By Dario Camacho - MIAMI, FL (Feb 3, 2012) US Soccer Players -- As weeks go, this hasn't been one of Philadelphia Union manager Peter Nowak's most successful from a public relations perspective. In terms of fan loyalty, it has been down right ugly. What transpired in the course of a couple of days has been the complete gutting of the Union's veteran presence. The first to go was goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon. His story is understandable, making the choice to return to his homeland, even if it meant a goalkeeper crisis for the Union.
For a while, that seemed to be the big question needing answering before the beginning of the season. What transpired next would overshadow Mondragon's exit in the public conversation, while on the playing side the Union are without a veteran keeper and a veteran forward.
Whatever can be said about Sebastien Le Toux's exit to Vancouver has pretty much been voiced. The usually cool, collected Le Toux opened up and discussed the deteriorating relationship between he and Nowak. That he stated that he would rather retire than play for Nowak again shows something deeper than a business transaction. It seemed closer to a divorce, and a bitter one at that.
What is clear though, is that Nowak has a plan that doesn't involve Le Toux, much to the player's chagrin. In fact, the way Nowak envisions the future of the Union is a radical step in how an organization assembles a competitive team.
It wasn't just a split between Le Toux and The Union, but also between an established philosophy and a new path of team building. A team structure that adds a few experienced players to bolster an young lineup has been scrapped. In its stead, a group of relative youngsters will be given the chance to succeed or fail on their own.
How that turns out is any one's guess, but the obvious pitfalls are there. If Philadelphia's first season as any indication, it could be a frustratingly long 2012. The Union's debut was marked by a potent attack and a disjointed defense. That led to the kind of mistakes that cost the team games. For the fans, it was a familiar nervous feeling as the season progressed each time their team tried to hold onto a lead.
Philadelphia remedied that by signing Mondragon and center back Carlos Valdes in 2011. Their poise and veteran leadership allowed Philadelphia to keep some of those potential points en route to their first playoff appearance.
Now, its up to the youngsters.
Peter Nowak has made it clear that Philadelphia's investment in youth will be the main point of growth for the foreseeable future, made evident by the sale of Le Toux for allocation money in order to obtain the rights to fan favorite Roger Torres from America de Cali. That Torres, 20, will take over manning the midfield from recently departed Justin Mapp is a sign of what sort of team Nowak wants: impact players with future potential. The upside of players like Torres, Danny Mawanga, Jack McInerney, and Michael and Gabriel Farfan can be an exciting prospect.
Exciting, yet potentially demanding patience and time to actually see such investment in youth pay off. For all the potential upside, there's the feeling that to succeed in MLS requires that mix of veterans, squad players, and youth. Focusing on one at the expense of the others creates the potential for failure, or at least not meeting certain expectations. Nobody wants the tinkering that's marked the history of Toronto FC, and certainly not any club's fans.
With the Union recently reaching the playoffs in only their second year of existence, the once projected path to glory now may be in question. That path was based in large part on the notion that Le Toux would stick around for a few more years, carrying the team forward in his usual gutsy, blue-collar performance. With almost 60% of the offensive production, Le Toux was nothing short of the MVP caliber player that takes teams to the promised land. Who takes up that mantle now will be the biggest question of all.
Yet, looking at the situation in a positive light, the added pressure placed upon this relatively young squad might be the right situation to create a winning team. If this pans out, the potential greatness and payoff could be signaling a different approach to team building in MLS. Mainly, build or accelerate your farm system and make young players a priority in creating a competitive club.
Should Philadelphia succeed in developing those players into international transfer targets, their competitive vision takes on a business model component. If not quite the old selling clubs of Europe, at least an idea that MLS teams can turn their developmental model into a profit center.
Tim Ream’s recent transfer fee of $3 million was a reminder that young talent in the world market is a lucrative commodity. Ream, as a defender, made MLS and the Red Bulls a tidy profit. His transfer might be seen as a one-off, but what happens if it becomes the norm?
However that pans out, the task at hand in Peter Nowak’s hands is a major fundamental change in how we view an MLS soccer team. If Nowak succeeds, Philadelphia will be more the richer down the road while maintaining a squad that gets better with each successive year.
If he fails, it will be an exercise and cautionary tale on how not to dismantle a team for the sake of a youth movement. With that in mind, in less than a week Philadelphia has become the club risking the most in 2012.
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