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.