Conference USA--the University of South Carolina in particular--so while I was familiar with Blake Brettschneider, Sean Johnson, and other future MLS players from the Southeast, I'd never heard of Amobi Okugo or Danny Mwanga before the draft.
Despite some late additions and the emergence of several unknowns--Le Toux in particular, along with Sheanon Williams and Roger Torres--into high-quality performers, the Union seemed to have built something. In their second season, with some key performers added, the Union grew into one of the top defensive teams in MLS, and treated Philadelphia to postseason soccer for the first time.
Nowak's plan, as of the final whistle of the 2011 season, appeared to be paying off more quickly than expected. But right now, the Union are experiencing something of a growing pain, and I think I've identified two reasons why.
MLS is Unlike Any Other League
Soccer, as its fans will tell anyone who cares to listen, is more internationally democratized than any other sport on Earth. In basketball, the NBA stands head and shoulders above all other leagues, and while professional basketball is played at a very high level in Southern Europe and western Asia--Italy, Spain, Israel, and Turkey come to mind--those leagues are subordinate, on the global level, to the North American game. Baseball and hockey each have two global major leagues (MLB and Japan's NPB in baseball, the NHL and the mostly-Russian KHL in hockey) with a handful of feeder leagues in other countries.
Soccer, however, is played on a world-class level in as many as a dozen European countries, with no real ranking structure. We've got a vague idea that the best club soccer is played in England, Spain, Germany, and Italy, but after that--can we say for sure how the Russian Premier League stacks up to the Mexican Primera Division? Or the how the Dutch Eredivisie compares to the Greek Super League? Not really. That lack of an established order, as well as a cash-based transfer system that makes all professional soccer players almost literally fungible commodities, leads to a phenomenally chaotic system of player movement. If an NHL team is trying to build with youth, it has to worry about picking and developing the right players, and while it might lose one or two odd guys to the KHL, that's not the norm.
A soccer team, however, must worry about picking and developing the right players, scouting from a much larger pool of talent, manage player movement within MLS, and keep track of literally hundreds of international bidders who might tempt a player with a move up (to England or, more commonly for American players, the Netherlands) or a move laterally to Scandinavia or one of Europe's lower leagues for more pay.
If an MLS team develops a good player, it doesn't keep him--New York alone has sold current or former EPL starters Michael Bradley, Tim Ream, Jozy Altidore, and Tim Howard. Apart from Landon Donovan and Dwayne De Rosario, young North American players who can stick in Europe do. Meanwhile, the Henrys, Ljungbergs, Beckhams, and Keanes play out their athletic dotage in the United States, home of lower taxes and a lower level of play.
This leads to the chaotic player movement system where a team loses its best player for "allocation money" and feeds into a spectacularly complex and almost completely opaque MLS budgetary structure. The Union lost its two best players last offseason and has neither a publicly available transfer figure nor an influx of new talent to show for it. For a manager, that's probably disconcerting, but for a fan, it's grounds for civil unrest.
Faryd Mondragon left the team to return to his native Cali, Colombia. Sebastien Le Toux was forced out of town for budgetary reasons no one inside the league or club cares to explain and no one outside the club really understands. Le Toux, for my money, was more beloved by his fans than any Philadelphia athlete in my lifetime, apart from Brian Dawkins. I believe Union fans loved Le Toux more than Flyers fans love Claude Giroux, or Phillies fans love Cliff Lee. So to see him pawned off on another MLS team over his vociferous objections, napalming his way out of town and vowing to retire than to ever play for Nowak again was heartbreaking. But if there's a good reason for the Union to have done this, we may never know.
Good Process, Bad Result
The other reason for the pessimism regarding the Union is the crop of young players Nowak selected, which is not an indictment of Nowak himself. I write for Crashburn Alley, a Phillies blog that, as a company policy, uses advanced analytics to evaluate the game. One of the core tenets of the philosophy of my generation of baseball writers is to evaluate the process, rather than the result. It matters whether a player move or a tactic works or not, but the best decision-making takes place when one evaluates past decisions on process.
That means, essentially, recasting the question "Was this a good decision?" Rather than asking "Did it work?" the right question to ask is "Did this course of action, given what we knew at the time, have a higher probability of success than its alternatives?"
Sports are chaotic, soccer particularly so, and trusting one's future to a bunch of kids adds even more uncertainty. We know, more or less, how Danny Califf and Brian Carroll are going to perform, because we've been watching them for a decade. Zac MacMath and Roger Torres? Not so much.
Seitz was a gamble. Mwanga was a gamble. Torres was a gamble. Jack Mac was a gamble. And the reason the Union are low-to-mid table right now is that the young players Nowak assembled either didn't work out or haven't worked out yet.
I consider Nowak's 2008 Olympic team to have been better-suited to win an intercontinental title than any American men's soccer team ever assembled. It was stocked with rapidly-developing talents set to break into the highest ranks of the world game. Of that team, Michael Bradley, Stuart Holden, and Maurice Edu have already shown themselves to be indispensable midfielders, and most of the other players have proven themselves at the MLS level at the very least. Of the 18 men on that squad, four have been employed at some point or other by Nowak's Union. I would make the argument that those four--Chris Seitz, Freddy Adu, Danny Szetela, and Michael Orozco Fiscal--have had the most disappointing professional careers of the bunch.
Seitz in particular bothers me. He was a national championship goalkeeper in college, a top-5 MLS draft pick, and, by all indications, the next great American goalie, in the mold of Keller, Brad Friedel, Tim Howard, and Brad Guzan. But somewhere early in the 2010 season, it all fell apart, and he was so bad that Nowak, 12 months after acquiring him at great expense, cashiered Seitz, giving up on him at age 23, when most goalies are still in their embryonic stage.
There was no reason, before he turned the ball over on a drop-kick for a Jaime Moreno goal in the 2010 home opener, to believe that Seitz would be such a spectacular disaster, but he was, and I have a hard time blaming Nowak alone for that. Other project players--Mwanga, McInerney, Okugo--might find similar fates, or they may yet develop. Who knows?
If you're wondering why the Union seems to have taken a step back, the answer is simple: MLS transfers are complicated, and kids are unpredictable. As for the plan, and Nowak? We'll just have to be patient.