Despite not having been around for very long, the Philadelphia Union are already looking to 2013 as a clean slate.Soccer is a game obsessed with time. There's the actual keeping of time in a match, of course: 90 minutes of running clock with the sport's finest dramatic innovation, the gloriously arbitrary added time, a zone where time seems to stand still or sprint for everything, depending on your perspective, its duration decided upon only by the whim of the referee or, depending on your competition, the right glare from Sir Alex Ferguson.
Then there's the future, the nostalgia of imagining what might be, the simultaneous promise/threat of tomorrow, the constant task of spending as little as possible for the biggest return, replacing expensive human assets that become very valuable for a short time befor depreciating quickly into near worthlessness.
And of course, the past. Every club has some sort of history, great or meager as it might be, and that history is necessary to put a club in its proper context. Real Madrid's position as the third-best team in Spain right now, a hard, true fact borne out by the table, is not nearly as important as its nine European Cups, most of them won before any of the club's players, or even its manager, were alive. It's the reason Leeds United is considered a bigger club than Stoke City or Wigan Athletic, why Rangers is still one of the two biggest clubs in Scotland. In MLS terms, though New York may have Thierry Henry and a flashy stadium, D.C. United and its crumbling, raccoon-infested RFK have the mystique and the aura of an illustrious history.
The Philadelphia Union too have a history, if a more than occasionally unhappy one. The usual expansion club growing pains of 2010 gave way to the promised land of the playoffs in 2011. The Union had the youngest team in the postseason in November 2011. By February 2012, they had the youngest squad in the league, head coach Peter Nowak inexplicably imploding the side. Seemingly having lost the plot, Nowak soon lost his job when the Union limped to a 2-7-2 record and gave dire Toronto FC its first points of the season.
With Nowak out, new coach John Hackworth remodeled the team upon taking over in June 2012, a process that continued into the offseason. A type of "Hackworth player" has emerged. Generally American, or raised through the American system. Hard-working, down-to-earth, technically proficient. Many have some sort of international experience at youth or senior levels, and several of the younger ones were coached by Hackworth when he was in charge of the U.S. U-17s.
Nowak's transfer market dealings were re-examined. The once-jettisoned Sebastien Le Toux is back, after a messy breakup that led the Frenchman to declare he would never play under Nowak again in any circumstances. The addition of Jeff Parke looks an awful lot like a bid to replace Danny Califf in defense. Conor Casey will be expected to perform the duties that Alejandro Moreno did once upon the expansion season and to which Lionard Pajoy never quite lived up. Former prodigy-turned-prodigal-turned-project Freddy Adu is still on the payroll, but he's not a part of the active roster and Hackworth has said his time in Philly is done. The club's front office says it is willing to consider any offer for his services. Gone too are players often perceived as more loyal to Nowak, or, at least, less accepting of Hackworth's philosophy, particularly midfielder Gabriel Gomez.
It is with this backdrop that the Union enters the 2013 season. The Union performed adequately last year under Hackworth, recording the club's first three-game winning streak and making the semifinal of the U.S. Open Cup. That encouraging start, coupled with offseason success - by Hackworth's own admission, the club got all three of its main transfer targets in Le Toux, Parke, and Casey - means that there's more pressure on them this year. This is no longer an understrength group of youngsters and midseason castoffs, but a veteran team committed to its coach's vision. Union fans will expect no less than playoff qualification, and anything less must be regarded as a failure.
Every decision now must be laid at Hackworth's door, to be his triumph or his failing. Starting talented but easily flustered 21-year-old Zac MacMath in net for another season. Letting Carlos Valdes go on loan to Colombia, thus trusting Jeff Parke and the iffy fitness of Bakary Soumare to compensate. Bringing back Le Toux and adding Casey, forcing the blossoming talents of Jack McInerney and Antoine Hoppenot onto the bench.
The Union are attempting to blot out recent history and write their future with a reconstruction of the slightly older past and a win-now attitude. If it doesn't work, Philadelphia edges closer to Toronto FC status as a well-supported but unsuccessful club. If it pays off, the Union have the potential to be one of the most difficult teams to play against. That much got the Houston Dynamo to the last two MLS Cups. It got Colorado a championship in 2010. The Union will be happy to make the playoffs.