Playoffs ought to be a must for Union this season

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John Hackworth. (Michael Perez/AP file)

IT WAS a nice try, and I give Union manager John Hackworth credit for doing what virtually every coach at the beginning of a season does - hedge the bet on expectations.

No coach likes to say his team is a flat-out title contender, is going to make the playoffs or win a certain number of games.

That just puts a tangible target on your head for later on down the road if things aren't going as expected.

Asked what he expected this season, Hackworth said, "Right off the bat, it's to be consistent.

His squad stumbled to a 10-18-6 record last season and was near the bottom of the MLS standings with 36 points.

"I try not to look too far down the road.

"A lot of people have said, 'Hey, you've got to make the playoffs this year.' And, of course, that's our goal. That's a given, because I think any team that's successful in this league wants to be in a position to play in the postseason."

Sense a "but" coming?

"But, really, if we put together the kinds of games that we did last year - and are certainly capable of this year - we'll put ourselves in a much better position to be in the postseason."

Getting in a much better position to be in the postseason won't be good enough. This franchise is in Year 4, and the 5-year building plan for sports franchises went the way of dinosaurs a decade ago.

I'm not saying the Union should be challenging for the MLS Cup, but every fan who goes to PPL Park or watches this team on television should expect a playoff-worthy effort every game, starting with Saturday's season opener against visiting Sporting Kansas City.

The expansion-franchise crutch is gone. The Union made the playoffs in its second season and should have been a much better team last season, had former manager Peter Nowak not torn apart what was a likable and growing team.

Hackworth, who took over for Nowak on June 13, 2012, first as interim and then permanent, can't be held responsible for the numerous personnel blunders the former manager made, but he is not relieved of the expectations the Union is held to.

This was a playoff team in 2011, should have been a playoff team in 2012. There is no reason not to expect a playoff team in 2013.

"I think that, in a very basic way, the unrealistic expectation was for us to be one of the powers in the league right away," Hackworth fairly assessed. "You don't go from seventh to first without some major shifting occurring.

"But the expectation that I think all of us in this locker room feel is that we're going to be better, and if we can be consistent, week in and week out, our performances will add up to something that hopefully puts us in a position to be very competitive when the postseason comes around in the fall."

Once again, the Union has made some significant offseason changes, but, hopefully, they won't blow up the way most of the ones from last year did.

The reacquisition of fan favorite and franchise all-time leading scorer Sebastien Le Toux, whose trade to Vancouver was the lead story for all that went wrong in 2012, should return some of the spark that was lost from PPL. And the addition of 31-year-old forward Conor Casey and 30-year-old defender Jeff Parke, an Abington native, should add some veteran experience to a locker room that sorely needs some.

Last season, when players went through extended scoreless streaks, or the team went on a run without points, or simply needed a big win at a critical time, few players in the locker room could provide answers.

A lack of leadership was obvious.

"When you add a Conor Casey, 2 years ago he was MVP of the MLS Cup final," Hackworth said. "He helped lead the U.S. men's national team to the 2010 World Cup. To have him and other guys with rings on their fingers is really important.

"That was truly one of our main targets - to try to elevate the level of player in our locker room, so that there is a better combination. We still have a lot of guys who have no idea what it really means to go through a full season or competition and stand on the top of the platform at the end.

"Having guys in our locker room who have been there and share those experiences is invaluable."

This roster is still primarily young, but it's reached the point at which guys such as goalkeeper Zac MacMath (21), All-Star midfielder Michael Farfan (24), midfielder Amobi Okugo (21), defender Sheanon Williams (22) and forward Jack McInerney (20) have been around long enough to begin to take ownership of this team, and they should be burning to reach the playoffs after last seaon's debacle.

"There's a lot that is going to happen between now and [the playoffs]," Hackworth said. "There will be significant hurdles. How we deal with them, and the maturity that this team has shown, we are very positive that those things are going to be things we have learned from in the past.

"We expect a lot, but we are trying not to put some unrealistic expectations on this season."

Making the MLS playoffs is not unrealistic for a fourth-year franchise.

 


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

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