When Peter Nowak went about constructing the first-year Philadelphia Union, he did so essentially in his own image: Tough and solid defensively.
Ten games into their inaugural season, it appears as if he's managed to fulfill at least half that equation.
There's no question that the Union (2-1-7) are among the more physical sides in MLS, having committed 11.7 fouls per game (fifth highest in MLS) for which they have received 17 yellow cards (11th highest) and suffered ejections four times (most in MLS). Three of those ejections have come before halftime.
Although Nowak has challenged his team's reputation for thuggishness, he is starting to acknowledge that the physical play may be causing more trouble than its worth.
"This situation has got to stop because we're going home and it's going to be more difficult playing against because if they got the goals and we start chasing, then it's going to be difficult to manage the game," Nowak said. "We have enough experience and quality in the locker room. These youngsters are learning on the job. The most important thing is to believe and continue working like we have in the past three months."
The part about the defense? That's a little more open for debate. One thing seems for certain: The physical defense has done little to slow opposing offenses.
Keeping in mind that the Union are young, relatively inexperienced and have played eight of their games on the road, they have still failed to establish themselves as a stout defensive side. Their 2.10 goals against average is the worst in MLS, and their assists allowed per game (1.90) is second from last.
At least some of the blame for those numbers must lie at the feet of of goalkeeper Chris Seitz. During his first season as a starter -- he had a total of seven starts in his previous three years with Real Salt Lake -- Seitz has posted the lowest save percentage (.538) and the worst goals against average (2.10) among MLS starters.
One of the bright spots on defense has been another youngster, Michael Orozco. A standout on the U-23 U.S. Beijing Olympics team, Orozco looks like a future star (although it may ultimately be in Mexico where his rights are still owned by San Luis). Orozco has drawn raves for a tactical style, but will miss Sunday's game after receiving a red card in the Union's final game before the World Cup break.
Another point of light for Philadelphia has been its play at home. With PPL Park under construction for the entire first half of the season, the Union only played two home games, but looked like a different team when playing in front of their own fans.
While the Union have lost seven of eight games on the road, claimed just three points and scored more than one goal just one time -- during an out-of-nowhere 3-2 victory at Houston -- they have garnered four points and scored four goals in their two games at Lincoln Financial Field.
Sunday's game will mark the official opening of the Union's permanent home -- an 18,500-seat soccer-specific, water-front stadium located in suburban Chester, Pa.
Former Sounder Sebastian Le Toux scored three of his five goals during one of those home games, and has been a steady offensive force for the Union. He also has three assists and has a PP90 of 1.63.
Le Toux has flourished in his return to playing forward after spending last year as a wide midfielder. His play has prompted some to wonder if the Sounders made a mistake by first playing him out of position and then exposing him to the expansion draft.
In any case, the Union have certainly benefited from Le Toux's production. Along with Alejandro Moreno (five assists) and the potent -- but rarely used -- first overall draft pick Danny Mwanga (three goals and one assist in just 239 minutes for 2.64 PP90), the Union have actually shown more promise offensively than they have defensively.
The Sounders seem quite aware that not only is this a different team than the one they beat 2-0 to start the season, but that they will be facing a team at its emotional peak.
"We have to go in with the approach that we’re going to take the air out of their sails, not give them opportunities early," Sounders central defender Tyrone Marshall said. "They are going to come out buzzing, like we did here in our opening game. We just have to manage the game, slow it down and try to get a goal on them early. Let them chase the game, instead of us chase the game and we should have some success."