The End of the Hackworth Era
Almost two years to the day after replacing Peter Nowak, John Hackworth was fired today as manager of the Philadelphia Union. An uninspiring start to the season — three wins in sixteen games — after an offseason makeover of the team cost the coach his job. In two years, the coach put up an underwhelming 23-30-20 record.
What will we remember as John Hackworth’s legacy in Philadelphia? Probably the best you can say about him is that he proved to be a relatively shrewd GM. Taking over a team gutted by Nowak, Hackworth trimmed most of his bad decisions (Perlaza, Gomez, Lopez, and Adu) while slowly acquiring cap space and other assets. The deal which sent Gabe Farfan to Chivas USA for what became the #2 pick in the 2014 Superdraft was a spectacular piece of larceny. This year’s offseason signings — particularly Vincent Nogueira, the most talented player ever to wear a Union shirt — were similarly impressive. On paper, the Union have their most talented roster ever.
But Hackworth’s undoing was always on the field. Tactically, Hackworth lacked a coherent program, often stating a clear goal (e.g. “high pressure”) without a solid plan for executing it. He reveled in playing folks out of position — Amobi Okugo and Aaron Wheeler are the most glaring and consistent examples, but let’s not forget that he put Fabinho in at left wing over Cristian Maidana against Montreal this year. Hackworth also seemed to play favorites with consistency, often preferring guys who could run hard (Danny Cruz is the ultimate Hack player) over guys who were technically skilled (I miss you, Roger Torres!). Major acquisitions like Bakary Soumare and Austin Berry were chained to the bench in favor of any number of center-backs playing out of position. And his choice of captain proved to be a major problem — Brian Carroll is a stand-up veteran guy, but he never seemed to command the team nor was his play able to justify his place inked into the XI every week.
Not all of the blame for this season should ride on Hack’s shoulders. Nick Sakiewicz is in part the architect of this mess, and real questions should be asked of his role running the team. The players, too, deserve a kick in the pants — defiantly defending their coach in the face of a miserable run of form, but lashing out at fans rather than accepting responsibility. I for one hope that the style of self-entitlement, led by its chief practitioner Danny Cruz (“thanks to the fans who actually support us” etc.) ends with a manager who will demand accountability.
At the heart of it, all of this tactical malarkey could be forgiven if the Union had won games. But they didn’t, and so it’s time for a fresh start.
The Next Manager
Immediately, Union fans have turned to the question of who will become the third permanent manager in franchise history. At the moment, though, the most important thing is to conduct a thorough and wide-ranging coaching search. Essentially no search was undertaken in 2012 when Hackworth was hired, and that decision cost the Union dearly.
After appointing someone from the original Nowak regime as the Union’s second coach — with unsuccessful results — it’s time for the team to look outside for a new manager. If, however, they choose to stay in-house, there are a few interesting options. Jim Curtin, the interim manager, will have a couple months worth of games to stake his claim to the job. Mike Sorber, the most recent addition to the staff and a veteran of the 1994 U.S. World Cup team, would be another option, though it is perhaps telling that he was passed over for the interim gig. Brendan Burke certainly knows how to work with young talent, but as he left the team in the winter in unclear circumstances I don’t know if he’d want to return.
By far the most likely option, though, would be someone who already has MLS experience, and the name that comes to the top of that heap is Jesse Marsch. Marsch was the inaugural manager of Montreal, where his team finished 12-16-6 before he parted ways with the ownership group, along with two years as an assistant with the USMNT. He also has some familiarity with the area, playing his college soccer at Princeton. (This is a fact I will be willing to forgive if he can lead the Union to success.)
Other names being kicked around — although I think they’re less likely — are John Spencer and Steve Nicol. (And I think we can pretty safely rule out Peter Nowak…) There’s also the whole wide world of former and current managers and assistants in Europe and South America; although I would not expect the Union to make a totally random hire, it’s possible they might be able to attract a young, ambitious up-and-comer — the next Andre Villas-Boas? (Actually, scratch that thought.)
The Union might also look at a former player to take the job. The name on everyone’s lips is Veljko Paunovic, the Serbian veteran of Atletico Madrid that played the second half of the 2011 season for the Union. Initially seen as a washed-up old man, Pauno quickly won over the fans and became a key piece of the only playoff team in Union history. He has been coaching the Serbian U-19 side and expressed a desire to return to Philadelphia before, but he would probably need to be paired with a general manager to handle the ins and outs of MLS player movement. Another wild card would be former captain Faryd Mondragon, who recently announced his retirement from Deportivo Cali and is making a final appearance in the World Cup for Colombia at the age of 43. Mondragon was the heart and soul of that 2011 team, and he would bring experience at the game’s highest levels, but it is unknown whether he is interested in coaching — or even whether he’d consider returning to the United States.
Finally, an idea I’ve been kicking around in my head would be hiring someone known traditionally as a women’s coach to take the job. Paul Riley did a great job with the Philadelphia Independence in their one season of existence and is currently the head coach of the Portland Thorns. It might also be worth kicking the tires on Pia Sundhage, the beloved former coach of the USWNT. The Union would break a huge barrier by becoming the first men’s professional team in America to hire a woman as coach — but more importantly they’d be getting a terrific and well-respected coach to build their team.
And, before you ask: yes, I am available.
Where Do We Go From Here? The Rest of the 2014 Season
The managerial search will take some time, and in the interim the Union must keep playing soccer games. It’s not time yet to throw in the towel completely — MLS is unpredictable enough that the Union are not definitively out of playoff contention — but the decision-making should be geared towards individual player development and building next season’s squad.
The Union have a strong core — Nogueira, Okugo, Maidana, and Maurice Edu. If Edu is likely to stick around after this season, goal number one should be figuring out the best way to build a team around these four players. I’m envisioning Okugo playing in the midfield here, so that probably sends Carroll and Fred to the bench for the forseeable future. Which combination of wingers and strikers can work the best with these four players? It’ll be a season-long audition for the likes of Cruz, Andrew Wenger, Antoine Hoppenot, and Wheeler — young players who played a lot with minimal returns during the Hackworth era. (I’ve excluded Sebastien Le Toux and Conor Casey, as we basically know what these veterans can bring to the table.)
The back line is where things get interesting. After the World Cup, the Carlos Valdes situation needs to be settled once and for all. If the Union can bring him back, the entire defense should improve markedly. Austin Berry and Ethan White can settle into life with a former MLS All-Star and World Cup veteran as their center back partner, Sheanon Williams and Ray Gaddis can return to locking down the wings, and Fabinho can be sent back to his home planet.
Finally, the rest of this season should be about the youth. For all of Hackworth’s expertise as a youth coach, he demonstrated an alarming tendency to let young talents languish. It’s time to see what this year’s draft picks — Andre Blake (if only for the trade value), Pedro Ribiero, and Richie Marquez — can do on the pitch. The promising Zach Pfeffer should also see more time. This isn’t going to be a summer where the Union bring in veterans or make seemingly random trades. The team needs to find out what they have, so that the new manager can move quickly once installed.
Hackworth is gone. For the second time in two years, the Union are starting over — but they’re in a much better spot then they were in 2012. The Vancouver game featured some highly entertaining soccer; hopefully the rest of the season takes the Union towards a long run of success, something this team’s diehard fans dearly deserve.