Photo: Barb Colligon
John Hackworth took over a team with no identity, no self-belief, no offense, and almost no connection to its fan base. What he did was not transformative, but it was transitional; Hackworth rescued a lost season by turning it into proving ground for the marginalized and mismanaged.
Revisiting the 2012 Union season is a bizarre experience. From the dizzying heights of a 2011 playoff appearance to the Sebastien Le Toux saga, to the exciting foreign acquisitions, to the reality of those acquisitions, to the sudden dismissals of two more fan favorites (a captain and a number one draft pick) all with barely one-third of the season complete. And so, with 4 points through 11 games, Peter Nowak was stripped of his many titles, and assistant coach John Hackworth was promoted to interim head coach.
While the most concrete changes put in place were in the starting lineup and tactical appearance of the team, the confidence and competitive level that had deserted the third iteration of the Philadelphia Union also returned. If the Union were a floundering business, Hackworth didn’t so much rebrand them as return product to the shelves and watch patiently to see how it sells. He found that it didn’t move well, and his attempts to ramp up sales had little effect.
But there was product out there, which is more than anyone can say about the Union under Peter Nowak in 2012. The Union finally had a clear guiding philosophy, they just didn’t quite know what it meant. 4-3-3? 4-5-1? It didn’t matter. The ball moved too slowly for the team to pass around most defenses, and the midfield showed less creativity than plodding efficiency.
Interim is a tough title to carry. It asks a lot of the leader, since he is temporary by definition. It asks a lot of players, who must wonder how much they should invest in the system of someone who may not be around for the long term. If John Hackworth can be considered a success in 2012, it must be on the developmental front that he is judged.
Amobi Okugo, Jack McInerney, Michael and Gabriel Farfan, Antoine Hoppenot, and Raymon Gaddis all made huge contributions under Hackworth. Sheanon Williams returned to his preferred wide role with vigor, and Chandler Hoffman looked dangerous and willing to run in his brief appearances. It was clear that this team was ready to play for Hackworth, even if they weren’t quite sure what to do for him.
Adding veterans to that core of youth should turn the Union into a competitive team in 2012. The pieces will be in place, but not for greatness. The scrappy, hard-fought wins that carried Philadelphia to the playoffs in their second season will define the 2013 team. Anything more than a mid-table finish will require Hackworth to prove he has more tactical acuity than he showed last season. The players believe in him as a leader, now he has to sell them on his talent as a manager.
The explosive wins over Kansas City in June and Houston in September. In both games, the Union used their biggest assets — energy and a stout defense — to pin back a talented opponent. The difference between these games and so many others was finishing, something the team attempted to address by bringing back the club’s all-time leading scorer this off-season.
After beating New England to put some space between themselves and the bottom of the table, the Union (read: Pajoy) missed chance after chance to knock off Montreal and somehow lost 2-0. They also lost Jack McInerney to a red card.
This turned out to be the start of an eight-game winless streak that included toothless ties with New England and Toronto, two teams the Union simply had to beat to get anywhere near the playoff hunt. Hackworth seemed powerless to motivate a stagnant offense that produced 4 goals over the eight-game span. Absurdly, those four goals came from: A Chicago own goal (sorry, Chandler!), Brian Carroll, Carlos Valdes, and Sheanon Williams.
Thus far, John Hackworth has shown all the qualities you value… in an assistant coach. He knew which young players were ready to step up and he gave them opportunities. He knew what to leave alone, and he left it. He took the blame for losses and credited the players when things went well. He offered up a system and pushed the players to use it.
The team likes and respects John Hackworth, and the organization is reclaiming its fans by banking on the head coach’s reputation for kindness and openness. He was the correct person to tap when the ship was listing, and he performed admirably in a difficult role.
For all the good things he did for individuals and for the locker room, Hackworth failed to get results. Furthermore, he didn’t inspire confidence with his inability to fix the issues that dogged Nowak’s version of the Union. While Philadelphia scored 11 of their 37 goals in the final 15 minutes, they allowed 12 in that same timeframe. They won only one game when they allowed the first goal, and they notched a single victory when trailing at halftime.
In other words, the team didn’t make adjustments well. Once they went down, they couldn’t figure out how to get back up. That’s where a coach needs to recognize problems, point out weaknesses in the opposition, and convince his team to play at a different tempo or attack a different way.
Hackworth should get the full season to show he can lead this team back to respectability. They don’t need to make the playoffs, but if the Union aren’t in the thick of the hunt all season, it will be hard to justify keeping Hack around.
The Union have an enviable young core of talent, and if they can incorporate Sebastien Le Toux into the mix they will be that much harder to beat. Getting production out of Le Toux, McInerney, and Chandler Hoffman will be a priority for Hackworth. Bringing the best – and the most consistent form – out of Freddy Adu, provided the young playmaker is still around, will be another big test of the Union head man.
Philadelphia will go into 2013 with many question marks. Can Le Toux and McInerney form a partnership? How do Okugo and Carroll both fit into the midfield? Will Freddy Adu be a major contributor? Will Michael Farfan continue to grow?
But arguably the biggest issue facing this team involves identity: Can they find one? What will teams say when the Union come to town?
They try hard? They’re young but energetic?
Or will the pieces fall into place for the high-tempo passing system that makes other teams admit they have to adjust to the Union’s style of play?
The answer to these questions will come from head coach John Hackworth, and by his ability to articulate his vision to a group of players that will be desperate to understand.