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Season review: Peter Nowak

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Editor’s note: At the end of the 2010 season, we posted a series of season reviews of every Philadelphia Union player. Over the past several weeks PSP continued with a review of the 2011 season. We conclude with a review of Peter Nowak’s 2011 season.

Sometimes coaches will say that they like to take things one game at a time. Looking past the next game is dangerous and every point is valuable.

“Every point is valuable at this stage to keep us as a contender to be in the playoffs,” Peter Nowak told reporters after the Union drew Chivas late in the 2011 season.

But if Nowak has made one thing implicitly clear in his two years at the helm of the Philadelphia Union, it is that he always has his eye on the bigger picture. To put the above quote in context, Nowak continued, “Regardless if we got the win or not, I think the last six games were very good. And we’re still in a position to control our own destiny with three games to go.”

Nowak has repeated the same line in various forms since his arrival in Philadelphia. And it is starting to become clear just how long-term the Union Executive Vice President’s plans are. While many fans were riled by the manager’s experimental playoff lineups, playing five in the back is just the latest—and least subtle—message from Nowak that he does not consider the Union a contender. Yet.

More proof: “As much as I want to convince you that we have a championship team, we don’t. We’re very close, but we don’t. We still need to get more understanding of what it takes to be a very good team. There’s a very thin line between being good and very good.”

Fans and players felt acutely the meteoric rise and painful leveling off of a second year team searching for an identity. Yet Nowak (with all the calmness that comes from an impressive career as a player and a coach, not to mention job certainty) insisted on framing each game, even major incidents of a game, in terms of a learning experience.

However, while Nowak willingly agreed to juggle the win-now demands of coaching and the long-term goals of a GM, he was less prepared to accept his role as the true face of the franchise. Perhaps he thought the unconditional love of the fans would last a few seasons, perhaps he thought the Union’s strong PR department would head off any controversies before they got to him or, perhaps, with the naivete of a true believer, he thought that saying everything was under control would be enough. Maybe that works in other towns.

But this is Philadelphia.

The face of a Philly franchise must do more than say he has the best fans in the country; he has to prove it by listening, interacting, and truly believing that people come to PPL Park not just to watch but to make a difference. This is the lesson that Peter Nowak seemed to learn in 2011. Officially, he became the Executive Vice President. Unofficially, he became one of us.

Peter’s Personnel 

As a general manager, Nowak’s 2011 could hardly have gone better.

Two of the team’s three SuperDraft picks made significant contributions as rookies, the new goalie was an All-Star and the new center back should have been. Brian Carroll defined excellence and consistency while Keon Daniel became an instant fan favorite. Midseason signing Veljko Paunovic was more prejudged than Carlos Ruiz but won over everyone before the year was out (I defy you to find one person who doesn’t like Pauno). Speaking of Ruiz, the team saw good production out of the Guatemalan before cutting him loose for a tidy (though undisclosed) profit. Arguably the only deal that didn’t pan out as hoped was Freddy Adu.

The team closed out the year with a flurry of foreign signings that filled areas of need. Tanzanian Nizar Khalfan is filled with promise. Costa Rican Porfirio Lopez is an experienced left back, Panamanian Gabriel Gomez can play in the back or the midfield, and Josue Martinez is a flashy winger-cum-striker that the team has rated highly for some time.

Don’t forget homegrown players Zach Pfeffer and Jimmy McLaughlin, who both signed in 2011. Have the Union made a bad personnel move since 2010?

Pesky-dito

Who said Carlos Ruiz? Fine, let’s discuss. The Guatemalan was a frustrating figure to watch. He sprinkled moments of quality into games of apathetic drifting. Unlike the man he replaced, Alejandro Moreno, Ruiz scored. But where Moreno made those around him better, Ruiz did not.

How the team or management felt about him, this writer cannot say, but from the outside looking in, he played like a hired gun. His finishing was as ruthless as promised (and his diving as advertised), but he was not the foundational veteran that, frankly, would have meant more to fans than six goals. Particularly when he was keeping one of the team’s most popular players on the bench.

Would the Union have finished higher than third if Ruiz had stuck around? Who knows. They made the playoffs without him and nobody in their right mind will tell you the team would have beaten Houston if only Carlos Ruiz was still wearing the shirt.

GM verdict

The Union are much better now than they were at the beginning of 2011. Not just as a product on the field but as an organization, an identity began to emerge. The Union will out-scout you, out-draft you and, as Ruiz (and the offseason move to drop Miglioranzi) shows, pull the plug when things don’t work out.

Peter Nowak should have been on the short list for Executive of the Year. Instead, he was a hot pick in a different category: Coach of the Year. And the evidence there is much more mixed.

The back line…

Spine injuries are bad. Really, really bad. And the Union had a weak spine their freshman year. Mondragon, Valdes and Carroll fixed that problem, and Nowak smartly kept the rest of his defense in place. With Jordan Harvey hanging on the left, and Sheanon rampaging up the right, the team had balance, speed and, most importantly, trust. What they lacked in height the back line made up for in organization and efficiency.

When Harvey was sold and Gabe Farfan installed (just as the tougher half of the schedule began), the unit hardly missed a beat. With no depth, Nowak had little choice but to get the heck out of the way and trust his back line.

Oh, but he would tinker elsewhere.

…And the baffling

In the midfield, it was Brian Carroll and whoever picked the short straws. Up top, it was two strikers, or one striker, or a striker and two wide forwards. Sometimes Carlos Valdes would show up at the opponent’s eighteen yard box just to keep your jaw muscle from relaxing.

In short, nearly everything was tried, and nothing really worked. An attacking unit got burned in Dallas, Justin Mapp never became the dynamic outlet Nowak claimed he was, nobody claimed the attacking midfield role, the three central middie system that started the year couldn’t generate offense if they had all the letters and an open Scrabble board, the loose diamond used against Chivas at home couldn’t slow down Nick “Am I really this good?” LaBrocca, Veljko Paunovic in the midfield forced Carroll to be flawless or request an extra lung from the sidelines, Freddy Adu really wanted to do good but wasn’t, and Stefani Miglioranzi… would have made a fine assistant coach, I’m sure.

The only thing Nowak didn’t try was putting out a consistent starting eleven. Win, lose or draw, the only sure thing about the Union lineup was that it would be full of surprises. When the coach said he would continue to “shuffle the deck” in late June, he meant it. Frustrating? Yes. For both fans and players like Le Toux and Mwanga, who expected to grow their partnership. (See their quotes in the links).

How to justify the borderline haphazard tactics and unexpected lineups (and this isn’t even touching on the April Fool’s lineup cards from the two playoff legs)? Most managers will only play the matchups game if they think there is something the other team can do that can’t be stopped without special arrangements, or if a sheik buys them enough superstars to start a new galaxy.

Instead of guessing what Nowak was up to, let’s look at what he had to say about tactics and lineups:

  • March 24: “We tried to display a couple of systems we can use throughout the season, and it’s not going to be this or that. We have enough options to mix things up and choose the best possible way to approach a game.”
  • April 11: While praising Amobi Okugo’s improved play, Nowak insisted that there was no offensive system for the players to master. Instead, he called on the team to feel more comfortable with the ball and to play with more speed and precision.
  • April 22: “I think we need to do some things automatically. We think too much during the games right now. We are conservative going forward because, in some capacity, we aren’t sure we’re going to make it back. We’re a very good recovering team… The [offensive] pressuring we work on, it was our strong suit last year.”
  • May 20: “It’s about how we can get the group of players who can see, anticipate, recognize and read the game well enough to put this kind of pressure on, so we don’t expend energy running from one guy to another, and all of a sudden the ball moves somewhere else.”
  • June 23: “I think like we pushed the game to the limit and still tried to find the right formula to score goals, but that’s not the big issue right now,”
  • Aug 26: “Not scoring goals doesn’t mean we’re not creating chances. I strongly disagree in anyone saying we have offensive struggles. If you see the whole picture, what we don’t like in the last four or five games is lacking the ability finish the games the right way.”
  • Oct 21: “I think the team needs to take charge right now to be in a position to challenge themselves…I think that if you work every single day to push these guys, the message sometimes is going to get old. They need to take the reins from me and the coaching staff, and make sure they will compete against each other and against the teams they will face, whoever it’s going to be.”
  • Oct 31 (After 1st playoff leg): “The decision was to avoid those penetrating runs. We decided to [play with 5 defenders] not just from a defensive standpoint, but from an offensive standpoint as well. We could push (our fullbacks) up further on the wings. I think that we weren’t balanced as well in the first half. There were some easy passes going to our wings. It was easy for Houston to put some passes together.”

To summarize: Nothing’s wrong. We can’t score because Jupiter is in the Cutaneous phase which is disrupting the orbit of the third and fifth moons over Neptune, so clearly the dust from Orion is being inversely corroded and pulling all of Seba’s shots onto the woodwork.

The Union offense wasn’t as flat out atrocious as it seems on first recall. In the post-Ruiz era the team was only shut out twice, and one of those was a 0-0 tie. The shame of the coaching staff is that no offensive method ever emerged from the madness. The counterattack improved when Le Toux’s finishing feet arrived, but does that justify Nowak’s blind insistence on starting Le Toux endlessly when the striker was misfiring?

The most damning evidence that Nowak’s tactics were off are the substitutions. Thirteen times the Union made a move at the half. Is there a clearer indication that the game plan was off?

In the end, nobody gets to the heart of the matter like PSP’s Eli: “I have been called out on this page for my criticism of Peter Nowak before. After all, he built this team from scratch and made them what they are today. So I ask you: What are they today? What is their identity? Are they a possession team? A counter-attacking team? A high-pressure team? A long ball team?”

That was written on May 17th. With the 2011 season behind us, we still don’t have answers.

The third man

Nowak the GM: Great. Nowak the coach: …They made the playoffs, right? In both roles, Nowak changed little from year one to year two. For a man who has spoken about his love of the fans from day one, Peter Nowak showed the most growth in his interactions with the public.

Remember Nowak’s reaction to questions about Michael Orozco-Fiscal: “I don’t know why the whole issue became so important right now, because it seems to me that [the press] forgot what the rules are, and were not really paying attention to what the contract details were before making suggestions or pure speculation about how this happened… At the end of the year, the deal was up, and he had to go back to his ‘mother club, which was San Luis in Mexico. Why did we need to announce that, why did people have to get aggravated about why the team was hiding some stuff?”

At the time of these comments, Michael Orozco-Fiscal had been absent for some time. Gabriel Farfan wasn’t signed yet. Nobody had seen Carlos Valdes play. The Union had five defenders under contract counting Gonzalez (which, honestly, you shouldn’t). Were questions about Orozco-Fiscal justified? Absolutely.

Then when Carlos Ruiz left: “There were a lot of fans in the stands here have a pre-bias towards Carlos. They made some bad comments about him being a diver, or being that, or that, or not working hard enough. It is getting tiring for all of us.”

Sprinkle in a bit of media criticism about the Paunovic signing and the relationship between Nowak, the media and the fans had grown quite tense. When his relationship with Freddy Adu deteriorated in DC and the former top pick was traded Nowak said, “Freddy desired to play a different role than the one we offered here at D.C., so we hope this move can aid that wish.” My way or the highway.

And thus we see how Peter Nowak has changed. Forced to answer for comments that set him at odds with the most important member of the Union (the fans), the Union manager joined Twitter. “Even old dogs can learn new tricks. Looking forward to interacting with the best fans in @MLS. Be gentle on me! #DOOP.” And yes, it’s really him.

Through Twitter, Nowak learned to communicate with fans in a substantive, yet brief, manner. For a man who has never enjoyed being questioned by the press, this was a revelation. Fans can be critical but what is most important to them is knowing that they have been heard. Philadelphia fans, in particular, are a part of their teams’ success. The Broad Street Bullies embraced the city’s working class self-image, and the Phillies most recent World Series was made so much sweeter because many of the stars came from the Philadelphia system. People drove hours to watch Cole Hamels pitch in Reading before he ever took the mound in October.

The desire for soccer was in Philly long before the Union arrived, a fact that the team has not forgotten. For Peter Nowak to suggest that he doesn’t have to answer questions about the team’s AWOL center back, or that the fans are responsible for the leading scorer’s discontent, was borderline heretical. And the manager’s response had to be perfect.

Showing that an old dog really can learn new tricks, Peter Nowak finally took to his role as the face of the franchise. He did it on his terms—140 often brusque characters at a time—but he did it. And in doing so he earned the trust and respect of a fan base that, in giving, asks only for the same in return.

Outlook

At a press conference after the end of the 2011 season, Nowak said, “I told you guys at the press conferences we’ve had all year long that we believe in what we’re building, we believe what is the culture around the team. But having the real expectations—not being on the spectrum of one time very high, one time very low—I think it was a little bit too much for this group…I think from this perspective, when I look back, I might need to do a better job to handle these things.”

A year ago PSP wrote: “Peter Nowak’s biggest strength is his self-belief.” What 2011 taught us is the form that this self-belief has taken. It is not his ability to win individual matches—be they regular season or playoff—that matters to Peter Nowak. This is not to suggest that Nowak does not care about individual matches (just ask Jason Kreis whether Nowak takes each game to heart), but the Union’s leader stubbornly refuses to let a setback grow into something that deflects the course of his larger plans.

Playoffs. Championships. Five-star academies. A fluid, possession-based system in MLS. These are but the fruits that Nowak wants his leadership to bear.

Expectations. Pedigree. Pride. These are the words that will define the Union if Nowak is successful. He wants Philadelphia to have a different kind of MLS franchise. Unlike other American sports where teams rise, crash, and are reborn through low draft picks, soccer’s international element allows a smart club the chance to ride high year after year.

The year after Nowak left DC United, the team won the Supporter’s Shield for the second straight season. They haven’t been back to the playoffs since. Nowak’s legacy in the capitol was a championship, not a great club. He wants the Philadelphia Union to be different, and he knows he has the time and the support of the team’s executives needed to make this happen.

In Philadelphia, with a fan base that won’t settle for watching their team succeed but wants to be a part of that success, Peter Nowak can create a different kind of MLS club. But to do it, he must continue to learn his role as the image and voice of the franchise. Nowak is known for his ability to communicate and build relationships with his players, and the fans are often a 12th man for the Union.

Peter Nowak doesn’t have to be perfect; this is Philly, after all, and we are damn proud of the cracks in our bells. But if he wants to build the Philadelphia Union into something great, something new and different, he has to take us along for the ride.

In 2011, the Union’s leader learned to embrace his 12th man. Now we want to see him take the other eleven to new heights.

 

3 Comments

  1. great analysis

  2. Great article. It actually made me step back from my Nowak hate too. Maybe he is taking it one season at a time, and now that he thinks he has enough talent on the roster he will focus on implementing an offense?
    There is no doubt he has been a practically perfect GM for us though.

  3. He shoulda won Coach of the Year. Turned the team around, made us a contender…I believe he sees the whole picture and within 5 years we have some silverware in our cabinet.

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