Monday, September 06, 2010

Nowak finally finds his breaking point

Union goalkeeper Chris Seitz
Chester, PA - Even the most even-tempered of us have their breaking points.

Union team manger Peter Nowak was testing that theory until this weekend. For those who have followed the Philadelphia Union's inaugural MLS season,  Nowak's unwavering support of goalkeeper Chris Seitz has been the story.

Questions about Seitz's natural instincts and a perceived lack of communications skills have dogged the embattled netminder all year. Meanwhile, his inability to make the routine play and allow soft goals has cost his team on more than a few occasions, the latest of which left two points on the table against Kansas City over the weekend.

Like many of you I wondered when Nowak would finally see the forest for the trees -- his goalkeeper was killing his team.

On the other hand, I also thought that maybe I was being impatient. Sure, it seems like the Union outplays the competition more often than not at PPL Park but expecting an expansion team to compete at the highest level of MLS is unfair. Meanwhile, Nowak has a history with Seitz and he has certainly forgotten more about soccer than any of us will ever know.

"When we were in the concept of building our team, we felt that experience would be important at certain positions, but with Chris Seitz being with me at the Olympic Games (in Beijing) and on the national team, we believe that Chris has the tools to be a great goalkeeper in the future," Nowak told The Philadelphia Daily News last month when queried about his struggling netminder. "Simply, in this decision we were thinking long term."

Here's the problem with that. Seitz already played in Utah for three seasons (2007-09) after being drafted by Real Salt Lake fourth overall in the 2007 MLS SuperDraft.

The former University of Maryland star was the first goalkeeper to be drafted that highly in MLS history and was expected to take over the reins but he never developed, appearing in just seven games and notching 19 saves during his tenure there. Understand, Real Salt Lake was desperate for Seitz to succeed but he could never usurp Nick Rimando. By trading him to the Union. Salt Lake was waving the while flag and admitting a serious mistake by its own personnel department.

Nowak did blink a little bit after a disappointing Seitz performance against Columbus back on Aug. 5, finally pulling his alternative, backup goalkeeper Brad Knighton, out of his hip pocket in north Texas three days later.

But that lasted all of 22 minutes when Knighton was sent off after hauling down Dallas' Brek Shea in the area. The Union were ahead 1-0 at the time but the ensuing penalty kick evened things and FC Dallas went on to send Philadelphia to another loss as the Union played the rest of the match with Seitz in the net and a man down.

With Seitz starting 21 of the team's 22 games, the Union are the only MLS team that has not recorded a defensive shutout this season. In fact, no team in MLS history has gone the entire year without a clean sheet with the record low being two, set on six previous occasions, most recently by the LA Galaxy in 2008. Knighton, meanwhile, has two shutouts in international friendlies.

Nowak has just eight games left to figure out a problem the rest of us already have.

Of course, to fix any problem, you have to first admit to having one. Nowak took that much-needed step on Saturday. Instead of jumping on his sword for Seitz after he let in the equalizer against Kansas City, Nowak shifted gears and threw his goalkeeper under the bus for allowing yet another soft goal on a free kick from 30 yards out.

"When you are in a crucial moment, you need to be there for the team," Nowak said of Seitz. "He is in a position. They were on the sideline and it is just like a catch. He should make the save. When you have control for 70 minutes, that is what the goalkeeper is for. To make a save. I don't care if it is the sun or a shadow. You need to move your feet and make a save."

Finally -- the breaking point.

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