For all the positives of the 2009 Major League Soccer season, few can argue that the rousing success of the expansion Seattle Sounders, both on and off the field, wasn't one of the highlights of the year. In fact, the last images of the season were of a packed Qwest Field enjoying the MLS Cup final, with many of those fans being the same Sounders fans who helped make Seattle's inaugural season so successful.
On the opposite end of the country, along the banks of the Delaware River, the seeds are being sown for the next MLS success story. The Philadelphia Union franchise is less than four months away from debuting as the 16th team in MLS, and while its stadium is still being constructed, there is a growing belief that the league's next franchise is poised to hit the ground running.
Philadelphia fans believe. They believe enough to buy up season tickets at a rate that will help sell out the Union's new stadium before it opens for business next summer.
"It's going to catch some in the local sports community by surprise," said Bryan James, president of the Sons of Ben, the Union's independent supporters group. "It's been so easy for some to deride soccer, but this group of soccer fans and casual fans are getting into it because they've seen MLS in other markets, or they've seen soccer overseas.
"It's a really good situation and you can feel the excitement growing."
Nick Sakiewicz, CEO and co-owner of the Union, also believes. The former Tampa Bay Mutiny and New York MetroStars president has enjoyed off-field success with his previous two MLS teams, and he believes the combination of a soccer-hungry market, a new stadium, an already-established supporters group and a talent-laden area could produce a powerhouse club.
"You feel it from the excitement of the fans here, to the way the area is already embracing the team -- there's something here that will be special," said Sakiewicz. "We really believe in having a strong connection with our fans and making them a part of everything we do.
"When you combine that with the talent in this area and the strong youth soccer element, we feel we have the right people in place to capitalize on all the strengths this area has to offer."
Peter Nowak is also a believer. Spend some time with the Union's boss and you will find a coach who has visions of building a perennial power more than just a first-year flash. He won a title with an expansion team as a player (the 1998 Chicago Fire) and coached a team to an MLS Cup title in his first year in charge (D.C. United in 2004), but when he starts talking about the Union, he talks about constructing a club that sustain success in the long term.
"The whole concept of not just putting the X's and O's on the board, but to also build the whole culture within the club, made me want to be a part of this," Nowak said. "When I spoke to [co-owners] Nick Sakiewicz and Jay Sugarman, I found that we shared the same vision of building the franchise through the grassroots.
"It's going to take time, but it's the priority because the young players are the future of this franchise."
Hearing Nowak talk about young players being the key to the franchise might sound strange to some who have bought into the perception that Nowak doesn't work well with young players. That label came from his difficult relationship with Freddy Adu while Nowak was head coach of D.C. United. In the years since that time, Nowak has been the coach of the U.S. Olympic team and has considered his work in developing young players to be one of his strengths and greatest passions.
"Some people might not believe it, but I enjoy working with the young players, to teach them and show them the way to play and approach the game," Nowak said. "As a coach, one of the best moments is when you work with a young player and you watch them grow as a player and professional."
Does Philadelphia really have the elements to be a successful franchise and avoid the early growing pains expansion teams from San Jose to Toronto have endured? The presence of a strong supporters group, Sons of Ben, coupled with the pending completion of a soccer stadium, should help provide the team with a solid foundation of support and financial stability. And Nowak's winning mentality should help establish Philadelphia as a tough and difficult team to play against.
Of course, we won't know just how good the Union will be in Year 1 until the team starts signing free agents, and potentially a designated player. While the club has been quiet about its plans for high-profile signings, Nowak made it clear that signing a designated player is a very real possibility for the Union, but it will happen only if the right type of player can be found and the pieces are in place to make the most of that player.
"We believe that one player cannot win a championship, whoever it is," Nowak said. "But he can have an essential role if you can find the good ingredients or components around him. It's not going to happen that we will do something because it's a marketing move, or because somebody is pushing us to do it.
"If we do it ... the player will be good and help us establish our culture, our brand and our franchise," said Nowak. "We are not interested in signing a player who just wants to have $5 million and play one year.
"It's important to find the right one, and it's important to build around that player. You cannot bring in a guy who will not identify himself with the city, the club and the franchise. If we can find the right guy who wants to be a part of this for the future, who wants to be a part of the American soccer culture, who will be around three years, five years or 10 years, then we will make them a part of the team."
Building the team has only just begun for the Union, with the club's first 10 players having been selected in Wednesday's expansion draft. That is just the first step in the construction of a club that is already showing tremendous potential and has made believers out of those involved in helping build the Union. Philadelphia is still four months away from making its debut, but there continue to be encouraging signs that the Union could do for MLS in 2010 what the Seattle Sounders did for the league in 2009.
Expansion draft rewind
The Philadelphia Union passed on some of the flashier names they could have added in last week's MLS expansion draft, but the club did add a handful of potential starters as well as some promising prospects among its first crop of players.
Coach Peter Nowak passed on some of the players the club had been expected to grab, including former MLS MVP Amado Guevara and U.S. national team defender Frankie Hejduk. But Nowak added a handful of established MLS veterans who should help solidify some important positions with the club.
Columbus Crew forward Alejandro Moreno heads that list. While he didn't have a good 2009, Moreno is just a year removed from a nine-goal season that also saw him score a goal in the MLS Cup final. His penchant for diving notwithstanding, Moreno is a physical forward who could provide a good complement to any speedy forwards the Union may bring in this winter.
Nowak did well to grab two defensive starters, Shavar Thomas and Jordan Harvey, to fill needs in central defense and at left back, as well as veteran defensive midfielder Stefani Miglioranzi. And with the club set to acquire highly regarded goalkeeping prospect Chris Seitz from Real Salt Lake, Philadelphia has the makings of a defensively solid expansion team.
The Union also brought in a handful of young prospects to the fold, with former New York Red Bull midfielder Nick Zimmerman and former San Jose winger Shea Salinas among the more promising prospects in the bunch. If either of them, or former Seattle striker Sebastien Le Toux, can provide an offensive threat in 2010, then this will wind up being as productive an expansion draft the league has seen in the past five years.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.