Union team manager Peter Nowak claims that his squad isn't championship-caliber just yet, but the future could bring a different outlook.
That is what the offseason is for, which in Major League Soccer is like a blink of the eye. Sometime in January, the team will reconvene for preseason training. The Union's first game in 2011 was March 19, and there is talk that the 2012 campaign may begin even earlier.
With so much parity in MLS, the difference among many playoff contenders is minimal. Being a championship contender is a different story, but not by much.
"As much as you want to say we have a championship team, we don't, but we are close," Nowak said during a news conference Wednesday at PPL Park in Chester. "We still need to get more of an understanding of what it takes to be a very good team."
Nowak went on to say that even great teams don't win titles every year. But he wants to be a consistent playoff participant; once a team enters the postseason, anything can happen.
As the Phillies showed, a team reaches the point where just getting to the postseason isn't enough. The Union aren't at that stage yet, but as they enter their third season, the expectations will be heightened.
Even though the season ended in disappointment, with the team losing twice in the aggregate-goal Eastern Conference semifinal to Houston by a combined 3-1 score, this was a successful campaign.
After going 8-15-7 in their inaugural season, the Union went 11-8-15 and earned a first-round bye in the playoffs before losing to a Houston team that will face the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Nov. 20 MLS Cup final in Carson, Calif.
While Nowak hasn't solicited this advice, here are a few things that should be considered for next season.
Keep Sebastien Le Toux as the target player. Le Toux said that in his meeting with Nowak after the final playoff game, he asked if he could play that role. In the final playoff game Nowak had him more withdrawn, as a midfielder. Le Toux can be effective anywhere, but he's at his best when he's the target.
Get Freddy Adu back to form. Nowak admitted that Adu's late-season ankle injury had the playmaker operating at less than 60 percent.
"He couldn't cut, couldn't move side to side," said Nowak, who added that it will be important for Adu to come to training in January healthy.
Develop Danny Mwanga. After a strong rookie season (seven goals, four assists), Mwanga regressed. He registered five goals and four assists this past season. He was bothered by a hip injury, which no doubt contributed to his inconsistent play, but he has too much explosive ability to be playing just half a game, as he often did. This will be a critical third year.
Upgrade the roster. Nowak said he needs more depth in the back line. Danny Califf was the team's most consistent defender and Carlos Valdes was solid, although much better in the first half than the second. Sheanon Williams and Gabe Farfan were attacking outside backs, but a traditional defender might be in the offing. Nowak also said he'd like to bring in more midfielders and forwards as competition for the incumbents.
Give keeper Zac MacMath more playing time. MacMath went 3-0-4 in seven games in goal while replacing injured Faryd Mondragon. Had Mondragon not fractured his finger, MacMath wouldn't have seen such extensive action. He is the keeper of the future, so give him a few more games next season and don't wait for an injury.
One final note. Nowak said he asked all his players in preseason to give him a starting 11, and he said the suggestions would be confidential.
Of 28 entries, no two were the same. Sure, everybody who voted, probably put himself as one of the 11.
Nowak, however, wasn't willing to solicit lineup suggestions from the media. He'll do just about anything to get the Union to the next level, but even he has his limits.