I went out to YSC Sports in Wayne yesterday to check out the Union's last practice session of the week. It lasted about two hours, and I got to spend quite a lot of that time getting a good look at just about every player on the field.
The main impression I left with, though, was of Peter Nowak. He said something during the afternoon that I think is worth our discussing here. Some of the coaches out there among you might not like it, but I think the rest of you will.
It came during a seven-a-side scrimmage. I don't remember who had the ball, but all of a sudden Nowak looked at his players and shouted:
"Don't be afraid to dribble through traffic!"
That is not a sentence you hear all that often from soccer coaches, from youth level all the way up through the pros. In America, England and many other countries, you hear a lot from coaches about fitness and running. But you don't hear so much about work with the ball - and certainly not about having license to dribble.
Peter Nowak takes a different approach. Yes, he is famous for making his players run on the field after losses. But Nowak also wants his team to play a certain way, and the training ground is where that mindset gets instilled.
During yesterday's practice, the only activities that did not involve a soccer ball were a light jog at the beginning of the session and some cool-down stretching at the end.
Most of the time was spent in one of two drills. The first had three groups of five players on the field, with the aim of putting together as long a series of one- and two-touch passes as possible before the ball was intercepted. The second was a seven-on-seven half-field scrimmage.
Granted, this was just one day of five the Union spent at YSC, and there is still over a month of preseason training left to go. But when Nowak met with reporters after yesterday's practice session ended, I could not help asking him about his earlier remark.
Here was his answer:
I think going into the first week of the preseason, especially with some of the new guys, they're trying to play safe. They need to have confidence. If you have the opportunity to dribble, then you can dribble. If you lose the ball making a bad decision, then make a better decision next time.
Early in the process like this, it's important to give them confidence and encouragement. We're trying to get the players to be creative. They need to think on their own, because on the sideline with 20,000 people in the stadium, it's difficult to manage this stuff. We don't have any breaks, as there are in football or basketball.
So they need to think on their own, and as I said, if they are creative enough to see things the way they need to see them, I have no problem with that.
Again, with all due respect to the coaches out there, you just don't hear that sort of talk very often. I was especially intrigued by Nowak's remark about decision-making. That's really rare, especially in a sport where so many young players are trained to value winning above skill development
Even in the vaunted English Premier League, there are plenty of coaches below the country's upper crust who believe that soccer is about running after long balls played out of the back. They certainly wouldn't allow a player a chance to make up for 'a bad decision' with the ball
It's an easy way to play, and a lazy way too. But it's a way of playing that can be taught by a coach. That makes the coach more important, and we all know how much coaches in any sport like to be important.
(Especially when you can command top billing in newspapers by taking almost a month to hire a defensive coordinator. Oh, never mind.)
If the Union had played that style of soccer last year, I would have called them out on it. I suspect that many of you would have too. And it's not hard to imagine what kind of reputation the club would have acquired around the league.
But that didn't happen. Although it took a little while to get things going in the right direction, by the middle of the season the Union were playing some of the most attractive soccer in MLS.
The Union were right to focus on shoring up their back line during the offseason. Just because a team improves its defense, though, doesn't mean it has to scale back its offense. From what I saw yesterday, the club has not lost the creative spark its attack produced in 2010.
That includes trialist Jeremiah White, a Haverford School and FC Delco product who has spent the last six years in Europe. If the Union are able to sign him - and from what I've seen, that looks likely - White would be the leading candidate to step into the midfield spot formerly occupied by Fred.
Here's one potential starting lineup:
The Union also are going to have some real depth on the bench this season, especially in defense and midfield. If White does not sign, then eithe Kyle Nakazawa or Andrew Jacobson could be on the right. Or Carroll could move to the right, and Stefani Miglioranzi would play the holding role.
Either way, I think the Union have the talent to be a playoff team this year. I'm not saying they can win the championship, because there are definitely better teams in the league. I'd put Real Salt Lake, New York, Los Angeles, FC Dallas and Seattle as the top five clubs right now. After that, though, things are wide open.
Although we still don't know the official playoff structure for this season yet, in all likelihood the Union will only have to be the fourth-best of nine teams in the Eastern Conference in order to make the postseason.
Even with Houston moving from the West to the East as part of expansion-related realignment, there are still a lot of weak teams in the conference. So a postseason berth is a reasonable expectation for Union fans.
To close things out, I would like to revise something I wrote earlier this month. After the Supplemental Draft, I wondered aloud whether creating formal exercises for a player to show off his or her skills is counter-productive to developing those skills.
I still stand by the theory, but after yesterday I would like to add the following caveat. Peter Nowak showed me that it is possible to be a taskmaster about creativity. He didn't tell his players exactly what to do, but he did push them very hard to play with a certain style.
It makes sense, in a way. Nowak went from being one of the league's all-time great playmakers to one of its most respected managers, and he is the only person to have ever won MLS Cup as a player and a coach.
If Nowak can get the Union to the playoffs this year, it will add another fine line to his already stellar résumé.
You can hear more from Nowak in the audio player below. There are also interviews with Danny Mwanga, Sebastien Le Toux, Michael Orozco Fiscal and Brian Carroll.
Now it's your turn to chime in. How far do you think the Union can go this year?