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Union players eager to start inaugural season

Brad Knighton wishes he could start today. Shavar Thomas is ready to prove his 7-plus years of veteran leadership will be a big help.

KRISTON J. BETHEL / Staff photographer
KRISTON J. BETHEL / Staff photographerRead more

Brad Knighton wishes he could start today.

Shavar Thomas is ready to prove his 7-plus years of veteran leadership will be a big help.

And Chris Seitz still can't decide where he'll try his first cheesesteak.

These were just a trio of the 11 new players on the Philadelphia Union roster introduced to an excited crowd of onlookers, patrons and the team's fan club, Sons of Ben, at last night's player welcoming party at the soccer-friendly Tir Na Nog bar and restaurant at 16th and Arch.

The 10 players selected in the Nov. 25 Major League Soccer expansion draft, plus Seitz - the former goalkeeper from MLS champion Real Salt Lake who was traded to the Union for allocation money - were on hand last night to eat, drink and interact.

Seitz, 22, who spent his time at RSL notably behind starter Nick Rimando, expressed his eagerness to prove that he has what it takes to be a last line of defense in manager Peter Nowak's starting 11.

"It's great to be here," Seitz said. "So many people really have allowed for a great welcome and I know I am eager to get started. Nick is a great goalkeeper but I am confident in my abilities, too, so it was tough for me to be on the bench, especially during the playoffs. I really feel like this is a clean slate that I can come here and battle it out for a spot on this team."

Seitz will compete with Knighton, a former New England Revolution keeper who knows all about hard work.

Knighton made the Revolution in 2007 after an open tryout, similar to the one the Union wrapped up last weekend at Penn.

From there, Knighton labored behind Revs starter Matt Reis, where he made just six appearances last season. Here in Philly, Knighton believes if there ever was a moment to break out of that backup role, that time is now.

"I wish I could start tomorrow,'' Knighton said. "I want to play. I feel blessed to be here and I am excited for the opportunity to show that I have the experience. I am ready and willing to do whatever Peter asks of me; it's been great to meet the fans here in Philly, but now I am ready to play."

Knighton and the rest of Nowak's 11 will have that chance in just over a month, when training camp opens on Feb. 1. Until then, the team will continue to grow through the upcoming MLS SuperDraft - for college and select players invited to the league combines - at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Jan. 14, and by scouting both domestically and abroad. Lastly, the select few from the team's open tryouts will get a second look in late January. By the time the dust settles, the team's 18-man roster will be complete in time for the Union to kick off the 2010 season at Seattle on March 25.

"To be able to play soccer is a dream for me that I don't take for granted," said Thomas, the Jamaican international player and former University of Connecticut product whom the Union selected from Chivas USA in the expansion draft. "To be back on the East Coast, I feel like I am back home. I may stay with this team, I may not, but at the end of the day I hope the fans see that I gave it my all to be here."

One fan, Sean Yurgurski from Yeadon, came from work with a Union jersey over his suit.

"This is great and the best part is that they are all so down to earth," Yurgurski said. "None of the guys seemed like they had a chip on their shoulder; they seem like blue-collar guys, which is good."

Nowak felt the night was a success and that this type of interaction is imperative in securing a fan base that will be a vital component of the team's fortunes in 2010.

"It's really important for the fans to get to know these players and for the players it's great that they see that this town really cares for them," Nowak said.

"That's why we have this [event], for the fans to get a chance to interact with the players and so they can see that these guys are human and they just want to come here and win - that's all I can ask of them."