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Peter Nowak, a postmortem

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Like iron, Peter Nowak seemed so strong that he would break before he bent.

On Wednesday, Nowak broke.

Perhaps never in MLS history has one man’s managerial career imploded so rapidly. In January, Nowak was manager of a popular, surprise 2011 playoff team that had vastly exceeded expectations. Five months later, he was fired.

And make no mistake, this was a firing, even if Union chief executive Nick Sakiewicz specifically avoided saying that. Sakiewicz called the situation “fluid,” which probably means Union management has to sort out Nowak’s contract.

“All I can tell you is that right now I informed Peter this morning that he was not our team manager because of philosophical differences,” Sakiewicz said during Wednesday’s news conference.

It was the right call.

Nowak had lost the fans, and he had lost his team. (Granted, most players were lost through trades and sales, but we’re talking about the current squad, which despite their record is full of talent.)

A sliver of light had finally cracked on the Union’s miserable start to 2012 when the Union reached the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals last week.

Then, in the span of six days, Nowak traded the team’s first ever draft pick, reportedly applied (and denied it) for the Hearts manager’s job in Scotland, and watched the Union lose a friendly against their USL affiliate, the Harrisburg City Islanders. Sakiewicz said he didn’t know what his breaking point was, but he knew he had reached it.

“I’m not a wine connoisseur, but I know what good wine tastes like,” Sakiewicz said. “And you know, when I sipped the wine recently, it didn’t taste so good.”

Evaluating the Nowak tenure

Nowak’s flame-out was so spectacular largely because he had built a team that, just five months ago, appeared one player away from contending for a title.

Yes, Nowak’s lineup decisions were always questionable and his communication skills lacking.

But one cannot deny Nowak’s brilliant vision in building the Union’s personnel infrastructure. Previously, MLS clubs had affiliated here and there with lower tier teams. Nowak surpassed that in unprecedented fashion, leveraging existing aspects of the American soccer system to build a player development network that is a hybrid between American baseball’s minor leagues and European soccer academies.

The Union’s partnerships with model PDL club Reading United and the USL’s Harrisburg led to signings of rising star Sheanon Williams, rookie of the year candidate Ray Gaddis, and backup goalie Chase Harrison, among others, and allowed Union players like Antoine Hoppenot to go on loan, get quality playing time, and develop their game. Meanwhile, the Union’s ties to local youth clubs reaped teenage signings Cristhian Hernadez, Zach Pfeffer, and Jimmy McLaughlin. Nowak and Reading president Art Achenbach even had the foresight to give Reading’s impressive young coach, Brendan Burke, a second job as the Union’s reserve team coach.

Nowak’s early player acquisitions were similarly impressive, if bittersweet in retrospect. Sebastien Le Toux may have been the most successful MLS expansion draftee ever, and Danny Califf, Andrew Jacobson, and Shea Salinas are all quality starters for MLS clubs. Amobi Okugo, the Farfan twins and Williams could be the Union’s core for years to come. Carlos Valdes, Brian Carroll and Faryd Mondragon were steadying presences that keyed the Union’s 2011 playoff run.

But flaws gradually emerged. Last year, there was the controversial parting with Michael Orozco Fiscal, the misguided Carlos Ruiz signing and Nowak’s subsequent blaming of fans when it didn’t work out, and Nowak’s mismanagement of the playoff series against Houston.

This year, it all fell apart after Nowak parted with the Union’s two most talismanic players, Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Califf, in deals that, whatever other value they may have, were clearly driven by personality clashes between Nowak and his team leaders. Nowak drove a wedge between him and his players and fans. The Union became a team agents advised their players to avoid. It was clear Nowak regarded players as little more than disposable chattel.

And so he is gone.

The Hackworth era 

Fortunately for the Union, they have as good a No. 2 man as there is in MLS. John Hackworth was a successful college coach with South Florida, a key member of the U.S. National Team staff, and one of the nation’s best spotters of young soccer talent, having coached the U-17 national team in the 2005 and 2007 World Cups. With the Union, he has filled in ably as team manager during Nowak’s absences.

Unlike Nowak, Hackworth is a capable communicator. That’s important. Hackworth clearly recognizes Nowak lost the locker room, whether he says it aloud or not. When asked Wednesday about new signings once the MLS transfer window opens June 27, Hackworth said, “I think it’s a great opportunity for us to potentially make some moves, but for right now, we do want to concentrate on the guys that are in our locker room and make sure that they know we believe in them, that we have faith in them, that they were brought here for a reason. And I think any decision we make going forward is going to be with that in mind, that those guys are who we have to take care of first.”

Few things matter as much to a team as players knowing the head coach has their back. Hackworth just took a key step in reestablishing that.

Whether Hackworth stays on as manager beyond the interim will depend on the Union’s performance. If the Union play well, he will probably stay. If not, Sakiewicz will likely look elsewhere. Eric Wynalda is available, and after his Cal FC became American soccer’s darlings after their dream U.S. Open Cup run, he looks awfully attractive. His straight talk and love of creative, daring soccer make Wynalda seem perfectly hard-wired for Philadelphia.

But that description could fit Hackworth too. He knows the Union as well as anyone. It may be that the man required to see through Nowak’s vision is one humble enough to bend before he breaks. For all their similar views on the way soccer should be played, Hackworth said a simple but very important thing Wednesday:

“I can tell you that I’m not Peter Nowak. I’m John Hackworth.”

That may be all the Union need.

26 Comments

  1. Great article! As a frustrated season ticket holder from the beginning, this was definitely overdue!

    Thanks!

  2. Philly Cheese says:

    Good summary. There might be some players who will not connect with Hackworth, but the vindictive head games that Nowak liked to inflict on the players are gone. Talent, energy, teamwork will be rewarded as of now.

  3. WilkersonMcLaser says:

    Great piece! Almost enough to make me optimistic — almost. I agree about Hackworth, though. He seems like a decent enough fella and competent enough to at least do the obvious like play people in their positions, develop the younger players, and nurture confidence in both team and fans alike.

    That said, I still can’t get over Sakiewicz’s Baghdad Bob moment when he flat-out denied eroding fan confidence. There’s simply no way that’s true. He could have easily sidestepped the question and used it as an opportunity to turn a fresh page with the fan base. Instead, he only reinforced the notion that he was as much a part of the problem as Nowak.

    This concerns me.

  4. JediLos117 says:

    C’mon the U!!! Looking forward to this new Union develop.

  5. Good stuff, though it’s a stretch to say “The Union became a team agents advised their players to avoid,” based on a comment posted in another blog. Maybe if we heard that from multiple sources. I’ll agree that it’s certainly plausible given all the roster machinations, but still premature to say it as fact.

    • WilkersonMcLaser says:

      Normally, I’d agree. But TSG is a pretty reliable source these days. Matthewsf is in constant touch with players, mainstream soccer journalists, and agents. So it’s not just some random guy with a wordpress site. If he says it, it’s probably legit.

      • scottymac says:

        I get that, my point is that fine semantic line between “probably legit” and “verified through other sources”. I dont think anyone would be surprised to hear that players didn’t want to come here, but until some agent or player states they didn’t its just speculation. Sorry to drag the main thread off into my pet peeve.

        • Hey guys — great work Adam/Dan.

          Just a note on the agent speak.

          I did speak with two agents regarding the comments on going to the Union–one is known well, the other has only 5 or 6 MLS players under his command. They both asked that the information be used like I used it on TSG–”on background” and not directly as a story. (*Note, if you research our Twitter timeline you can probably figure out one of them.)

          In speaking with the agents, they said because of the Union line-up changes, obvious player-coach issues/flare-ups that it was certainly a topic of discussion in attractiveness of the team.

          Another issue they brought up–which I hadn’t considered–was that with as tumultuous a season it was, there was also an expectation that something could happen on the team management front and then promises made to their client or “where they fit in the complexion of the team” could be vastly different from when they signed the contract.

          They likened it to a quarterback signing a letter of intent to play college football in a pro offense, the coach moving on and the wishbone being used.

          Anyway, hope this helps. Love the blog. Good luck with the weight lifted this weekend.
          Matthew

          • Dan Walsh says:

            Thanks for the info and kind words, Matt.

            We’d heard similar information. In our case, it wasn’t specifically in the context of the college football example, but that was something that one could deduce logically. It came to mind, but nobody gave that example specifically.

            For us, it wasn’t information provided to us for attribution. But once you have outside, reliable reports like Matthew’s from The Shin Guardian to go with ours, it’s something you feel more comfortable writing.

            To our readers, PSP generally avoids using anonymous sources whenever possible, which is why I thought Scotty’s point was fair game. You don’t see many (any?) “source close to the situation” reports from us.

            But we also recognize the usefulness of “background” info (i.e. info given without attribution but on the record). This is not to be confused with off-the-record, which means you’re told the information but cannot use it. Period, end of story. In this case, it wasn’t necessary to use this info in order to break a story, but … well, I did, and I’m OK with it because I have no question it’s true.

        • Richie The Limey says:

          Bobby Convey famously said that he would ‘never ever play for Nowak’ after being part of the national (youth?) team that Nowak was involved in. Other players have also said the same kind of thing.

          • Yeah, I was thinking about that the other day. I remember when he told Greg Orlandini and me that on the Philly Soccer Show. The thought occurred to me:

            So, do the Union now go try to acquire Convey and Sebastien Le Toux (the latter of whom’s contract is done at season’s end)? ;)

    • Fair point. Admittedly, we heard a few things too. I just didn’t want to go into that particular point in detail.

  6. Wow, was it only 5 months? Seems like forever ago, but I seem to remember at one point during the offseason how *good* is looked like Nowak was doing. We got rid of Gonzalez, Miglioranzi and Mapp. We brought in a speed-demon striker, a holding mid who ‘plays like a linebacker’, and a left back to fill a need (okay, Lopez sucks, but we didn’t know that then). Then he gets in a pissing match with one player, and the whole thing goes to hell in less than half a year. Amazing.

  7. I’d say this sums all my thoughts in one page -well done.
    I have full faith in Hackworth’s abilities. For most of his coaching career, he has primarily dealt with younger players either at USF or USSoccer. He should be well equipped to handle this team thru this season and next. Now, the other side of the business – player acquisition, etc., that may be more of a challenge.

  8. Pingback: The Philly Soccer Page » Nowak out, Hack in: reports, reaction & more news

  9. I wish Hackworth well. I have a question, Is this whole thing a Nowak problem or an organizational business plan because of lack of funds or commitment ? They must know we as fans are worried about the club’s actions this year. Please don’t be the Fury or the Atoms.

  10. James Korman says:

    I’m jazzed about the change. Very psyched for John. He’ll identify and develop our young talent as that’s really his pedigree. Saturday’s starting eleven (and formation on the pitch) will be telling.

    I am concerned that Hack’s ‘Interim’ moniker might hinder our chances of attracting the best talent during the transfer window. Allocation money has been acquired and should be deployed. It doesn’t roll over to next season does it? Use it or lose it? Anybody know?

    Go Union…Stomp DC…!!!

    • Dan Walsh says:

      I’ve heard accounts that it rolls over. Check back to PSP in a couple of weeks for what hopefully will be a definitive piece on how exactly all this financial stuff actually works and how it will apply to the Union.

      (i.e. I plan to write it. Just haven’t yet. ;) )

  11. Pingback: The Philly Soccer Page » The great allocation money chase

  12. Pingback: The case for John Hackworth | Local Philadelphia News Aggregator

  13. Pingback: The case for John Hackworth

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