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Philadelphia: A laboratory for U.S. soccer

Photo: Earl Gardner

Six weeks ago, MLS faced a potential public relations nightmare at the All-Star Game in Chester this Wednesday. The host team was mired in controversy. Its source, then-Philadelphia Union manager Peter Nowak, was scheduled to coach the MLS team against Chelsea in the All-Star Game.

Things look very different now that Nowak’s gone. MLS can point to Philadelphia and say, “Here may stand the future of U.S. soccer.”

Yes, the potential of what the Union can do is really that big.

No team in the era of MLS academies and homegrown players has built a team around young American players the way the Union have. Under Nowak’s replacement, John Hackworth, that vision has finally become something more than just a theoretical concept.

The team’s nucleus consists of:

  • six starters aged 24 or younger who played for Hackworth at U.S. Soccer’s youth residency program in Bradenton;
  • the Union’s first local player (from Princeton) to make a significant on-field impact, age 21;
  • a veteran American holding midfielder;
  • a Colombian center back in his prime.

Six of those young players are former youth internationals with potential to make the senior national team. The seventh has come out of nowhere to become one of the league’s most exciting rookies.

With that core of seven young American players, the Union could effectively serve as a laboratory for the future of American soccer. They could be the rare club that doesn’t just dot the team with an occasional young American starter but rather crafts an entire roster and talent pipeline around them.

It probably never could have happened without Nowak, whose resume was impressive enough that he could successfully pitch the idea, demand full control, and get an expansion club to commit to it long-term.

Nowak himself never truly bought into the idea, oddly enough. He may have stocked his roster with young American players identified by Hackworth, but Nowak rarely gave the young outfield players extended opportunities, often preferring imported journeymen with more experience and lower talent ceilings.

To make the idea real, a team needs a manager truly committed to and capable of developing those young players, someone like Hackworth, the former U-17 national team coach and head man at Bradenton.

But Hackworth probably lacked the cache to directly make the leap to MLS manager and sell an expansion team on this concept without a big name behind his ideas. While Hackworth has a good soccer resume, the failure of his Bradenton predecessor in the pros served as a cautionary tale, fairly or not, and hurt Hackworth’s chances of securing his own MLS managerial post straight from Bradenton. After John Ellinger left Bradenton in 2005 to become the expansion Real Salt Lake’s first head coach, his team won just one third of their games before he was fired in 2007. Ellinger’s failure as a head coach likely took the shine off Bradenton as a place from which a coach could jump directly to the pros.

Now Hackworth has his professional team, and American soccer has a unique opportunity. The Union have a youth development guy in charge, and despite some bumps in the road (like Saturday’s loss to New York and Sheanon Williams’ difficult 2012), the young players are thriving.

If the Union become a top MLS club, other teams will emulate them. You’ll see more teams giving younger American players extended runs sooner than later.

That would mean a lot for both the league and U.S. national team, creating more opportunities for more American players at younger ages and accelerating talent development. Maybe the next Chris Wondolowski won’t waste his first four and a half seasons stapled to the bench before breaking the league scoring record, only to still fall short of consideration for a national team starting spot because his breakthrough doesn’t come until someone else deems him too old.

What other potentially great young American players aren’t getting extended playing time because short-sighted coaches can’t or won’t develop them?

In Philadelphia, you no longer have to wonder.

NOTE: This post was written before Peter Nowak’s lawsuit became public today. I figured I’d just leave it as is. –Dan

8 Comments

  1. Great read! Thank you Dan.

  2. “Sheanon Williams’ difficult 2012″… did I miss something??

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Yeah, his season has been difficult in that he was first forced to play out of position, and then he got hurt, an injury that has probably lingered and hurt his explosiveness since he returned. Like Steve said below, he’s played fairly well in spite of it (I think he played hurt too), which is why it’s a difficult season for him so far, not a bad one. He’s had some adversity to play through.

  3. I have to say I think Sheanon was doing well until he broke his toe, I think he’s been playing a little hurt. Even with that said I think he’s played fairly well, not up to the standards that we expect of him, but I think still fairly well, hopefully a week with no play will help that and we will get the Sheanon we know and love back in full stride sunday.

  4. James Korman says:

    I’ve really been wondering about the impact of Coach Hack taking the reigns with respect to American versus foreign players. I’m of the opinion that ‘win now’ is the best strategy for growth and success in a new market. Find the best players no matter where they come from.

    I was a little concerned that Hack might start benching our talented imports to give less polished US kids opportunities. Apparently that is occurring to some extent with Jack Mac starting backed up by Hoppenot over Josue, Perlazza, etc.

    I’ll be curious if Hack opts for Okugo in the midfield over Gavilan as the season progresses.

    Thanks for penning the story. This experiment bears watching. The American core of the team is looking pretty cool….and loaded with talent. I do dream that the FO will bring in that ‘final piece’ of the puzzle one day soon.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      I think you’re right, re: “win now” for a new market. Look at all the fans Toronto lost by not winning now (or ever, really). Portland’s current dysfunction doesn’t bode well if it lasts too long. The fascinating thing to watch will be whether the Union can become a winning team with a core of young American players. They have a winning record since Hackworth came on, so it’s possible. If a new team opted for youth development in such a way that it put a noncompetitive team on the field for too long a period of time, the result would probably be a failed franchise due to lack of fan interest. Youth development can’t be the end goal. It has to be the means to the end of creating a top club.

      • I think Hackworth has to come up with a plan B. Looks like the opposing teams have discovered the team’s weaknesses and if there is no plan B then the current winning record will soon be a losing one. Need more height in defense and better service to Jack.

  5. Interesting analysis, especially when you look at the players that I saw get time against Aston Villa last week. It seems that the plan does include a lot of young Americans, including those listed, those not listed but that we all know (MacInerney, etc.) and the REALLY young and less experienced Pfeffer, Jordan, etc. Where the team might have shifted attention from the overseas pipeline that we kept hearing about with Nowak, and the Colombian pipeline with the assistant that just left and whose name escapes me, I can see a more homegrown team with a salt of overseas players being great for the Union. How can you not like selling the bilateral Farfans, Mac and Hoppenot to a young group of fans? That is how this team can be built for the long term, and will lead to loyal followers that can look back at guys that grew with them in relation to the organization. I wrote a while back that I was concerned that Nowak’s plan seemed to look a lot like Connie Mack’s annual sell-off of everything that was valuable on his A’s teams, a pattern that the Mariners and other teams that failed to build a fan base have followed. I hope that this “experiment” includes a long term commitment to building a relationship with the fans like that.

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