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Jul 27, 2009

Union gearing up for their debut in 2010

Seattle hasn't done them any favors.

The expansion Sounders' hot start to their season has positioned them to be the first MLS club to make the playoffs in their debut season since the Chicago Fire in 1998. Utilizing a squad that blends talent from the Seattle side that played in the USL last year, along with some savvy signings and poaching a handful of talent in the expansion draft and the MLS SuperDraft, the Sounders may now be the standard-bearer by which the bevy of upcoming expansion sides will be judged. The fact that they're also successful off the field -- the Sounders are the league leaders in attendance and recently sold out a friendly against Chelsea -- and you can't help pitying the teams that are set to follow.

Except the City of Brotherly Love doesn't want your pity.

Cue Philadelphia CEO Nick Sakiewicz, reentering the league after transitioning from general manager of the MetroStars to a corporate executive position with AEG in 2005. Back and poised to make a splash with Philadelphia in 2010, Sakiewicz is no stranger to building a team from scratch. He was the general manager of Tampa Bay in 1996 when the league first took to the field.

But in 1996, he didn't have to deal with an economy in recession.

"It's no secret that everyone is feeling the effects of the economy, but we're using it as motivation to work even harder. We're lucky enough to have the financial resources and a committed ownership group that has been able to keep construction and team operations moving at all times," Sakiewicz said. "The business community and soccer fans alike have embraced us wholeheartedly, and we couldn't be more appreciative."

There were rumors within the past year that the economy would kill the Philadelphia Union before they even took the field, but that hasn't proved to be the case. Currently, construction is holding steady and the foundation of the stadium is in place. The walls are up around the stadium and the steel should begin popping up soon. Sakiewicz terms the stadium's rise as "seamless."

He can only hope that the product on the field is just as special. The season-ticket number for Philadelphia currently stands at over 9,200 fans, ensuring that the new stadium will be brimming with energy as more than half of the capacity is already presold. With the naming of Peter Nowak as head coach, a player who starred in the league and was head coach of D.C. United, as well as recently serving as an assistant with the U.S. national team, the club is already beginning to form an identity. It had better be a good one, as Philadelphia has earned a reputation as being notoriously brutal toward its sports teams. After all, these are fans that have booed Santa Claus and jeered injured players who are stretchered off the field.

"I wouldn't put anything past our fans, but we like it that way. Not sure about Santa, but I already heard they kicked a Ben Franklin impersonator to the curb at the draft," Sakiewicz said. "There's nothing more satisfying than playing in front of fans that live and die with every season, match, minute and second. That's what soccer is all about around the globe. We expect to be booed if we don't perform and cheered when we do."

Nowak doesn't have a particular vision for the club, as he notes that he is more concerned with just "winning."

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He has been busy the past month scouting players, including at this summer's Gold Cup, where over 30,000 fans recently attended the quarterfinals in Philadelphia. Nowak wants to bring in players with versatility who also have a passion for playing a true team concept. As a player, Nowak was known for his fiery ways. If he has his druthers, Philadelphia will exude the same passion. This even includes a designated player, if they choose to sign one.

"We believe that it doesn't really matter if they're young or old, developmental or veteran players or a designated player -- the most important thing is that they love to play the game and play it the way Philadelphia Union plays, because it will bring something special to their careers," Nowak said. "In the end, that will help create the kind of environment we hope to create at our stadium, with the Sons of Ben and other supporters cheering their lungs out, 90 minutes every night!"

What all this means is that Philadelphia will be a very busy place over the next few months as the team begins to take shape. With player signings and Sakiewicz's desire to push the already impressive season-ticket number higher, Philadelphia might just have as impressive a debut as Seattle. Nowak, for one, doesn't feel pressure to emulate the high-flying Sounders. With all due respect to Sinatra, he'll do it his way.

"Our vision and image will fit our environment, as I'm sure different markets around the country took their individual situations into consideration," Nowak said. "We will find players who will fit our profile and characteristics of our club and that will reflect the people and fans of our city. It'll definitely be a 'Philly thing.'"

Stat of the week

There were four ejections on the field this week in MLS (a fifth was off the field, committed by Real Salt Lake's head coach Jason Kreis), resulting in a whopping 12.8 percent increase in the season tally for red cards on the year.

Quote of the week

"Overall, I don't think it was our best night of soccer. We've moved on from a few months ago. We're trying to win games that we probably would have settled for the draw. But it's a good bunch of guys, and I do think we deserved at least a draw tonight."

-- Los Angeles midfielder David Beckham after the Galaxy's 1-1 tie with Kansas City.

Quick kicks

• One year after surrendering over two goals a game, Los Angeles is among the league's top defensive sides. Jamaican goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, in his first year in the league, is surrendering just a goal a game.

• Argentine Facundo Diz made his debut with Colorado, one day after signing with the club.

Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and also writes for the New York City daily paper Metro. He can be reached at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.

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