It's just that their once-cozy position is now much more tenuous. The Union enter the weekend seeded No. 9. It must be noted that the Union and their opponent on Saturday, No. 8 Real Salt Lake, both have played 24 games, the fewest among the 10 top contenders.
Once comfortably in first place in the Eastern Conference, the Union are 0-2-3 in their last five games and haven't won an MLS contest since beating the host New England Revolution, 3-0, on July 17.
Nowak is always taking the collective pulse of his team, and he senses it speeding up, so he told his players to ditch the standings.
"As we said to these guys, I don't want any of my players to look at the standings," he said. "I don't want to see anybody talking about how many points we need to make the playoffs."
Easier said than done.
It has to be hard for the players to avoid the standings, and we know how difficult it must be for them not to read this column. (Stop laughing, please.)
Nowak mentioned on several occasions how the team last year felt the pressure when it was mathematically alive for the playoffs. But, to be honest, one never got the impression the Union were truly in the hunt.
This year is different.
Forward-midfielder Sebastien Le Toux wouldn't say the team has lost confidence, but he admitted that the most recent loss, a 2-1 defeat Aug. 20 in Columbus, shook the team.
"We were disappointed we didn't get at least a point against Columbus," Le Toux said. "The fact that we lost might have affected some people."
The Union pride themselves on being among the fittest teams, but there are questions about their psyche. Thus the edict by Nowak.
"If I had veterans with 15 years in MLS, seven years in MLS, yes, I could do it," Nowak said. "I can't put the pressure on these guys."
Nowak said he didn't want his players going into a game feeling they needed to come out with points.
That's fine to say, and it's admirable that he is trying to take the pressure off his team, but as we mentioned last week, before Hurricane Irene postponed the game with New England to Sept. 7, the final 10 games are like mini-playoff contests for the Union.
Especially Saturday's contest at Real Salt Lake, who are 11-7-6 and have 39 points. The Union (8-6-10) have 34 points.
Making matters worse is that the Union have to play without their best defender, Carlos Valdes, who will sit out a game after accumulating six yellow cards.
If the Union don't get at least one point in Utah against a Salt Lake team that scored a 1-1 draw June 11 at PPL Park, it won't be the end of the world.
But it would compound the collective doubt that appears to have crept into the team.
Contact staff writer Marc Narducci at 856-779-3225, email@example.com,
or @sjnard on Twitter.