The winless Union head into Saturday’s match against the Vancouver Whitecaps with only two goals to their name. While much attention has been directed at the team’s on-field issues in recent weeks, it is impossible to ignore the impending return of Sebastien Le Toux.
When the franchise’s leading light was transferred north of the border, all eyes turned to the schedule and this early season showdown with the Whitecaps. Speculation about how PPL Park would welcome the French fan favorite began the moment Seba’s flight west lifted off, though there is general agreement the greeting will be extremely positive.
Now the Union’s disastrous start has given this game even greater significance. Questions about the club’s commitment to winning arose with the departure of Faryd Mondragon and the poorly handled Le Toux transfer, and the voices of dissent grew in volume when Danny Califf unexpectedly landed on the bench.
Over the first two seasons, fan criticism of the team was largely directed toward starting lineups and the performance of individual players. Recently, the tenor has changed and larger criticisms about the direction of the team, Peter Nowak’s management style, and how club decisions are communicated to the Union faithful have come to the fore.
The moment Sebastien Le Toux joined the Whitecaps Saturday’s game became a must-win, but the Union’s 0-3 start has made the spotlight that much brighter and that much hotter. Truly, there is only one thing to do in Philadelphia at 4pm tomorrow.
5 big questions
When asked at Wednesday’s press conference by the Inquirer’s Marc Narducci what kind atmosphere he expected on Saturday when the undefeated Vancouver Whitecaps ride into town with Sebastien Le Toux leading the charge, Peter Nowak responded, “Are you being serious or are you joking? [Because] I can take it as different perspectives. Maybe confettis, maybe parade, maybe banners. I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s going to be and how it’s going to be. I’m not worried about this thing whatsoever.”
Q – So what’s it going to be? How do you expect the Union faithful to respond when Le Toux’s name is announced? Should Nowak be worried? Or will the sight of Le Toux in a Whitecaps jersey finally allow everyone to “get over it” and put the transfer in the past?
Dan Walsh: Le Toux will be cheered. There likely will be a call of “Touuuuuuuuux.” Confetti and parades might be a bit much. But it will be a greeting no other visiting player has gotten before. Philly fans get a bad rap, and that’s coming from someone who grew up rooting for New York teams. What people never realize is that what makes Philly fans the way they are is they’re so real and unfiltered. So if they hate you, they REALLY hate you and will let you know it, but if you earn their love, it’s unshakable, and they’ll let you know that too. Nowak should be worried, because whatever financial limitations Union management faced in the off-season, they don’t explain the face he shows the public. That might work if you’re winning, but not if you’re losing. Fans will eventually get over the loss of Le Toux, but it probably won’t be complete until Nowak is gone or the Union become a top-three team in MLS.
Eli Pearlman-Storch: This is much ado over very little, in my opinion. Union fans will show Le Toux respect and cheer his announcement and then the game will start and it will be business as usual, complete with jeers and booing, when appropriate. No more, no less. And if Le Toux scores, he will have the class to show restraint in his celebration.
Adam Cann: I hope Le Toux’s reception is creative, positive and lengthy. But once the game starts, Seba should be treated like any other striker. Oh, and I hope he takes all the corners and free kicks for Vancouver. That’s one way to limit the high-flyin’ Canadian offense.
Mike Servedio: There will be a nice applause from all of PPL Park for Le Toux, and he deserves it. But after that, the fans will concentrate on urging the team to find their first win of the season.
Ed Farnsworth: I’ve got friends who will never forgive the club for getting rid of Le Toux and how poorly they handled the whole thing, and friends who are long over it. Sure, he’ll get a big cheer before the game. And the first time he’s on the receiving end of a crunching tackle the cheer might be even louder. If the start to the season hadn’t been so poor, Le Toux’s return would still be a big deal because, let’s face it, it’s a good story and it is a lightning rod for other issues. But I’m glad this is happening early in the season so we can move on. It is true that, as Nowak said after the transfer, that new heroes will be created and I’m really looking forward to that. It just better not take too long.
Nowak said to Kerith Gabriel of the Daily News about the ongoing Le Toux talk, “I am sick of this ‘face of the franchise’ crap. You know who is the face of the franchise? Our fans who come every week to support us, the team. They are the face of this franchise. That’s who we play for. Not some individual player. I’m not dumb, I know fans loved (Le Toux) and will cheer him, but at the end of the day, it’s about the team, our team and that’s where the focus should be.”
Q – Admirable words, but after a series of public relations gaffes, is it too little too late for some Union supporters?
Dan: Yes, for some, but not all. There will always be that contingent that forgives and forgets — and maybe even likes Nowak’s hard edge — if the Union start winning again.
Eli: It just seems very silly. Now is not the time to suddenly make it all about the fans, considering that hasn’t exactly been his stance all along. And it doesn’t even make sense. And since when is having a “face of the franchise” necessarily a bad thing? The Union didn’t seem to mind the concept when Faryd Mondragon’s face adorned most publications as the team entered the 2011 season.
Adam: Nowak is right. That’s why I’m wearing my Union jersey with “Fans” on the back to the game. Love or hate a coach, as long as he is winning he gets a free pass. If success is less a present state than a proposed future, a coach must mirror the values of his club’s fans if he wants the support to see a project through. Philadelphians are pretty clear about their values: Loyalty to your players, toughness, and – for coaches – staying out of the way and letting the guys on the pitch/court/field/ice do what they do best.
Mike: No. Not if the team turns around and not only makes a run at a playoff spot, but does it playing good soccer. Union fans are smart enough to recognize sometimes difficult moves are made to make the team better. But if the team isn’t better, then things can ugly.
Ed: Here’s what’s curious about the quote. On the one hand, Nowak smartly says the fans are the face of the franchise, that the fans are the Union. And that’s great and true because the fans were here before the club. But if he’s frustrated that the return of Le Toux is something that not just Union fans but reporters and MLS fans from around the country are interested in, just keep it to himself. More importantly, prove to the fans through winning that dumping Le Toux was the right thing to do. Start winning and fans won’t need to think about who’s no longer with the team.
As if the return of Sebastien Le Toux wasn’t enough, the Bearfight Brigade are organizing Operation 4-Love, in which they are asking for a public show of support for the Union captain Danny Califf when the match clock reads 4:00.
Q – Are we looking at a path that ends with public displays specifically directed against Nowak? Or will growing signs of fan discontent come to an end with the Union turning their season around?
Dan: It looks that way, but we’ll see if the Bearfight Brigade’s ballsy effort is unique. This is new ground for Union fans. Will others emulate the Bearfight Brigade? Hard to say. Will the Sons of Ben do anything? If they turn on Nowak, that could spell the end for him. But the reality is many disappointed fans will probably just check out and stop watching games if the Union keep losing. In the end, people just want to want to watch good soccer with a team they like. If the Union start winning, the enmity toward Nowak will die down some, but Nowak has severed the connection that prompted the popular refrain, “In Nowak We Trust.” That’s never coming back.
Eli: Winning cures all ills, but there hasn’t been a whole lot to suggest the Union are prepared to reel off a series of victories, despite upcoming matches against weak sides in Chivas USA and Columbus. So the tension appears set to continue and if the fans choose to direct their displeasure towards Nowak, well then so be it. He has made it clear that feelings are outside of his job description, so whatever demonstrations the fans devise will affect him very little. One thing is certain though, the Union manager should probably work on retaining his composure around the media. The recent lines of questioning that have gotten him riled up will appear mild compared to what he will face if his team doesn’t start racking up the points.
Adam: If the Union start winning the players will be happy. If the players are happy, the fans will be happy. I would admire Nowak’s willingness to make himself the face of the team during this low period if I thought it was a calculated move. I don’t. I think the scariest outcome of this poor start to the season is that the players start to question the coach and the coach digs his heels in. Breaking out of a slump isn’t always pretty, but it is almost always the result of going back to basics and allowing soccer players to have that freedom and creativity that hooked them on the game in the first place. The fans should be the same way. Show them a field full of players having fun and running hard and they will be happy. They want to be fans, after all, not critics.
Mike: If the Union keep dropping points and failing to win games, the fans will have a right to call for Nowak’s head. MLS is too mediocre as a whole to be completely changing the plan in only the third year of the club. And to have a starting line up as erratic as it has been for the last 1+ years is difficult to comprehend. But everything is made right again by winning and getting positive results. If the results start coming, the calls for a coaching change will recede.
Ed: Being a sports fan is as much about griping and complaining as it is about joy and celebration. Combine that with soccer’s powerfully unique tradition of organized support and things get really interesting – and from what I’ve seen, the Bearfight Brigade are looking to use humor and fun to make their point. In the end, though, everything gets better with wins.
Preseason roster changes and poor public relations aside, high expectations are inevitable following a season that ends with a playoff appearance. Peter Nowak has said, “I have a playoff team in this locker room, and I have 31 more weeks to prove that.” Players such as Carlos Valdes and Sheanon Williams have stated that, while they understand the frustration of the fans, the team has faith that they can turn things around and that they need the the fans’ support.
Q – Are signs of fan frustration simply the result of a disappointing start to a new season following one that ended with making the playoffs and high expectations? Is there a danger of over-reacting, of mixing up frustration over results with disagreement over personnel decisions and poor public relations?
Dan: No, the fans’ response goes well beyond the three losses to open the season. You can’t treat your players (Le Toux, Califf, etc.) the way Nowak has and publicly show the disdain he’s known for and not have fallout. After more than two seasons, Nowak’s questionable tactical decisions have become obvious even to outsiders, and the average fan understands better what’s going on with the merry-go-round that passes for the Union starting lineup. Sure, people are mixing up their frustration over results with their views on personnel decisions and Nowak’s public demeanor, but when they both add up to the same thing — a critical view of Nowak — it’s really somewhat irrelevant.
Eli: I think the fan frustration and the public relations mistakes are inextricably linked. Fans want to drink the Kool-Aid. They want to buy in. But when you do buy in and are then treated with such callous disregard, it leaves a wound. Given a string of positive results, all will heal as the fans develop new affection for this year’s crop of players. Still, regardless of which players compose the Union roster at any given moment, I believe that the fans are equally unsatisfied with how those players are being deployed. The system towards which they are building, whatever it is, isn’t working and with a new raft of tactics to go along with every new formation, there is a growing opinion that the players are not being put in positions to succeed. Talk about irritating.
Adam: Let’s be clear: The Union are loved, and hard fought losses garner respect in Philly. But part of the logic behind Le Toux’s forced exit was that it would open the door for young, hungry players to take over. The 2012 team hasn’t looked hungry, and it hasn’t been turned over to the young guns either. At times it seems like the club is doing everything they can to create a stable of self-conscious role players. The fans are reacting to the team being something other than what was advertised, and until they see the type of fight Peter Nowak displays with reporters in the players on the pitch, the frustration is natural and will grow.
Mike: Fans will always be disappointed when the results don’t go their team’s way. But if the performances continue to be so sub-par with the offense looking so out of sync, there is cause to blame the preparation. There’s for sure the chance for over reaction, this is Philadelphia after all, but like I said above, this league is full of parity, and if you are continuously under-performing, there is reason to be frustrated.
Ed: There is a danger of over-reacting in terms of the start of the season. The season is long and, provided the Union can string some results together starting on Saturday, they will very quickly be back in the thick of things. But I also think Union fans are smart and engaged. If the general response to lineup and formation decisions continues to be bewilderment, particularly when those choices don’t bring positive results, frustration can only grow.
Various commentators have said that, with the Union now in its third year, the honeymoon is over.
Q – Is it?
Dan: Yes. Big time. Fans still love this team. But if they decide the Union can’t win, they will begin to check out, and attendance will begin to drop. That wouldn’t happen under ordinary circumstances, but I think the acrimony that Nowak has created is just that significant. Union fans are probably more hesitant to grow attached to players now, simply because they’ve seen those players will be treated as nothing more than disposable parts. How do you build an attachment to someone you know will be gone tomorrow? That may seem like any other sports team, but the relationship between Union players and fans has been pretty distinctive. There’s a reason players like Jordan Harvey and Le Toux still talk about the fans here.
Eli: Of course it is. It’s demeaning to the fans that support the Union to suggest otherwise. The Union, to their immense credit, have built themselves a roster that is competitive, at least on paper, with any other side in the Eastern Conference. So if those players go out and fail to get results on the pitch, the fans have every right to ask questions. The suggestion that fans simply buy in to everything the organization throws their way is ludicrous when you consider how passionate and well-informed the fan base was before there was even a team they could call their own.
Adam: Yes, but it was probably shortened by the blossoming marriages between fans and club in Vancouver, Portland, and Montreal.
Mike: Yes. And this is Philadelphia, so the fans examine things even further than most fans would. Union fans expect to see progress from season to season, both in terms of record and quality of play and from the looks of things so far this year, the team is taking a step in the wrong direction.
Ed: I think for many fans it was over last summer when an obviously frustrated Nowak seemed to blame the fans for running Carlos Ruiz out of town. But the ending of a honeymoon isn’t the end of a marriage nor does it mean that better days aren’t ahead. They can start tomorrow with a win.