[INTERVIEW] Since he left Europe to play in MLS 12 years ago, Peter Nowak has led Chicago to a MLS Cup and Open Cup double (1998) as a player, coached D.C. United to a league title (2004), and managed the U.S. U-23 team at the Olympic Games (2008). In his first season with expansion Philadelphia he's assembled a blue-collar team that features experienced veterans (Sebastien Le Toux, Danny Califf, Alejandro Moreno) blended with some of the league's most talented young players (Danny Mwanga, Roger Torres, Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo).
SOCCER AMERICA: Many MLS teams renovated their lineups rather extensively after the World Cup, but aside from trading for Justin Mapp, you haven’t made a lot of changes.
PETER NOWAK: There hasn’t been so many changes in our squad and that was our idea from the beginning. We don’t want to change what we are trying to do, we just work harder. That is the part I am happy about, the work ethic and the dedication.
We’re not changing the team constantly or tweaking the things too much, but from the first day in the preseason when we get together I have been telling them what we are going to do in certain situations. So now during the season, there is a 15-minute talk and we go on the field, instead of six hours’ preparation with something they haven’t seen before. We have already gone over it.
SA: How can you establish a foundation so quickly with players who are coming from different teams and different systems?
NOWAK: Before the preseason, I give them a playbook, a soccer bible, with the values and principles we are going to use. With all of my teams, I have a playbook. I work with the Olympic team, I work with D.C. United, I work with my team here. They know how the team is going to play, they know the tactics, they know the values and principles of how we play and what we are as a team.
Rather than having big meetings before the game and they will forget everything anyway, you have to do your preparation in the preseason, to establish certain values and patterns. The playbook is the base, the foundation.
SA: So where do you go from there?
NOWAK: From the base we establish, how fast can we go through all the systems and tactics we want to use if we play 3-5-2, 3-4-3, 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1, whatever it is. If it’s 1-0 in MLS Cup, you’re probably going to play 4-6-0. You need to go through every single system so the team knows what it needs to do in minutes 2, 18, 22, 42, 46, 60, 92. That’s how you educate and push the guys forward, so you’re not going to be on the bench scratching your head.
SA: Bob Bradley has been rehired as national team coach for the next World Cup cycle amid great concern about how to upgrade player development. You played for Bradley with the Fire and have been his assistant with the national team. How do you evaluate the status of player development in this country?
NOWAK: I think some of the fundamentals we are still missing in our education of soccer. Some of those things are natural instincts that you can train at a young age. The education in the U.S. must be improved because the training in other countries, this stuff is already ingrained in the players, like it is in the water. They drink it every day, and these things have already been accomplished. You don’t need to tell players 15, 16, or 17 years old these things as a coach, they have already learned them in a situation.
We try as a nation, and I mean all of us – MLS, U.S. Soccer and the colleges – we try to not hit the players with too much information. As a result, for our players the overall perspective of the game is very good. But the certain elements in a player’s game that are missing can make him even more successful.
SA: What elements are you talking about?
NOWAK: OK, for an example, you have this young forward, big, strong kid, and everybody says, ‘Oh, he’s great, he’s got the speed, he’s got the shot, he’s got the size.’ But in certain situations, say you’ve got five options or things you can do; how do you train him to pick the right one?
I have great diagrams in which I show the players a situation and the four or five options, and I ask them, ‘What is your best option in this certain situation?’ Most of them, I have to say, never pass this test.
SA: That’s kind of scary. So what do you do next?
NOWAK: You have to direct them by asking another question, and then another question. Then they realize, ‘Yes, that makes sense.’ But my point is you have to give that detailed information instead of just saying, ‘You have to be sharper with the ball.’ You don’t give the overall picture, he already has the overall picture in his head. You need to give him the details to be more successful, but you don’t give them the answers.
SA: Isn’t this what most coaches do?
NOWAK: No, not in this country. We give them the answers instead of asking them for the answers. You can give them direction, but they need to figure it out with the scenarios before the first whistle.
We teach the kids at Bradenton [U.S. Soccer's U-17 residency program] how to talk to the media. We don’t ask them what to do if this situation on the field falls apart. They will find the creativity and the imagination if we show them how to resolve this situation, if we show them what the game is supposed to look like.
If we show them how to stop the game, or in this situation where is the ball supposed to go, what will the center back do, what will the forward do, and give them the repetitions in training, this will help their education.