Bob Ford: Union's manager promises effort, if nothing else

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Union manager Peter Nowak runs practice at Houston Park. They will play their first game tonight in Seattle. (David Maialetti / Staff Photographer)

Peter Nowak will not kid you. The team manager for the Philadelphia Union, the MLS expansion team that plays its inaugural game tonight in Seattle, looks at his young roster, studies the preseason work, and says things might be rough for a while.

"We know we're an expansion team and it's not going to be an easy season for us," Nowak said. "But in this league, the difference between the No. 1 team and the No. 16 team is not a big difference. The only difference is how hard you are willing to work."

Nowak has worked his players hard so far, which is his reputation. The Polish native, who starred in Germany's Bundesliga before coming to the United States to win an MLS title as both a player and a coach, is not exactly Mr. Rogers when it comes to management style. To him, a professional soccer career must rest on the intricate spider web woven by endless practice and dedication to the craft.

"YouTube highlights are not good enough for me," he said. "For me, you have to come to work every day like every other worker in the country. Then, the rest of the time, you have to think what you can do to make your game better."

The trick is translating that harsh, Cold War struggle to succeed to a generation of players who either have graduated through elite academies and developmental programs or found the swimming easy enough in the comparatively shallow waters of Major League Soccer.

Nowak's methods are a cold plunge for some of them, and many might not have known the real meaning of hard work before the Union began training.

"They do now," Nowak said. "I know that it is not easy to train and play for me. I know that very well. They know it's going to be hard, but sooner or later, these young men with great potential will realize that potential needs to be shown on the field. It's good for a coach to have a team with potential, but potential will get you fired at some point."

Nowak doesn't make any promises about this season. In fact, getting him to say anything of substance about the team isn't easy. He hasn't even said what formation the Union will employ when they take the field tonight. Could be a 4-4-2. Could be a 3-5-2. Could even be a 4-5-1. Nowak will let you know at 9:30 tonight on ESPN2.

"I don't want to say right now we will have this form or that style, because then you create a bubble, and when it bursts, everyone is disappointed," Nowak said. "It will not happen overnight, but this team will emerge and will have its own style."

Judging by the roster, the Union will be hard-pressed to score goals, and their initial identity might be as a defensive, counterattacking team rather than as an attacking side. In their two exhibition games in Florida during the third and final phase of Nowak's training camp, the Union lost, 2-0, to Dallas FC and by 1-0 to the lower-division Tampa Bay Rowdies.

So, at least for the moment, until further study, Pete Nowak is not promising goals. He is not promising wins. But he is promising effort and, failing that, MLS teams can make roster changes until July. If the city of Philadelphia is true to its self-made reputation as a friend of the blue-collar laborer - the mucker who digs the puck from the corner, the baserunner who slides headfirst into the fielder's spikes - then the team Nowak is trying to construct in that image should be embraced. Although winning would be nice, too.

"I will be very upset if the team doesn't compete," Nowak said. "The players have to want to be successful. They have to be hungry for success. I don't think it's always going to be pretty on the field, but I expect them to fight every single time."

Tonight's opponent, the Seattle Sounders, offers a handy example for the Union. Seattle made the MLS playoffs as an expansion team last season despite playing in the deeper Western Conference. Nowak certainly would accept that outcome for his team, and maybe the Union can sneak in and take one of the eight postseason spots.

That's asking a lot, though, and for now Nowak is asking only for effort and commitment. Where he comes from, success follows those. Where he is now coaching, however, it doesn't always work that way.

"I'm a guy with both feet on the ground. I look at things very real," Nowak said. "What I want is to play with as much capacity as they have every single time, and we'll see if it's good enough for Major League Soccer."

 


Bob Ford:

Union at Sounders

Tonight at 9:30

TV: ESPN2

 


Contact columnist Bob Ford

at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read

his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.