Featured / MLS

Who’s driving this thing?

As the Union return to Earth from their improbable early season success, questions abound as the defense tires and the offense continues to sputter. Despite an excellent start against Dallas, the Union netted another goose egg and looked mentally fragile as they folded like a card table once Brek Shea broke the deadlock. Against a team who, without David Ferreira, are constructed in a similar vein to the Union, certain glaring concerns launched themselves to the surface in Frisco, Texas.

How hurt is too hurt?

Captain Courageous

I have to get this out of the way. Despite the noble effort from Union captain Faryd Mondragon to play through pain on Saturday, the question must be asked: Should he have played?

Watching the heroics lengths that both Carlos Valdes and Danny Califf had to go to in order to not just win the ball, but to avoid passing back to their injured goalkeeper, raised a number of red flags. The regular sense of security evident between Mondragon and his back four felt weakened and the image of defenders turning concerned glances over their shoulders was truly a reminder of the days of Seitz.

To be clear, Mondragon is not at fault in this. As an intense competitor and an emotional leader, he wants to be on the pitch, and that is admirable. But it is up to the coaches and trainers to make the correct call for the team, not just for that day, but for the rest of the season. Because through injury, fatigue or a dip in form, there is no way that Mondragon plays every match this season. It isn’t practical to assume that, given fixture congestion and 3000+ mile cross country flights, a 39 year-old goalkeeper will feature in all 34 league matches.

Further, it again raises the question about cutting Brad Knighton. As a border-line MLS starter, Knighton would have offered the Union a security blanket for Mondragon, while allowing 19 year old Zac MacMath time to learn and earn the confidence of the coaching staff. Instead, with third-stringer Thorne Holder out with a concussion, MacMath is the only option to fill Mondragon’s boots. Had the Union a viable #2, Mondragon could have been allowed to rest against Dallas, only three days after sustaining the original knock against LA. Groin injuries are tricky and an aggravation in Dallas could have easily put him on the shelf for an extended period.

Toughness isn’t just about elbows…

After weeks of mounting frustration, Peter Nowak finally relented and gave the fans what they wanted, allowing Danny Mwanga and Sebastien Le Toux a run together, with Carlos Ruiz taking up a seat on the bench. With Roger Torres and Justin Mapp rounding out what appeared to be an aggressive formation, the Union looked primed to get things cooking.

And they came out hot.

Not just in the attempts they created (but failed to convert), but in the manner that they possessed the ball, orchestrating creative and positive buildups through quick, purposeful passing and strong runs into space.  The opening goal began to seem like an inevitability as Union fans flashed back to last season as we watched wave after wave of Union attackers crash the Dallas box.

But, soccer is a cruel game, and in Fabian Castillo, Dallas has an emerging star.

0-1.  Dallas takes the lead.

From there on out, nothing was the same. Somehow a 29th minute goal—decidedly against the run of play—was enough to throw a wrench in the Union’s entire plans and they were never able to recover.

While the Union did concede two goals for the first time this season, I am unwilling to lay blame at the feet of the defense. You can’t keep a clean sheet every game—no one can—and it’s not fair to expect it.

So why did our boys, when confronted with a deficit, completely lose the plot? Concerns about mental preparedness have to come creeping around the corner when an entire team falls so flat in the face of the slightest adversity. Had they held together, continuing to knock the ball around and playing the composed, attractive soccer that described the first twenty-five minutes of the match, they would have been fine and in all likelihood would have earned the equalizer they sought.

But this is a team pressing. Rattled by their lack of goals, out of luck and confidence, against Dallas they somehow lost the early season toughness and swagger that made them so challenging to break down.

In the wake of the latest rash of poor results, Peter Nowak, the one man who should be their biggest cheerleader through thick and thin, has jumped the fence and is now lobbing criticism back at his own team.

Unacceptable behavior

Love him or hate him, there is one thing Jose Mourinho does better than almost any manager in the world. He uses his larger than life ego and personality to channel all criticism and scrutiny away from his players and places it firmly on himself. When a player is struggling, Mourinho is certainly letting him know it behind closed doors. But, in front of the press? In the eyes of the public? His players have his complete backing. It is the kind of coaching that galvanizes relationships through even the worst times and makes players willing to run through a wall for their manager.

Peter Nowak has taken his own sizable ego in the opposite direction in his approach to managing the Union. And to be blunt, he is dead wrong. Following a truly dour 0-1 loss against Portland, the Union rightly had many questions to answer over their tepid showing. When asked about their inability to get a ball past Timbers ‘keeper Troy Perkins, specifically on a gilt-edged chance that fell to Sebastien Le Toux in the 87th minute, Nowak had this to say:

“The situation Seba had, you’ve got to put that in, six yards out, you have to finish. I think that was the point lost.”


No. Unacceptable. Anyone watching that match knows that he should have buried the chance. And you know what? Sebastien knows it too. But to throw your own player under the bus like that? To publicly accuse a player for costing his team a point? Unacceptable. This is the reigning MVP of Union we are talking about, not some punk rookie. And you know what? Even if it was some punk rookie, it still would be an absurdly inappropriate thing to do. Scream at him in the training room. Making him run laps till he pukes.

I can’t believe I even have to say this, but DO NOT humiliate a player in front of the media.

When the Union’s failure to capture a second goal cost them two points against Seattle, Nowak was again quick to step out of the spotlight and point an accusing finger at his faltering players saying, “Don’t be afraid to score the second goal.”

Leadership 101

If Nowak needs a little inspiration on how to behave, he need only look at Faryd Mondragon to see a true leader in action. Unprompted by the media, Mondragon tweeted the following two comments:

  1. “In behalf of my team and specially myself I want to apologize to all our fans for tonight’s disappointing performance in Dallas”
  2. “We promise to work very hard to give back our fans next Saturday against Chicago what we took away from them tonight, DOOP!!!”

That’s some top drawer sentiment from the captain right there. Without pointing fingers and attempting to excuse himself from blame, he accepts responsibility and acknowledges that he personally will insure that they do better. If you didn’t love Mondragon before (and I can’t think of a reason you wouldn’t), then you MUST be a fan now. True, actions speak louder than words, but the Union captain has walked the walk since he arrived in Philadelphia ,and it is a certainty that he is taking care of business in advance of the matchup with Chicago this weekend.

Honeymoon’s over

Lost that loving feeling.

Time for a reality check.

Nowak’s comments aside, it is time to face facts. For whatever the reason, Sebastien Le Toux is a shadow of the player who exploded onto the Philly soccer scene last season. While the relentless work rate remains, his touch on the ball is, to be frank, brutal. Yes, he and Carlos Ruiz have not developed the kind of chemistry he once enjoyed with Danny Mwanga, but it is way more than that right now. Watching him turn a defender, only to clumsily bang the ball into touch is a deeply saddening moment for Union supporters who have grown accustomed to only the best from Le Toux.

And while we sit and scratch our head wondering where his abilities have gone, it is time to give him a rest. He won’t like it, but no true competitor does. Regardless of the reason for the dip in form, continuing to trot him out for a full 90 minutes every match is not the way to help him regain last year’s glory and confidence. Right now, it is almost heartbreaking to see how hard he is pressing, trying to do too much with every opportunity. After all, the reason a team carries multiple skilled strikers is to rotate them to keep them fresh and in peak form, not just to be able to put all of them on the pitch at once.

Tactics? What tactics?

Speaking of which…

The substitutions made by the Union in the second half against Dallas were idiotic. More strikers does not equal more goals. Fact. Especially after watching the Union dominate the first 25 minutes, it is mind-boggling how the coaching staff, who I believe was watching the same game we were, would be so quick to abandon the shape and structure that had showed such early promise.

It’s been used to death, but the metaphor of driving a car is apt in this instance. From the outset, the Union comfortably barreled down the highway, until two bumps in the road threatened to turn them off course. With plenty of opportunities to make small, well-considered adjustments, Nowak and Co. instead chose to grab the wheel and drive the car off a cliff.

It was almost enough to make me feel sorry for the XI players on the pitch in the second half. Watching Mwanga and Le Toux playing deep in midfield looked awkward and uncomfortable because THOSE ARE NOT THEIR POSITIONS. Watching Ruiz, Jack Mac and Mwanga all run into the same space and bump into each other brought about sympathy because playing with four strikers is simply NOT DONE. The pompous nature of this coaching staff continues to astound as they reject the playbook from the past fifty years of professional soccer in favor of the cheap gimmickry favored by cocky high-school teams.

But… This IS the pros and if you cannot select a formation, teach it and trust it (with a few minor adjustments) through 90 minutes, then you’re in a whole heap of trouble. And between 4-4-2, 4-3-3 and players running every which way in an awful, flowing blob of inconsistency, the Union’s struggles are more than just skin deep. Yes, there is a need to rotate players to build chemistry and form. But weekly formation changes? Players constantly being moved out of positions? That will get you nowhere in this league (or any other professional league for that matter).

Ruh Roh

I have been called out on this page for my criticism of Peter Nowak before. After all, he built this team from scratch and made them what they are today.

So I ask you: What are they today? What is their identity? Are they a possession team? A counter-attacking team? A high-pressure team? A long ball team?

A team this loaded with talent (and they are) should not be having this much trouble finding its feet or each other. When they found a way to grind out a victory against San Jose, I had hoped that they were turning a page and defining who they were as a club. Clearly that was not the case and until someone, be it coaching staff or players, gives this team a shape and a system to utilize and perfect, their struggles will continue.

Photos: Paul Rudderow


  1. This. I agree. Nothing has made any sense since the beginning of the offseason. Mondragon and Valdes were huge pick ups, but the game management, player management and gaping holes in the roster are insane.

  2. They are a counterattack team. They will bunker down defensively, and look to spring 1 great attack per game when the opponent over-extends itself towards Union’s goal. They adopt the mentality that they will always gain at least a point if they surrender zero goals. And it will be maddening to watch.

    It will come down to whether or not they want to develop their offense, or focus on winning points and working towards a playoff spot. I don’t think Nowak thinks this team can do both yet.

  3. They are a lets wait until the other teams makes a horrible back pass team. I do not see them as a counterattacking team because we havent had a counterattacking score. The horrible truth is that Le Toux was a one hit wonder and will never play like he did last year ever again…but at least he got a 57k raise. Another horrible truth is that the Union are a mediocre at best team that will limp into and out of the playoffs (with this leagues format I should hope so). And finally, Nowak will continue to stress the fanbase with poor game and team management.

  4. Matt Kirk says:

    Sorry Los117, Le Toux is not a one hit wonder. He should have been the MLS MVP last year. This year he is having a slump, but I almost expected it. He was clearly carrying an injury in the beginning of the season, we all saw that and on top of that, Nowak takes away the dynamic duo of Mwanga and Le Toux. Say what you will about a one note symphony. Mwanga was a rookie of the year candidate and we all know what Le Toux was. Le Toux still shows his amazing work ethic but he needs Mwanga back and not just for one game or for one half for that matter! Mwanga should have started from the beginning of the season so the chemistry could rebuild from last year. Ruiz, messed up everything, or was it Nowaks fault for ruining the duo in the first place…?

    Now to Nowaks performance, I was just at a loss for words when the 2nd half started with all the subs. How could you completely change the starting XI? Why would you bring on Ruiz? he does not add any energy. You can’t give the starting XI atleast another 45 minutes to see what they can offer? Why put our players into a formation thats left for last ditch efforts with 5 minutes left to play? I’m gonna go out on a limb by saying this, but the 2nd half CF that we saw was Nowak’s fault. He has thrown his players under the bus before like written about above and the 2nd half of the game proved it. It was like one of awkward scenes in movies were you feel so embarrassed for the character that you want to fast forward to the next scene. The second half was ugly but you just do not throw some random formation in, it does not matter if these are professional players or high school players you can not put them into a formation like that right out of the 2nd half.

    Finally, like I said before, we are lucky to have such awesome players, that we do, because if my coach would be that quick to take me out of a game or throw a 4-2-4 formation on the field at the beginning of the 2nd half, I would ask for a trade because you do not do what Nowak did and continues to do. And as much as I love the Dragon defending his cave, he needs to rest his injury, put Macmath in and give the Dragon some much-needed rest.

  5. This was a great piece, I wholeheartedly agree with the points you have made. I thought I was the only one who thought this teams problems may be due to the coaching staff.

  6. Brave words, sir. True ones to boot. Don’t feel bad about criticizing Nowak- it means you love the U more than the guy who’s willing to be a yes man.

  7. Andrew Desiderio says:

    The section titled “Tactics? What Tactics?” was spot on. While looking at the second half tactical changes I had to do a double take and make sure I wasn’t watching a FIFA game on Xbox. How you can think four forwards and two midfielders is going to add to the attack when the Union can’t link play with the forwards while four midfielders are on the pitch is beyond me.

    I have had issues with several of the decisions to date thus far. Playing a 4-3-3 usually results in Mwanga being out of position and ineffective, Le Toux mostly just pressing the areas both he and Ruiz should be covering, and Ruiz camping in the middle with little to no movement. If someone had said to me before the year that the midfield would be the biggest issue I probably would died of laughter. The insistence to play a center mid as a right mid (Okugo against Dallas, Nakazawa several times) continues to bother me, and I personally would give Michael Farfan a run at right mid. Le Toux and Mwanga should be given another chance up top as the first 20 minutes or so was very positive in the Dallas game (not to mention a good part of last year). Lastly, Roger Torres needs to play in the middle when he’s in, as he struggles on the outside with the additional defensive responsibilities that come along with the position.

  8. Earl Reed says:

    From what I’ve seen, they have tried to play long ball with Ruiz as their center forward target. He’s smaller than I am. The reason the 1st half-hour of the Dallas match was good was because they tried to create instead of lob and duck. I don’t know why Nowak thinks that Ruiz can be a target man, but it’s not working. If anything, Mwanga needs to learn that role (and quick) if that’s the way Nowak wants to play.

  9. Even though im a big mls fan Man United will laugh, put in their near 4th strnig and win comfortably.Red Devils-3 MLS All Stars-1

  10. That’s the best answer of all time! JMHO

  11. Great article but it didn’t have everything-I didn’t find the kitchen sink!

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