Three years ago, the Philadelphia Union hired a head coach 10 months before it embarked on its expansion season in MLS.
It had already jump-started a fan base, thanks to the fanatical Sons of Ben, and construction was chugging along on PPL Park, which would open in time to stage all but two of its 2010 home games. On and off the field, the Union got off to a strong and early start, and after struggling through a promising yet frustrating initial season, it improved enough to finish third in the Eastern Conference last year and qualify for the playoffs.
This year, Philly started near the bottom of the standings and stayed there, buttressed from the bottom only by the terribleness that is Toronto FC. When the dismal Reds, 0-0-9 at the time, beat Philly in late May, and last week fired their head coach anyway, Peter Nowak moved onto the league’s most precarious perch.
So what the hell happened? How did Nowak take a successful and ambitious franchise and flush it down the toilet? Rarely has a team with real promise collapsed so quickly, but in this case, the cause is clear: for whatever reason -- personality differences, stubbornness, clashing egos, impatience, arrogance – Nowak jettisoned far too much talent that could be replaced short-term while barreling ahead with a bid to coach Scottish club Hearts.
Sebastien Le Toux, Danny Califf and Danny Mwanga will take some replacing as the team goes forward with assistant coach John Hackworth in Nowak’s place. He is quiet, insightful, thoughtful … in many ways the absolute antithesis of the brash, brazen Nowak, whose deep knowledge of the game wasn’t necessarily leavened by refined people skills.
If you wanted to talk soccer with Nowak, you were in luck. He grew up in Poland as its national team ascended to dizzying heights, playing a swift, fluid game surpassed in Europe only in the 1970s by the ebullient Dutch, and during the 1980s by France. With that background, and a playing career that included a stint in Germany with 1860 Munich as well as the double-winning expansion Chicago team of 1998, plus coaching stints with D.C. United and the U.S. Olympic team, he possessed a vast background in the European game.
A blood-and-guts coach like Nowak can talk tough to his players and all will be well if the performances and results are satisfactory, and what the press and fans think of his comments doesn’t significantly alter the dynamic. He would rebut criticisms, seldom politely, and drive home his points and philosophies about how he expected his team to play and what he demanded from his players.
Hired by club president Nick Sakiewicz partly as an appeal to the city’s hard-hewn image, the relationship seemed to function well despite the inevitable frictions. But many times Nowak’s public statements conflicted sharply with those of his players, and without splitting semantic hairs about who said what, when the team’s play deteriorated so severely Nowak’s job fell into jeopardy.
Players don’t need training sessions and team talks to be all warm and fuzzy, but they do insist on being treated fairly. When Le Toux was traded to Vancouver, Nowak said, “Feelings are not part of my job description.”
He probably said it somewhat flippantly, but in his strong-willed way didn’t realize or care that he’d inflamed an already volatile situation. In Europe, it’s not uncommon for coaches to leave one job for another during the season, and if that does indeed occur, it would be further proof that Nowak’s stormy time in Philly had to end when it did.