Philly in flux
The offseason is for fine-tuning. So why is the Union's Peter Nowak so busy?
For most managers of up-and-coming teams, the sole purpose of the MLS offseason is to make minor tweaks to an already strong roster. Perhaps acquiring a veteran for a key part of the field is all that's needed, or maybe shoring up the team's depth in a few positions is the primary objective.
Leave it to Philadelphia Union manager Peter Nowak to put his own twist on how to conduct an offseason.
Philadelphia had already lost Justin Mapp in the expansion draft and Veljko Paunovic to retirement, and cut Stefani Miglioranzi. But then, in a 24-hour span, not only did Nowak lose veteran goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, but he had the audacity to trade leading scorer and 2010 Best XI performer Sebastien Le Toux to the Vancouver Whitecaps for allocation money. Factor in Freddy Adu's desire to head back to Europe and the rumors that Danny Mwanga was being shopped around, and one gets the impression that Nowak is hell-bent on blowing up that which he's spent more than two years building.
In a Tuesday conference call with reporters, Nowak stated there was an internal logic to every decision he has made so far, including the acquisitions of midfielder Gabriel Gomez, forward Josue Martinez and defender Porfirio Lopez. Mondragon's departure was due solely to family considerations, with the 40-year-old returning to his native Colombia. Besides, Zac MacMath impressed during a seven-game stint while Mondragon was injured last year and looks ready to take over.
As for Mwanga, Nowak insisted the forward was never being dangled as trade bait, and would meet up with the team in Florida this Monday following a training stint with EPL side Aston Villa.
"There are a lot of teams, MLS teams, they dream about having Danny Mwanga, and they try to spin it in the wrong direction, telling everybody that we are shopping him," Nowak said. "That is completely false and not true. Then it comes out that he is not needed here. That's not the case here. We are going to welcome him with open arms and hopefully more experience."
In a text message to ESPN.com, Nowak relayed similar sentiments about Adu. The U.S. international had spent time training in Spain with La Liga side Rayo Vallecano and made no secret of his desire to return to Europe, telling ESPN.com that if a permanent move was put on the table, "I'd have to pursue it." This from a player whose nomadic tendencies have been much more of a hindrance than a help during his career.
Yet Nowak insisted that observers were getting the wrong impression of the itinerant attacker, stating that Adu had looked "great" in preseason both for Philadelphia as well as the U.S. U-23 national team.
"I'm sure, at some point, he would like to come back to Europe like any other youngster who did smell big football out there for quite some time," Nowak said. "I will not stay in his way if he gets this opportunity again."
But most of the angst being directed Nowak's way has to do with his decision to trade Le Toux. Not only did the Frenchman score 26 regular-season and playoff goals over the past two seasons, but he was the proverbial face of the franchise. The fact the team purchased the contract of on-loan midfielder Roger Torres will do little to reduce the level of teeth-gnashing in the City of Brotherly Love. And yet, Nowak stressed he was thinking long term, and had to think of the team over just one player.
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"It's not easy letting players go," he said. "It's not an easy part for any of us. But we want to reinvest in the guys that are going to be here in the future. We have a couple of guys on the roster right now that we want to improve the contracts, because they have the contracts from the past years and they are not financially strong, but they contribute to the team, so we want to reward the players as well. One is [defender] Sheanon Williams. That's the part where we want to improve this thing and keep these guys for a couple of more years."
Nowak also said that Le Toux's rather public pronouncements -- namely that he preferred to play as a second striker and not in midfield -- had no bearing on his decision. But looking beneath the surface, there were multiple moving parts that appear to have impacted Nowak's thinking, the biggest of these being Le Toux's contract.
"I can understand as a fan how you'd be a little upset," said former U.S. international Taylor Twellman, who served as the Union's television analyst last year. "But [Le Toux] is in the last year of his contract. I am sure that they've had discussions about a contract, and I'm sure that Philly valued him at one number and Sebastien valued himself at another number. Instead of dealing with that headache later and maybe losing Seba at the end of the year for free, I would get rid of him if you ask me. If my option is to lose Le Toux at end of year for nothing, and get something now, then I want something, plain and simple."
A published interview with Le Toux in The Delaware County Daily Times confirmed Twellman's hunch. In the article, Le Toux said that he asked Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz for a raise to around $400,000, just under designated player level.
There are also other monetary considerations. The Union will be on the hook for every cent of Adu's considerable salary this year -- according to the MLS Players Union, Adu's annual guaranteed compensation last year was $594,884 -- instead of the prorated salary-cap hit that took place last year.
As for Mwanga, his status as a Generation adidas player meant he had zero impact on the salary cap the past two years. But the forward "graduated" from the program at the conclusion of the 2011 campaign, meaning his salary-cap hit this year will be significant. Mwanga earned $226,250 in guaranteed compensation last year.
"Mwanga's and Adu's contracts, I think that's where the dilemma starts," Twellman said.
It's a logical explanation for why Le Toux went on trial at EPL club Bolton Wanderers at Nowak's behest. And when it didn't work out, Le Toux had even less leverage than he did before to extract a raise out of Philadelphia, either now or in the future. In the same interview, Le Toux said he "would be happy to just retire than play for Peter again," and when looked at in that context, the decision to acquire some value for an unhappy player while there was still something to be gained makes more sense.
But without question, Nowak is taking an incredible gamble. The pressure on Philadelphia's stable of young forwards -- a group that includes Mwanga, Martinez, 19-year-old Jack McInerney, and top draft pick Chandler Hoffman -- will be considerable. If they don't compensate for Le Toux's immense production over the past two years, the Union will be hard-pressed to return to the playoffs. Nowak, for his part, isn't putting his young charges under pressure just yet.
"We're going to help [the forwards] out as a coaching staff to develop the right way and get them ready for the season and we will see what will happen," he said. "Now, it's too early to say who is going to score 15 goals. I don't work in a hypothetical world. I live in reality, and I see these guys every day and I'm sure they will fulfill the responsibilities."
For now, Union fans can only sit back and hope that Nowak is right.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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