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Union Strong

2011 season anything but a failure

Peter Nowak told the Daily News of his intent to add "a couple more experienced guys to the roster." (Sarah J. Glover/Staff file photo)
Peter Nowak told the Daily News of his intent to add "a couple more experienced guys to the roster." (Sarah J. Glover/Staff file photo)Read more

By the time you read this, at least 36 hours will have passed since the Union watched its season end in front of an orange-clad crowd on prime-time television.

As the streamers and confetti seemingly fell from the heavens after Houston wrapped up the second of a two-leg conference MLS semifinal series, the Union players marched into a locker room for the last time in 2011. Dejected, the Union can find solace in the fact that while it was unable to score a goal to continue a quest toward the MLS Cup, the ultimate goal of playoffs-or-bust this season was a success.

But it wasn't just a success on the pitch. Off the field, the front office was doing all it could to expand the franchise from just a niche corps of supporters to a readily recognizable brand in Philadelphia.

With the second-year product exponentially better than the first, the Union was able to garner key corporate sponsorships, none bigger than the 4-year, $12 million agreement with Mexican baking giant Bimbo Bakeries and its multiyear television deal with local cable television affiliate Comcast SportsNet.

"We didn't want to have a sophomore slump like many expansion teams do," Union CEO and managing partner Nick Sakiewicz said. "From TV ratings, to ticket sales to corporate sponsorships, all of our metrics have gone up in those departments. That was the goal from the onset, and I couldn't be prouder of this franchise both on the field and off."

According to MLS, Union broadcasts were among the top three in the league in viewership and grew even more toward the end of the season. At home, behind a raucous supporters group, the Union ranked seventh in attendance (18,259) and boasted 12 sellouts at PPL Park. In huge part because of fans such as Doug Monstrasa, who went to his first soccer match this season and is now hooked.

"I am amazed at the atmosphere; it really helps you get into the games," said Monstrasa, of Moorestown, N.J. "I've got to be honest, I was a little apprehensive with the stadium being in Chester and the reputation of that city, but it's really secluded. [PPL Park is in] like its own little world."

More so now that the on- and off-ramps along the Commodore Barry Bridge finally opened at the end of this season, ending a 3-year PennDOT project.

Even bigger things are in the cards for Year 3, with the Union looking to expand its broadcasts to include radio. Just last month, the franchise announced a deal was struck with SportsRadio 610 WIP to broadcast 17 matches, as well as a weekly radio show. According to Union executive vice president and chief revenue officer Dave Rowan, who spearheaded the deal, the hourlong show is scheduled to be broadcast on location at one of the many local pubs the franchise has agreements with.

"I was thinking about Year 3 4 months ago," Sakiewicz said. "That's why we didn't have a sophomore slump, because we were thinking about Year 2 in the middle of Year 1. We'll continue to do that and work hard for the fans."

As for on the field, manager Peter Nowak and his staff are already looking to add some new pieces to the roster. Nowak told the Daily News of his intent to add "a couple more experienced guys to the roster, guys that have played the game before and would make a major impact to the locker room." Nowak also disclosed that he is open to the thought of picking up a designated player next season. Both he and assistant boss John Hackworth noted that help will come by way of a striker and a defender because, as Hackworth put it, "We are lacking in those departments right now.

"We could field the same exact team next year and find ourselves in a similar place," Hackworth said following the loss on Thursday. "We have a lot of talent on this club, but we are looking at a few guys we feel can get us over the hump and get us to the next level, because we are confident that this is a corps good enough to make a run at the championship next season.

"This is not to take anything away from what our guys accomplished this season. The heart and work ethic of this group is far and away the best in the league, which is a lot to say when you are working with such a young group [average age 24.8 years]. But we as a franchise are looking not only to continue in developing young talent, but also remaining one of the best teams in the league. That's what generates fan interest and continues to grow our sport, especially in a city like Philadelphia."

What helped to generate fan interest this season was a lineup that held opponents to only 18 goals at home, a mark that was second-best in the league. In its first 11 matches this season, the Union went 6-3-2, just two games shy of its total win count during its inaugural season (8-15-7).

There were players who left (Carlos Ruiz, Jordan Harvey), players who were mysteriously missing in action (Keon Daniel) players who arrived with perhaps a bit less luster than advertised (Freddy Adu), players who very quietly had career seasons (Danny Califf), and one player who proved it isn't over until the final whistle (Sebastien Le Toux). Le Toux's late-season surge in which he scored 11 goals in 14 games, including the playoffs, puts him in league MVP talk and was a testament to his unwavering confidence.

The Union will begin preseason practice at the end of January, right after the MLS SuperDraft, to be held this year in Kansas City, convenes on Thursday, Jan. 12.

And while it's certainly difficult for the players, coaches, front office and die-hard supporters to look toward 2012 so soon after a heartbreaking defeat, with all that the Union vows to have in store for Year 3, the future looks promising.