It seems as if the Major League Soccer season never ends - and in many ways it doesn't.
Although Union CEO and managing partner Nick Sakiewicz repeatedly has said he doesn't feel the season is long enough, when you visualize all the additives (friendlies, exhibitions, CONCACAF Champions League, etc.) included in a 34-game league stretch that runs from March into November, it can be quite exhausting.
With its season-ending loss to Houston last week in the MLS playoffs, the Union's offseason has already begun. But in the little time off there is to regroup and refresh batteries, the technical staff is on the grind, evaluating, scouting and - very soon - acquiring. While defender Danny Califf plans to spend much of his respite lost in the Hawaiian islands, his boss Peter Nowak is already looking toward gaining the additional pieces this team needs.
Nowak held his end-of-the-season press conference on Wednesday, and during the 45-minute exit session, the manager touched on a variety of different subjects. I tried as best I could to put Nowak's words, difficult to understand at times, into layman's terms, leaving no doubt toward what he said and what that truly means. Here's a breakdown of some key points from that conference:
What he said: "You cannot win a championship with 13 guys, you have to have guys that are going to provide cover."
What he meant: While Nowak is intent on bringing in a few more pieces to strengthen the nucleus, he wants his current players to grow in their roles. One big example is 16-year-old homegrown player Zach Pfeffer. I firmly believe Nowak and Co. have big plans in the future for their teen sensation. Pfeffer will be spending the offseason in Germany once again with first-division club TSG Hoffenheim's developmental academy. It appears the inclusion of Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo and Sheanon Williams in camp with the U.S. under-23 national team ahead of next summer's Olympic Games frightens Nowak (mainly fear of injury and potentially losing those players for a time), but the upside of their development has to exceed that concern. Nowak also mentioned Zac MacMath among those considered for national-team responsibilities as well.
What Nowak said: "As much as I'd like to convince you we have a championship team, we don't. We are very close but we don't. We still need to get an understanding of what it takes to be a very good team . . . that's the part we need to take additional steps towards."
What he meant: The team has already begun actively searching for help in key positions, namely a forward and defender. Hey, Sebastien Le Toux can't do it alone and it's apparent that the current pieces surroundinh him, for whatever reason, aren't getting the job done. I'd like to think Danny Mwanga isn't 100 percent from a hip injury he suffered with all season, and while McInerney has proved to be a spark in his limited minutes, it's arguably his finishing that has kept him on the bench. The Union needs a pure finisher (think Carlos Ruiz, but without the baggage and drama). I was told privately after the finale in Houston by Nowak that acquiring a quality striker is in the works and he noted he was not adverse to getting one by going the designated-player route - though that is a last-ditch option in my opinion. Defensively, it's apparent the loss of Jordan Harvey at left back still hurts, though rookie Gabriel Farfan stepped in and performed well this season. However, this position is another area Nowak intends to strengthen, which assumes La Salle stud Ryan Richter's progression from forward to defender is coming along slower than expected and former USL-1 signee Joe Tait's ankle injury was worse than advertised.
What Nowak said: "We are looking towards making some competition in the group. The group will be better off knowing that someone is breathing heavy and will keep you on your toes. I think that is important even for guys like Sheanon Williams, Gabriel Farfan and Michael Farfan."
What he meant: You want to prove that you deserve to start and deserve to make more money? I want to see a little more. I find it ironic that Nowak picked out Williams and the Farfan brothers, all three players who logged extensive minutes this season but were among the lowest on the team's payroll. Williams, a key cog not only on defense but spreading the pitch down the right sideline on attack, collected just $42,000 this season, the league minimum. Players are always playing for a contract and though all three had solid seasons, only Williams is in the right to demand a better deal, given his contributions this season. I think the technical staff will add a phenom up top to pair with Le Toux. Unless Gabriel Farfan shows greater promise, the staff might elect to try its luck with a more experienced fullback. The biggest shakeup will come in the second third of the pitch as this year's midfield corps was rearranged more than Scrabble pieces. Barring injury or suspension, keeping a consistent lineup is the key to success and that wasn't the case for the Union in 2011.
Only 61 days remain until the 2012 MLS Superdraft in Kansas City, and roughly 2 weeks after that preseason training kicks off. Not a lot of time to get things right. For a team with lofty championship aspirations in Year 3, time is truly of the essence in making good decisions going forward.
SHOTS ON GOAL
Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber held his annual State of the League teleconference in New York City yesterday. Garber lauded fan bases like the one here in Philadelphia for greatly increasing midweek attendance and TV ratings. He also noted that despite the addition of Montreal as the league's 19th team, MLS will stick with its 34-game unbalanced schedule and each team will have a bye week in 2012. Other key points:
"We plan on taking a deeper dive on officiating. We are partnering with U.S. Soccer and the [National Soccer Coaches Association of America] on how to better handle the officiating. But I will say this: Our officiating is a hell of a lot better than our fans give us credit for . . . It isn't as bad as people in this country believe."
On current playoff format:
"I believe it has been a success. I was surprised on the amount of negative reaction on play-in games . . . I believe the excitement from the playoff has been a direct representation of the regular-season performance."
Considerations for new format:
"It's premature to talk about it now, but it is something we are looking to improve for next season. I think we will readdress this with another conference call in the near future."
On addition of more MLS markets:
"I actually have a meeting [yesterday] with an ownership group in Florida [later determined to be the owners of USL-1 club Orlando City]. But we have talked to groups in Las Vegas, and Detroit also in the running."
On the decision to stick with 34-game unbalanced schedule:
"It's simple math: 38 games would almost be impossible for us to execute with the other competitions we're required to play, the weather issues we have . . . the challenges in a handful of markets, the FIFA dates. All the thing we have to do differently in the United States from a competitive standpoint, just the travel impact that exists in our country. The more games we add, we believe will reduce the quality of our play."
On continuing to gain credibility:
"We are actually looking to establish a unified shared vision for the league with our owners and have it ratified this weekend. We want to be one of the top leagues in the world by 2022. We want to be broadly respected throughout the world as a league with high quality of play, good infrastructure, good operational goals and operational performance. We know what we need to do, we just have a lot of work to do to get there."