By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (June 14, 2012) US Soccer Players -- As with so many things, it wasn't just what happened on Wednesday afternoon in Chester, it was how it happened. The Philadelphia Union decide to part ways with manager Peter Nowak, a standard Major League Soccer turn of phrase that masks what might have actually happened. Fair enough for a 9th-place team with inexplicable player turnover, but then we move to the how.
Philadelphia didn't up for a full transition. Their new head coach is John Hackworth, the 'first team' coach recruited by Nowak from both of their previous stops as members of former US National Team coach Bob Bradley's staff. Philadelphia's attempt at creative titles aside, Nowak and Hackworth took their Union jobs as a duo. Nowak had the top title, Hackworth presumably had more responsibilities than a regular assistant coach.
Now one is gone, the team is floundering, and questions that were already being asked about this club are getting rephrased with a new insistence. Based on his response to a question asked during yesterday's press conference, the public situation Philadelphia has created is news to CEO Nick Sakiewicz. He parried that away by pointing to their attendance not noticeably dropping. This line of defense went hand-in-hand with his earlier statements about MLS seasons being decided after the All-Star break and Philadelphia advancing in the Open Cup.
Hey, fair enough. If that's the way someone wants to look at the situation in Philadelphia there's enough available evidence to make the case. If it feels a little too convenient, there's enough evidence to make that case as well.
Philadelphia is a team in trouble. A lot of it was self-created. It was made clear that the Union wasn't operating under the model where the manager does what he wants and the front office fills in the details. Management in the larger scope was involved with player transactions. That makes pinning Philadelphia's odd moves over the last few months tough to put solely on Nowak.
It's taken for granted that we already know Nowak's side of the story. Rumors have him putting himself in the running for the manager's job at Hearts of Midlothian in the Scottish Premier League. It's worth seriously considering what that could mean. A traditional manager's role in a traditional league, allowing him the greater control that seems foreign in MLS.
Though Nowak felt little compunction to explain his vision for the club, neither did his management. There's something to be said for keeping internal arguments in house, but trading away enough players to tilt a team away from playoff contender and toward disappointment? As Sakiewicz said, as the managing partner at the club he's the one making the tough decisions. Yesterday, that was the 'parting of the ways. '
Where that leaves Philadelphia is in more of a questionable place than the people at the table would have us believe. Hackworth had no choice in the moment but to draw a clear distinction between himself and his former boss. Yet Hackworth's only experience as a head coach at this level was a result of Nowak occasionally handing him the team. With all due respect to Hackworth's resume, unless it includes previously being named the head coach of a professional club it's an issue. Both Hackworth and his CEO attempted to deflect that with talks of this 'not being his first rodeo,' but that downplays the task at hand.
Turning things around in-season in MLS isn't easy. Trades are difficult in the best of situations, and Philadelphia is operating with less than a stellar reputation in the market. Why would any MLS team risk moving a necessary player to the Union? This is a club now hampered by the reputation for getting rid of valuable players and not getting like-for-like in return. For that matter, who do they really have left to move out? The transfer window is tough on all MLS teams. It's the equivalent of window shopping in a neighborhood you can barely afford while knowing it's not even a very good neighborhood to being with.
During yesterday's press conference, Hackworth made it clear that he believes his answers are within the current squad. His focus is firmly on the players he has and how to get the most out of them. That won't make his job any easier, especially since it included an old talking point for Philadelphia as an organization. The results on the field don't tell the real story of how good of a team they really have.
The Philadelphia Union is in a situation that could keep the team floundering out of reach of the playoffs without a reasonably achievable vision. To put that in MLS terms, we're talking about Toronto territory. That carries with it a shift in momentum that will eventually give all involved in that organization no quarter from reporters asking obvious questions.
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