Nowak: Union need to 'not look at the standings'

Here is a dichotomy that exists in almost any sport you might follow.

Fans, media and various other observers spend a lot of time looking at and discussing the standings in a given league. The team being observed, meanwhile, insists on taking things one game at a time - especially when it's August and the regular season still isn't close to being over.

Sometimes, the latter's case wins out. Take the Phillies, for example. A noticeable number of the team's fans threaten to jump off the nearest bridge any time the Phillies lose, even though they have the best record in baseball. Their chances of making the playoffs are about as big as the tub of popcorn that the Phanatic dumps on fans every so often.

At other times, though, the one-game-at-a-time perspective isn't so easy to sustain. That is the case with the Union right now, who quite spectacularly fell from second place to fourth place in the Eastern Conference after last Saturday's loss in Columbus.

If the regular season ended today, the Union would have to travel to Real Salt Lake to play a one-game playoff at the start of the postseason. Just getting back to third place, much less second or first, would allow the Union to bypass that round.

Union manager Peter Nowak did not need any reminding of this when he took the dais for his weekly press conference at PPL Park yesterday. Nowak has to convey the one-game-at-a-time theory to his players, but he also has to consider the wider perspective as the Union prepare for the stretch run of the season.

"We all know the pressure, and sometimes - as I've said to the team, and have said to you guys - for a young and inexperienced team like that, it's sometimes difficult to overcome that pressure," Nowak said. "All we need to do is not look at the standings, not look at who is behind us or in front of us, how many games there are left, how many games we have in hand."

That pressure would probably exist whether the Union was in fourth place or first place. But it is compounded by the fact that the Union haven't registered a win in league play since July 17. Since then, there have been three ties and two rather contentious one-goal losses.

Then came Wednesday night's friendly at Harrisburg. The Union went down 2-0 in the first half, then scored five straight goals in the second half and ended up with a 5-3 win.

I was only following the game via Twitter, but I could tell my reaction was the same as everyone else's: the Union were trailing 2-0 at halftime to a USL Pro team?

From listening to Nowak, it sounded like the team had just the same reaction.

"In the culture we create, there's a sense of urgency, that this is not us, that this is not how we play, how we compete," Nowak said. "I think that after the first half, those guys knew that - without me interfering or screaming or having some pep talk in there. I think they all believed that we were better than this, and I think there was a sense of the team as a team together, not the first half or the second half - it was 22 guys knowing that we had to do better."

Nowak then said something that I found quite interesting: he admitted that the team has been tentative in front of goal.

We've all seen it anecdotally at times, from a lot of players on the team. Even though Nowak is a pretty forthright guy, I was surprised that he said it in the way that he did.

Here's the entirety of Nowak's remark:

We all know where we are and what kind of team we have. Sometimes we are too focused or too cramped, and it's not that the guys aren't trying. They are trying very hard. I said to them the other day that I feel bad for them as a coach, because I know how much work they put in together in training - how may drills they had, how many repetitions they did, to make this happen.

Sometimes when you are too focused or too stressed, you just miss here and there - you hit the crossbar or the post, and you can't do anything about it. We try to calm them down, to make sure that if you have a chance, that you're not going to say 'Oh my god, what do I have to do, and am I going to score or not score?' You have to do it automatically. You can't think twice.

It's the same with a penalty kick. You know where you're going to put the ball. Sometimes you look at the goalkeeper, but if you choose your corner, you know you're going to put it there. It's the same with situations in front of goal. You've got to be calm, you've got to be focused, and put the ball wherever you want.

Nowak said he is also looking for stability in the team's lineup.

"The preseason and friendlies are for experimenting - when you are very deep in a season, it's about stability," he said. "I think the last thing you want is instability in the team, with nobody knowing that's going to happen next week."

What do you think about Nowak's remarks? Have your say by posting in the comments.

Speaking of reader interaction, I asked Nowak what it has been like to be on Twitter. He joined the social networking website on August 15, and has been quite active in replying to fans' questions and comments.

Nowak said that the most common question he has faced is about the team's starting lineup. Among the players fans want to see more of are Freddy Adu, Roger Torres, Zach Pfeffer and Amobi Okugo.

"There were something like six offensive guys," Nowak said. "And my question was: 'Okay, I agree, but who's going to defend?' "

On the whole, though, Nowak said he has enjoyed the experience so far.

"I don't want to play the role of knowing everything, because I look at the bigger picture and I see what people are really thinking, about the game we play and the composition and balance of the team," he said. "Some of them have good suggestions."

But as Nowak admitted, not even famed Real Madrid manager José Mourinho gets his tactics right all the time.

"Nobody has a magic formula on how to approach this thing - not even 'The Special One,' " Nowak said. "My voice is trying to come forward, not to hide, and to try to answer as I do in some press conferences. I think it's a more open stage, and I never hide any details, especially towards my feelings about players and the team and the game we play."

As a fan of Special1TV, I couldn't help laughing out loud when Nowak dropped the name of one of the most famous Twitter accounts in the soccer world.

We'll see if The Special One offers a response to the populace. Considering that Mourinho didn't talk to the Philadelphia media at all when Real Madrid came here, it would be nice to get a little something.

UPDATE: The Special One has returned the favor. Fantastic.

In case you missed it yesterday, former Union defender Michael Orozco Fiscal and Chestnut Hill Academy product Jeff Larentowicz are on Jurgen Klinsmann's 24-player roster for the United States national team's friendly matches next month.

The U.S. will host Costa Rica at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., on September 2 (11:00 p.m., ESPN2/Galavision), then travel to Brussels to play Belgium on September 6 (2:30 p.m., ESPN).

There are plenty of big names on the roster, but Larentowicz deserves to be highlighted for the stellar season he has had in MLS. The Colorado Rapids midfielder has tallied six goals in league play this year, and scored a very big goal in Colorado's 1-1 draw at Honduran club Real Espana in the CONCACAF Champions League on Wednesday.

The biggest surprise is midfielder Fabian Johnson, a German-American duel citizen who has played for Germany's Under-21 squad. Players who were not on the roster for the U.S.-Mexico game include forward Jozy Altidore, midfielder Clint Dempsey and defender Timmy Chandler.

Among the notable omissions are midfielders Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Ricardo Clark; all three are currently searching for new clubs, and the transfer deadline is just a few days away. So Klinsmann has decided to let them focus on that.

Here is the full roster...

Goalkeepers: Bill Hamid (D.C.United), Tim Howard (Everton)

Defenders: Carlos Bocanegra (Rangers), Edgar Castillo (Club America), Timmy Chandler (FC Nürnberg), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover), Clarence Goodson (Brondby), Zach Loyd (FC Dallas), Michael Orozco Fiscal (San Luis), Heath Pearce (Chivas USA), Tim Ream (New York Red Bulls)

Midfielders: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Maurice Edu (Rangers), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht), Jeff Larentowicz (Colorado Rapids), Robbie Rogers (Columbus Crew), Brek Shea (FC Dallas), José Francisco Torres (Pachuca)

Forwards: Juan Agudelo (New York Red Bulls), Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar), Teal Bunbury (Sporting Kansas City), Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy)

A starting lineup I'd like to see (4-2-3-1): Howard; Chandler (left), Ream, Goodson, Cherundolo (right); Beckerman, Edu; Dempsey, Torres, Donovan; Altidore