It has been a rather insane couple weeks for fans of the Philadelphia Union. Heck, it's been crazy just to be an observer. In that time alone, we've seen Sebastien Le Toux go on trial to Bolton; goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon leave to Colombia; Le Toux return early and then be immediately traded; and Roger Torres have his transfer completed. A team that looked to be a serious contender for the Eastern Conference crown has been altered dramatically, and not necessarily for the better, at least immediately.
Along the way, we've been given a bigger than ever peek into the Union organization and the man who clearly runs it however he sees fit: Peter Nowak. He has shown a clear disinterest in players who don't fall into line. It doesn't matter if they are accounting for more than half of his team's goals -- as Le Toux did. What matters is that they buy into the program.
From the look of it, the younger a player is, the more Nowak is interested in molding them. That's not inherently a bad thing, but it's hard to see how this is all going to work in the Union's favor during the 2012 season.
As recently as a week ago, I really thought the Union were the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. They had made some clever offseason pickups, with guys like Costa Ricans Josue Martinez and Porfirio Lopez and SuperDraft pick Chandler Hoffman. It was a young team, but one that was still grounded in veteran leadership.
It's hard to deny the last week hasn't changed that in a rather massive way.
I was never a huge fan of Faryd Mondragon, but I'm very skeptical that any 20-year-old goalkeeper is capable of leading his team deep into the playoffs. Zac MacMath may very well be the most talented young goalkeeper in MLS, but he's got all of seven MLS appearances under his belt. This season will undoubtedly be punctuated by ups and downs, something few MLS teams with playoff aspirations can afford from their goalkeeper.
That situation isn't Nowak's fault directly, as there are no indications he could have or should have done anything to stop Mondragon from leaving. He does bear some responsibility for having no backup plan, though. As it stands now, MacMath is the only goalkeeper on the roster. Even if Nowak's faith is as strong in MacMath as he says, it would behoove him to bring in a legitimate veteran goalkeeper to at least provide some sort of safety net. But after cycling through six goalkeepers in two seasons, you'll forgive my skepticism that any such veteran will be dying to play for Nowak.
MacMath does fits on this team perfectly, though. At 20 years old, he's just one of 16 Union players who are 23 or younger. That's roughly 73 percent of the current roster. The oldest player on the team is 31-year-old Danny Califf, who is just one of two players who is older than 27. He is also just one of six players who was with the team during its inaugural season of 2010.
At seemingly every opportunity, Nowak has chosen to go with a foreign import or a strikingly young player to fill his roster. There's an undeniable romanticism about having a team with an average age of 22 (as the Union currently are), but there's also a very real risk to having such a young team. For one, there's a remarkable lack of experience. Just four players have seen as much as 3,000 minutes of MLS playing time and only six players have made more than 20 starts in their MLS careers.
As it turns out, almost all that experience is heavily focused on one part of the pitch: defense. Danny Mwanga and Freddy Adu are the only two offensively focused players with significant MLS experience. Adu qualifies as the grizzled offensive veteran, and he's 22 years old with a total of 609 MLS minutes played since the end of the 2007 season. Production wise, Mwanga is the only player on the team who has ever scored as many as seven goals in a MLS season and Torres' career totals of 3 goals and eight assists qualify as the third most points on the team behind Mwanga and Adu.
Just to further illustrate the youth of this team -- and the inherent problem with that -- is the very real possibility that as many as five of these youngsters will be lost for several weeks as the United States U-23 team tries to qualify for and likely participates in the Summer Olympics. Adu, MacMath, Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo and Sheanon Williams could collectively miss as many as five games or roughly 15 percent of the season for Olympics-related reasons alone.
Nowak has spoken extensively in recent weeks about how he's building for the future. In MLS, though, the future is usually now. The league is structured in a way that allows teams to quickly turnaround their fortunes and rarely calls for longterm rebuilding projects. Maybe Nowak is planning to do something unheard of and keep this team together for 5-10 years. If he does that, he'll clearly have been proven right.
More realistically, though, the best-case senario involves Nowak being forced to blow up this team again as the various Generation Adidas contracts start to hit the Union's books and the best players start to draw interest from overseas. Maybe he'll successfully rebuild the team when that time comes, too. But this was already a team capable of winning now. He appears to have given up that chance.