PORTLAND, Ore. – After watching the rest of Major League Soccer kick off the league's 17th season this weekend, the Philadelphia Union will finally take the field tonight to begin their 2012 campaign.
Their first game will be among their biggest challenges of the season. The Portland Timbers enter tonight's game having been just as revamped and revitalized as the Union. But their raucous fan base hasn't changed a bit, and nor have the narrow confines of JELD-WEN Field's artificial surface.
Sunday evening, I spoke exclusively and at length with Union manager Peter Nowak. We discussed his plans for this game, his goals for the coming season, and his long-term plan for keeping the Union successful.
You can also read my exclusive interviews with team president Nick Sakiewicz, midfielder Brian Carroll, goalkeeper Zac MacMath and ESPN color analyst Taylor Twellman.
What have you seen so far from your team in your preseason travels?
What I have seen is excitement to start the season. As soon as the preseason started, we felt pretty good with what we had, and the new guys fit in pretty well in the whole environment. So it's fun to watch, with the new dynamics and arrangements in the locker room.
It's the whole complex of what we want to accomplish as a team. I think it was a quite interesting couple of months for us, and as a coach, you always look for the new stuff that is going to motivate the guys. I think we've found a way to keep a core group of players and add some guys that will bring new excitement.
What are your expectations for this team this year?
The most important thing is that they will grow, as we progress from year to year. I would say that they have to raise their own expectations. It's not what we do on the sidelines, what we do in training. They have to raise their own expectations – Danny [Mwanga], Jack [McInerney], Amobi [Okugo].
We will find the time for everybody to play and feel part of the team. If you raise your own expectations, then we're all going to benefit from that. My reasoning is not to put my head down and say, "it is what it is," and try to find all these excuses.
I think for a team like that, we have to find a way to raise the bar of their own expectations. To make sure that the concepts, the foundations that we've put in over the two years, is 40 to 50 percent, and the rest is up to them. I think that's the major key for success for this team this year.
Do you have any expectations in terms of place in the standings, or distance in the playoffs or the U.S. Open Cup?
No. I think that from the beginning, from the first year, we set the bar a little higher.
Nobody really expected that we make such a transition last year that we got that high [in the standings]. Nobody really expected that after the midseason slump, or whatever it was – we had a couple of bad games – that all of a sudden we started winning, and everything went back to normal, and everyone was happy about it.
I think that winning is going to determine where the team is going to go, and the sooner that you start it, the better.
What individual players are you looking to this year to take the next step up?
I wish that we will have enough time to spread out the time and let them grow together. I think that sooner or later, this will happen. Maybe not this year, but from year to year we progress.
The moves we've made, the stability we would like to have the year after, and the year after, and the year after. That's the main reason right now for me, as a manager, to give them stability. I think they need to know that.
As much as there have been tough decisions that we've had to make – a couple have been out of our control – I believe that stability for the next two or three years will be key to the team's success, and that we'll grow as a franchise as well.
You signed Roger Torres to a full contract in the offseason after having had him on loan for two years. We've watched him grow as a player and a person. What are your expectations for him? Is he ready to really step up and become a 90-minute player?
That's why I said that the players need to answer what they want to accomplish in their careers. That's for Roger as well. We both can believe that he's a 90-minute player, but he needs to believe too. He needs to work to make himself a 90-minute player.
Unfortunately, he picked up an ankle injury when we started our trip to Costa Rica. Then he was in and out. Especially with the turf and rain and stuff [in Portland] we didn't want to risk anything, so he didn't travel with us.
But I think that for him, it's more important to recognize what kind of work he needs to make himself a 90-minute player.
Right now, I wish that everyone would grow together, and at some point, they will. Roger is one of those guys that needs to answer a couple of questions to himself.
With Roger out, do you have a sense of who's going to start yet against Portland?
Sure, we know who's going to start. We didn't change much as we trained during the preseason. [We tried] different formations, different stuff to give the players a variety of systems they may face during the season.
Every team plays different: Toronto plays different, L.A. plays different, this [Portland] team plays different. You've got to be ready and focused a couple of days before the game starts. You have to know who you're facing, and how fast you can adjust.
So for us, it's the same work that we already did, to give them a variety. The foundation is 40 or 50 percent, which has been here for two years. The other 50 percent is how fast you can adjust, how fast you can play the ball, to recognize what the weakness of the opponent and what our strong suit is. What you have to do on the field.
With 20,000 or 40,000 people [around you], you're not going to be able to direct that decision from the bench. So you have to have every possible scenario in their heads.
As I've said many times, we try to encourage Danny, Amobi and Jack especially, to imagine things. To go over the scenarios that they can face, and that they can live in a game. And to prepare them to find the answers by themselves. Not us just drawing conclusions, or drawing the playbook.
The playbook is just a foundation. The rest is how fast you can see what's going on in front of you.
With Sébastien Le Toux having departed, you are without the guy who was the face of the club for many fans and outsiders watching the team – and the guy who was the focal point of the club's scoring.
Would you rather now have one guy score 15 or 18 goals this season, or four guys score seven or eight?
That's not … I won't have a guy who will score 15 goals or 20 goals [this year]. But from year to year, you're not going to tell me today that Robbie Keane is going to score 15 goals a year. So whatever name you're going to throw in there, there's not probably one in our league who you will say is going to score 20 goals.
This is just pure speculation – I think the decision was as it was. We believe in the stability and the youngsters. We're going to grow together, and sometimes that's not a popular decision, but someone has to make it.
I more meant tactically. Would you rather have the scoring burden centered on one person, or spread out among the team?
It's what you're going to get. You can get Diego Milito today for $5 million. Do you think he will score 20 goals in MLS in a season? He's struggling right now. It's a lottery. I don't think it's one person. We always believe that it's going to be a center of attention that you're going to just play through.
You can't build if you just have three players like Landon, Keane and Beckham. You still have to surround them with other players. You can't just make the team with one guy and say the rest don't matter. We need to be responsible.
With the boss here [Nick Sakiewicz], we're both responsible for this team, for this franchise. Not just to make it successful this year, but in the years to come.
It's just pure speculation as to who's going to come – [Didier] Drogba and this and that. You don't know and I don't know if it's going to happen.
I have one more question, and it pertains to player acquisition. A number of clubs in MLS – most notably Portland with Kris Boyd and Chicago with Arne Friedrich – went to Europe this offseason to get major acquisitions. The Union got two players from South America and two from Central America, and brought in two homegrown players.
Do you think you have a different philosophy from other teams in MLS, or is that just the way it happened this year?
You can think short-term or long-term. The short term from us was to keep the core group together. The long term is to let them grow together. It's very simple. If you want to do those kinds of acquisitions, sure, but you have to sacrifice something for something.
It's not going to happen that with [MLS'] restrictions. You only have so much money to spend that you can get a major thing. You cannot get 11 major things, you can only have one. And then what?
I'm glad that more guys like [Boyd and Friedrich] are coming, but do we want this today or tomorrow? Or do we want to be about a sustainable competitive advantage?
During the interview, I was joined for a few minutes by MLSSoccer.com's Matthew Doyle. He had a few questions to ask about Freddy Adu. You can read Doyle's story here.
I figured I should break this part of the conversation out separately since it wasn't exclusive, but I knew you'd want to read the transcript anyway. So here it is:
Freddy talked about having the responsibilities of being the more veteran players in the team's attack.
[At this point, Nowak got a big grin on his face, and turned to Adu, who was sitting about five feet away waiting to be interviewed by ESPN's broadcast team.]
There you go again Freddy. "My name is Freddy Adu, and I'm already a seven-year MLS veteran, and if I play, the world shakes."
[This produced quite a few laughs from myself, Doyle, Nowak, Adu, and the ESPN team – which was stopped dead in its tracks in the middle of interviewing Danny Mwanga.]
I've been very impressed with everything he did over the last three months. How he approached training, how he approached his fitness. I can't say one bad word about Freddy's contribution to this team, and what we expect from him, and what he expects from himself.
It's a big year for him. He knows about that, and I think he's mentally and physically prepared for the season. It's going to be a lot of games for him in a very short period of time, so we've got to be smart about that too.
We just talked about that: if you need a break, don't say "Coach, I need to play" or "I want to play." We need to be on the same page, and we have to understand – and he has to understand – that this is for his own good.
I think if we're going to contend, [we should] make sure that we will have Freddy Adu fresh mentally and physically, and ready to go for every game – between those commitments with the national team – I think we will see the Freddy that we all want to see.
The foundation is there. Now it's just to make one step at a time and make sure that he will progress and get ready for not only for our season, but the Olympic games and the Olympic qualifiers.
And for Zac [MacMath] in the back, there are a lot of responsibilities as well, to be not only a starter but a leader.
No, I don't believe in this "leader" stuff. I put on a yellow pinny [shirt] to be a leader today, like Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France. So it's not like you're going to tap this guy and say he's the guy that's going to lead the team.
We share all the responsibilities, and these guys know in the locker room that some guys need help. They are still very young human beings, they are still learning. With Zac, Amobi, you name it – everybody's learning on the job.
So for us as a coaching staff, it's to not only show them the way, but believe in them, give them confidence, and make sure that they will progress. That they will be happy with the play, with what they're doing, with what's going on in the locker room.
They need to have a smile when they show up every single morning in the clubhouse. I think that for the past two years, we've established this culture.
Some guys understand that I can't play 24 guys. Some days, the decision doesn't go your way. You have to understand, and maybe it will be the next game. Or maybe you're going to have a couple of minutes here and there to contribute to the team.
Because I always have believed that if the team has success, everybody will have their fair share of recognition, this way or another. So whoever is number one or number 24, they all are in the same boat, and everybody's going to enjoy the success that we all have.
Can you put a word to the personality of the locker room this year?
It's been very good. Even with the changes we made in the offseason, I think it's been a good two or three months that we've had together. It shows that the maturity of the team, even being young, they've already played in this league.
We had discussions before the preseason started about the fact that these guys already play. So it's not like it's a completely different group that we've taken from somewhere, from the academy or whatever, and then try to mold them in one or two months.
It's a different story now. I think we kept a core group together for a majority of the time, and it's fun to watch. It's a different dynamic now, with the youngsters slowly taking over the locker room, and they direct the other youngsters on what to do and how to do it. It's fun to watch.
Who controls the stereo?
I think it's Sheanon [Williams] with Freddy.