The Hackworth Firing and the 2014 Union

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.

all this on $2k per week
Football Manager 14 thinks I can run the Union better than John Hackworth

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.


Clint Dempsey and the Future of American Soccer

1. Most American soccer fans, broadly speaking, have two long-term goals in mind when we talk about soccer in the States. One is the success of the national team, especially in the World Cup; the other is the growth of professional soccer in America to the point where we have a strong and well-attended domestic league, where there is general interest in the sport, and where soccer can be comfortably mentioned with the “big four” sports.

1a. To an extent, the first goal is also a means to accomplishing the second. The World Cup is the biggest stage in all of sports. An American team that plays well in the tournament and captures the attention of the country can lead, in turn, to long-term growth. (Just look at the health of MLS over the last three years, after Donovan’s epic game-winner at the death over Algeria.)

2. How do you make the domestic league — MLS — stronger? The main thing is acquiring talent at all levels: more talented homegrown American players, foreign imports with upside, and star players who are in the late-prime or tail end of their career.

2a. Of those three groups, the last group is the most important for drawing fan interest. While the league’s overall quality doesn’t rest on its core of stars, the casual fan is most easily engaged with superstar players — you can see the way attendance swells both in MLS (Beckham, Henry, Donovan) and other American leagues (LeBron) when star players visit as an away team.

3. Clint Dempsey is transferring from Tottenham Hotspur to the Seattle Sounders of MLS.

3a. Despite scoring 57 goals in the Premier League and 37 at the international level, not one team in England was willing to pay the $9 million transfer fee to acquire his services. (The Sounders, on the other hand, are driving several dump trucks worth of money up to his house — at $8 million per year, he’s now the highest paid player in MLS history.)

3b. Dempsey is the captain of the U.S. National Team and probably its most potent offensive weapon. He is, in the world of American soccer, a superstar.

4. With the World Cup just eleven months away, some have criticized Dempsey’s move back to MLS as a step down, potentially weakening his form ahead of the biggest tournament in sports — a tournament that the USMNT, under coach Jurgen Klinsmann, suddenly has a tremendous amount of momentum towards.

4a. Regardless, the United States are not going to win the 2014 World Cup.

4b. In June of 2014, the difference in form between Clint Dempsey after a club season playing semi-regularly for Tottenham and Clint Dempsey at the mid-point of an MLS campaign will be marginal — or, at least, small enough that it will not be the sole determinant of whether the U.S. advances out of the group stage of the World Cup.

5. The project of U.S. Soccer is a long-term one. Maybe the team performs slightly worse in Brazil next year. But I think that’s a fair trade for an acquisition that changes the trajectory of MLS and the game as a whole in this country. And if Dempsey remains in top form, it will help bury the idea that MLS is not an internationally competitive league.

In the long run, an American superstar in his prime returning to MLS is unquestionably a good thing for American soccer. Clint Dempsey will become the face of the league, his battles with Landon Donovan and other U.S. internationals driving media coverage and fan interest. And, like Beckham and Henry before him, Dempsey will continue to legitimize the league — only this time, it will be for young Americans who will one day grow up to replace him.


What’s wrong with the Philadelphia Union?

This evening, I went to my first Philadelphia Union game of the year with my family. (As expert readers of the blog know, I went to quite a few football games while in Britain, but this is my first in America.) The Union pulled out a 2-1 win in the U.S. Open Cup — the American version of the FA Cup — over a fourth-division semi-pro team from Ocean City, N.J.*, that was playing only their fourth competitive match together. The Union looked sluggish and wasteful in the final third, never quite able to crush a group of amateur college players. Here’s an excessively long analysis of what’s wrong with the team right now.

A mysterious lack of depth

The Union have 25 players on their active roster, but there’s basically no squad rotation going on. This week is the second consecutive stretch where the team will play three matches in eight days. This would be a time for the Union to find out what depth they have on the bench. Instead, the Union traded one of their top three central defenders (Bakary Soumare) and a versatile LB/LM (Gabriel Farfan) away. Manager John Hackworth is completely unwilling to give the full range of his squad an opportunity, instead rotating the same fourteen players every week. (And no, throwing Leo Fernandes out there tonight does not count.)

There might be three negative consequences of this rigidity. First, Hackworth’s squad is going to suffer unnecessary wear and tear. He says these players are his Best XI — but if we believe this, then the worry has to be whether these players can survive a full season. Jeff Parke, coming off a hamstring strain, took a number of whacks in the game tonight that he could have avoided (particularly at age 31). Second, squad complacency might set in. What incentive do these guys have to work for their place in practice if there’s no evidence Hackworth will play his backups? The team also falls into the trap of being predictable — opponents can gameplan to take Danny Cruz’s speed out of the equation, completely neutralizing his value.

What would I be doing differently? For starters, we shouldn’t have traded Farfan and Soumare without picking up a quality MLS player in return, because our options are severely limited. But I’d be giving more playing time to Roger Torres and consider recalling some of our players on loan at Harrisburg, particularly Cristhian Hernandez, Greg Jordan, and Don Anding. Here’s how I would have set the lineup for the Open Cup tonight.


Williams — Okugo — G. Jordan — Anding

Fernandes — Torres — Carroll — Kassel

Casey  — Hoppenot

One caveat: I don’t know what the USOC rules are on cup-tying, so I’m assuming any Union players on loan to Harrisburg City who played in the second round are ineligible.

Who killed Roger Torres?

Hey, do you remember Roger Torres? Little guy, from Colombia? Notched an assist on the first Union goal of all time in 2010, tallied three goals and eight assists across 2010 and 2011 (including his first in MLS, which downed the Red Bulls in April 2011), easily the most exciting and creative midfielder on the team?

John Hackworth has, almost literally, chained him to the bench. Last year, Torres’s minutes dropped from 930 per year to a measly 180 — admittedly, Torres was recovering from injury at the time. In the offseason, Hackworth challenged Torres to show up to camp fitter and more prepared to deal with the physicality of MLS. By all accounts (including Hackworth himself), he did that, dazzling in his preseason minutes in Disney and (in my eyes) performing as the best player on the pitch.

And then… poof! He’s gone! Roger hasn’t even made the 18-man roster for the last two games, hasn’t played since garbage time of the opening day drubbing by Kansas City. Hack has, at times, made various excuses for this: it wasn’t the right moment in the game, he’s got to learn to play in the system. Tonight, it was simply that Roger has to “play better” in practice. If I were Torres, I’d be banging my head against the wall, trying to understand the incomprehensible American manager who seems to believe that Danny Cruz brings more to the team with his leaden touch and low soccer intelligence because “he always runs hard.”

It might be time for the Union to part ways with Torres. But I’ll be really sorry when it happens. And John Hackworth deserves the blame for ruining the career of this promising talent.

The Colombian Question

Torres isn’t the only Colombian whose disappearance from the Union has had negative consequences on the squad. Carlos Valdes, the team’s captain, best player, and MLS All-Star last year returned to Colombia on loan, which was presented as a necessary move to secure World Cup qualification and a place on the team in 2014. Obviously, this is a lifelong dream and I’m happy the Union were able to help him chase it — and it didn’t seem to be an issue with the U’s defensive depth in Jeff Parke, Amobi Okugo, and Soumare. Of course, Soumare isn’t on the team anymore, Parke has been good but not great, and Okugo has regressed slightly from last year. The Union are weaker up the middle without Valdes and his aggressive defense harassing opponents all around the box.

The bigger departure to me, though, is Faryd Mondragon. Mondragon is a legendary, if ancient, keeper from Colombia who played in Turkey and Germany. He is perhaps best known for standing on his head and almost saving Colombia in the 1998 World Cup. Mondragon spent 2011 as the Union’s starting GK, immediately being named captain and leading the team to the playoffs. What he lacked in reflexes he made up for in vocal leadership, commanding a backline that became known for its stinginess. To be honest, I absolutely loved the guy. He was a little crazy, but I loved that he wore his heart on his sleeve and seemed completely dedicated to the Union and its fans.

Mondragon returned to Colombia before the 2012 season, where he joined his childhood team Deportivo Cali. Faryd has also worked his way back into the national team as a backup and talisman for the young Colombians. In his place, Zac MacMath has been the Union’s unchallenged number one. MacMath is a good shot-stopper, but he shows none of the leadership qualities that Mondragon brought to the table and struggles immensely with crosses of all types. The decision to not have an experienced veteran backing him up and pushing him for playing time hasn’t helped his development.

Over the last two years, the Union defense has collapsed from one of the best in the league to a group that regularly gives up four (vs. LA) or five (vs. Montreal) goals per game.

The way forward

John Hackworth makes me angry. But, although he’s been the team’s manager for one year, he’s only had one offseason to mold the team into a contender. Though I hate large chunks of the team he’s put together (don’t get me started about Cruz, Keon Daniel, or our LB situation), he deserves time to make the team work. To me, there’s only one situation in which Hack doesn’t get another year with these guys — if the Union finish a distant seventh or eighth in the Eastern Conference this year. The MLS is a league with lots of parity, and the Union have the talent and fan base to not accept mediocrity. Make no mistake — I believe John Hackworth is a mediocre manager, and if the results this year bear out my belief than he should be on the first train to manager purgatory, waiting for a phone call from D.C. United.

*Correction: The Nor’Easters play in New Jersey, not Maryland. Why are there so many places named Ocean City on the East Coast? Probably because there’s an ocean right there. Nevertheless, my bad; thanks to @ventur514 on twitter for pointing it out.