CHESTER, Pa. – During this year’s preseason, Peter Nowak conducted an exercise where he asked all of his players to confidentially write down what they thought the starting 11 should be when the 2011 season began.
When the Union manager looked at the notes, he saw no two lineups were the same.
In his final press conference of the year a few days after the Union were eliminated from the MLS Cup playoffs with a 1-0 loss to Houston on Nov. 3, Nowak told reporters this anecdote to show what kind of depth his team had and, in part, to defend all of the different lineup and formation decisions he made throughout the season.
“When players are getting tired, people ask, ‘Why don’t you rotate the players so you have fresh legs?’” Nowak said. “And when we do, the question is, ‘Why did you change it when it was working?’ It’s never a perfect situation, right? But our main objective was that we cannot have just 13 guys who are going to play the whole season long.”
Nowak certainly found a way to get many different players quality time on the field. In the end, 21 different Union players saw over 500 minutes of action and 26 different midfield lineups were used.
Sometimes, shaking up the lineup paid off – like in Philly’s 1-0 win over Columbus on Sept. 17 when Nowak trotted out a starting 11 that included seven players 23 years old or under, including 16-year-old Zach Pfeffer, who was called upon to make his MLS debut.
Other times, the Union manager was questioned for his decision-making – like in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals, when he started Stefani Miglioranzi as part of a five-man backline, and then in the second leg, when he partnered Jack McInerney and Danny Mwanga up top for the first time in a league game.
Although the Union lost both of those playoff games, Nowak defended his lineup decisions, which, he noted, were made in part because of the late-season injury to regular starter Veljko Paunović.
“You think one or two players can change the whole complex of things?” the Union manager asked. “I’m not guessing. The coaching staff is not guessing. If you see the players every single day, you make the decision based on that.”
One player Nowak never took out of the lineup was Sébastien Le Toux, who led the team with 11 goals and nine assists while playing every single minute.
But even his usage was called into question as Le Toux dropped back into the midfield at times and was paired with different players when he was up top.
Le Toux said he told his manager that he prefers to be used as a striker but also recognizes that he sometimes has to be “a good teammate and play right midfield to help the team win the game.”
Nowak reminded reporters that Le Toux was indeed used mostly as a striker this season, but also that the Frenchman has a lot of value when he plays on the outside, too.
“I asked him after his first season [in Philly] how many goals he scored in the midfield and how many goals he scored as a forward,” Nowak said. “And the answer was very simple. He had 14 goals in 2010 and 11 were scored as a left or right midfielder. So he can do it.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com