A look in the mirror

(Published in The Philly Soccer Page on Nov. 5, 2011.)

Philadelphia Union did not play better than Houston in either of their two games.

The Union trotted out yet another poor lineup, with the team’s leading scorer deployed at midfield where he never scores instead of forward where he always scores and a zone defense that confused its own players more than it contained Houston’s.

Philadelphia may have had the better team, but they certainly didn’t show it.

Now that we got the obvious out of the way —

This should be an offseason for some soul-searching.

Not for the players, mind you. From top to bottom, save Juan Diego Gonzalez, everyone earned their pay this year, and then some. They’re clearly disappointed, and they deserve the time to let it all soak in, take a few weeks off, and recover. It was a good year for them, but a tough way to end it. As far as they came, they knew they were better than how they ended.

We’re talking about the man in charge.

Overall, it’s hard to argue Union manager Peter Nowak didn’t have a good season. He took an expansion team and turned it into one of the top eight teams in the league in just their second year. He deserves some recognition for that. So let’s give it to him: He’s an excellent judge of talent. There was a lot to love about this season.

But after the missteps we’ve seen all year were finally exposed this week on a national stage, he has questions to answer, if not publicly, then to himself and his players.

  • Will he adequately develop that talent? Or will Danny Mwanga, Roger Torres, Jack McInerney, and Amobi Okugo stagnate because they can’t get regular playing time or even a regular position?
  • Will he maintain the support of the players themselves? Or will they tune out a seemingly autocratic coach who likes to play the mad soccer scientist role, seldom to positive effect?
  • Will he put his players in positions that accentuate their strengths and downplay their weaknesses?
  • Will he ever take responsibility for a poor decision — or even acknowledge it happened?

There’s more to ask and more to say. We could talk about the Union’s 17 crosses against a team that dominated them in the air, or a variety of other technical things. But let’s be honest: No one wants to read (or write) it now. The Houston hangover lingers. So we’ll keep it short and sweet — for now.

Nowak is the only person to ever win the MLS Cup as a player and a coach. He’s done an excellent job building a team full of players that Philadelphia fans have come to love. Players like Danny Califf and Sebastien Le Toux embody everything that Philly fans love in their teams. The above foursome, the Farfan twins, Sheanon Williams, and Zac MacMath add the feeling that tomorrow can always be better because this team is so young. This isn’t a team that needs many personnel changes. The pieces are there.

But what Nowak has to decide is whether the Union are going to be about those players or about him. Right now, he looks bigger than the team. That won’t cut it next year.