John Smallwood: Union fans starting to demand results
It was a chilly day on the waterfront in Chester.
The sky was overcast and a stiff wind blew across the field at PPL Park as Union manager Peter Nowak walked slowly across the pitch, toward the River’s End section.
It’s not only the exit to the Union’s locker room, it also is the place where the team’s most zealous fans — the Sons of Ben — congregate during matches for their colorful 2 hours of controlled frenzy.
As he approached the “Sons,” Nowak took his hands out of the pockets of the coat he had worn throughout the scoreless draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps FC and saluted the crowd with applause.
The “Sons of Ben” acknowledged Nowak back.
This was the polar opposite from the pregame introductions when boos greeted the announcement of Nowak’s name.
Like every manager or head coach in Philadelphia, Nowak has received his share of criticism from hometown faithful, but this was the first time he had been booed.
Anxiety, however, has been much higher around the Union since the franchise made major changes to a squad that made the playoffs last season — including the trade of fan favorite Sebastien Le Toux to clear salary-cap space. A lot of fans were puzzled by the Union’s moves.
The Union’s earning only one point in its first four matches didn’t inspire much faith that the team was improved.
Nowak’s name was again booed before the next game on April 14 at PPL Park against the Columbus Crew.
The Union beat the Crew, 1-0, for its first victory.
Still, the increased grumblings from the fan base have been a clear indication that the honeymoon with the third-year franchise has just about run its course.
Union fans are judging their team with the same harsh, critical eye with which Eagles, Flyers, Phillies and Sixers fans look at their teams.
All of the auxiliary stuff is nice, but when it gets right down to it, results on the field are what matters.
Like Andy Reid, Charlie Manuel, Peter Laviolette, Doug Collins and any other coach who’s worked in Philadelphia, Nowak is finding out derision is always just a couple of losses away.
“Every coach is in the same position,” he said.” There is going to be questioning if things aren’t going well. What are we doing? What are we trying to do?
“It’s part of the whole process. It’s not something you think about each single day. You try to what is best for the franchise. I think, regardless of the results, every manager will try to do the best and find a way for the team to succeed.”
Nowak and the Union’s problem is that a lot of their fans think the team might have broken something that did not need to be fixed.
This was a playoff team last season — one that came close to winning the Eastern Conference in its second year of existence.
Expectations for the 2012 campaign were high.
Most fans expected the offseason to be about making moves to enhance the chances of winning the MLS Cup.
Instead, management blew some big holes in that playoff team. The coup de grace of discontent came on the last day of January, when the Union traded Le Toux to Vancouver. It’s been an albatross around Nowak’s neck — especially since Le Toux tossed some unflattering hand grenades at the coach on his way to the Great White North.
Union fans questioned how a franchise that already was offensively challenged could trade a player who had tallied nearly one-third (25) of the team’s 79 goals in the first two seasons and 20 of its 70 assists?
It doesn’t help that Le Toux has three goals for Vancouver this season, equal the total tally for the Union.
“I understand why everyone is upset, but please have faith we’re doing what’s best for the club. Sometimes tough decisions have to made,” Nowak posted on Twitter at the time of the trade, just before he asked fans to please stop sending curses to his account.
This is “best”? A 1-3-1 record with three goals scored?
A lot of people simply don’t understand why Nowak does some of the things he does, from his ever-changing lineup to his in-game substitutions to his roster additions and subtractions.
That Nowak rarely feels the need to explain his decisions in more than the most general terms has led many to label him as “arrogant” and/or “stubborn.”
Much like Reid, Nowak is supremely confident in his abilities and what he is doing with the Union. Like Reid, he sometimes gives off the impression he is teaching rocket science and most of us don’t know half as much about soccer as we like to think we do.
That attitude doesn’t play well in Philadelphia.
Fans here take pride in the fact they are well versed in the sports that they follow, and they don’t like being made to feel as if they have only a rudimentary understanding of how and why things are done.
They demand answers, particularly when what a coach said would work doesn’t.
Nowak justified the team’s roster shake-up by saying a commitment to youth was the direction to success.
But his lack of game-to-game commitment to such youngsters as Danny Mwanga, Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo and Chandler Hoffman — all former first-round picks in MLS SuperDrafts — leads to questions about that.
What does it mean when a third-year franchise has only three players under 25 — goalkeeper Zac MacMath, midfielder Michael Farfan, defender Sheanon Williams and midfielder/defender Gabriel Farfan — in the top 10 in minutes played.
Right now, the Union looks like a team confused about both the present and the future.
There have been many changes, and Nowak clearly is still experimenting to find combinations that will present consistent results.
But at some point, if things don’t change quickly, “it’s still early” will look as if it is too late.
“I understand our expectations,” Nowak said. “I understand where we were last season.
“I think, as I said before the season started, that if we could be a contender for the MLS Cup, everything would be good.
“I have a playoff team in this locker room. I have [time] to prove that. All we can promise is that we will fight for everything.”
Once, that would have been good enough, but the Union is all grown up now. Results, not promises, are what matter.