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Monday MLS Breakdown: Nowak Takes First Steps To Form Union

By Kyle McCarthy

Philadelphia manager Peter Nowak knew when he took control of the Union that this wasn't a regular MLS gig. For one thing, he didn't have any players.

Building a team from scratch isn't the dream most might think it is, even with the ample allocation money (in excess of $1 million) at the Union's disposal. Finding good, or even decent, options willing to play on MLS salaries is hard work. Plus, the Union had to winnow through the MLS ranks to figure out which players might become available in the expansion draft. In order to acquire that first batch of players, Nowak, former U.S. national team colleague and current assistant coach John Hackworth and other members of the Union technical staff had to watch games. A lot of games, in fact.

“The most important thing for me is the players,” Nowak said in a phone interview last week. “With John, we spent several weeks and several months talking about the players. Who are we going to get? Who is that? What will the scenarios in the expansion draft be? And then finally, we have all of these players.”

The group now numbers 11 with Danny Califf seemingly on his way from Denmark to make it a healthy dozen at the turn of the year. Nowak selected ten of those players in the recent Expansion Draft, opting for a mix of proven veterans (Stefani Miglioranzi, Alejandro Moreno, Shavar Thomas), established contributors with upside (Jordan Harvey, Sebastien Le Toux and Shea Salinas) and younger players with potential (Andrew Jacobson, Brad Knighton, David Myrie and Nick Zimmerman).

“You always look to build the spine of the team,” Nowak explained. “The keeper, the central (defenders and) midfielders and, in our case, even a striker like Alejandro Moreno, who was on a championship team (in Columbus) and won a couple of championships already. We have a good spine of guys right now. Around them, we have guys who are hungry for success.”

In addition to the expansion draftees, the Union acquired two potential defensive cornerstones by trade. Philadelphia obtained the rights to U.S. national team defender Califf from Houston to provide leadership at the back – “We just have the rights right now, but we'll make a strong effort to sign Danny in the next couple of weeks to bring him to Philadelphia,” Nowak assured – and dished out some of its allocation money to bring in Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Chris Seitz as the likely number one.

Initial reports out of Salt Lake City suggested Seitz's overall price tag nestled just over the $200,000 mark plus a share of any potential sale, but Nowak said “the reports are not accurate about what we've spent” on the deal. Quibbles with the price tag aside, Nowak believes the 23-year-old goalkeeper he selected as part of his squad for the 2008 Olympics has all of the tools to one day break through to the senior team. Nowak warned, however, that he'll have to hold off Knighton in order to grab hold of the number one shirt with the Union.

“He's still very young for a keeper,” Nowak said. “He needs to play and he needs to gain experience. Of course, he's going to make his mistakes. We just need to correct them. There's no better time to give him time in the goal. Of course, Brad Knighton is going to push him for that because he wants the job too. I think both keepers are in very good shape, they're very young and they're hungry for success.”

Players like Jacobson, Knighton, Salinas and Zimmerman will determine whether the expansion draft reaps significant benefits or merely provides a stepping stone for a more perfect Union somewhere down the line. Players like Myrie just raise questions about what the Union knows that no one else does.

Of the ten choices on Nowak's expansion draft list, no name elicited more quizzical looks than Myrie's. The former Chicago defender only joined MLS in September from LD Alajuelense after playing 16 games in 2008-2009 before falling out of the team during the Clausura. Myrie made no league appearances during his brief stint at Toyota Park, so few were surprised to see him left unprotected by the Fire.

Myrie, however, didn't represent an unknown quantity to the Union. Hackworth had seen Myrie play during his days with the Costa Rica youth national teams – Myrie went to the 2005 U-17 World Championship and the 2007 U-20 World Cup with the Ticos – while he coached the U.S. U-17s and reported favorably on him. Add in Myrie's lineage – his brother, Roy, is a defensive stalwart in the Costa Rican side who has made two appearances for KAA Gent in Belgium this season  – and the Union believed picking Myrie over more proven quantities was worth the risk.

“That was good because nobody really knows about him,” Nowak said. “John was looking at him and he knows how he plays from his old days with the national team. We have a lot of good reports. His brother's a high profile guy, so his background is important too. He wants to be better than his brother. His brother is a valuable member of a European team, so now he has all of the motivation to be the same. That's one positive sign.”

In order to get the roster to where Nowak wants it to be by opening day, Myrie and a few other uncertainties will have to pay off. The foundation, particularly at the back, shows some promise, but the Union will certainly have to add top-end talent in central midfield and up front to have a chance to compete. There's ample time remaining for future, high-quality additions; for now, Nowak is focused on accumulating depth and developing the team mentality he seeks to instill in his new charges.

“This is a 24-man roster,” Nowak said. “I'd like to have two guys in each position to compete with each other. The depth in our league is very important, so we'll look at every possible position to make our team stronger. If we go through the tough times during the summer when there will be many games, we have to know we have 24 guys ready to go every single day. That's our goal.”

Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at kyle.mccarthy@goal.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

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