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Nowak's rough approach wore thin in Philly
by Ridge Mahoney, June 14th, 2012 12:28AM

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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.



3 comments
  1. Valerie Metzler
    commented on: June 14, 2012 at 9:30 a.m.
    Yep.
  1. C. Zee
    commented on: June 14, 2012 at 9:45 a.m.
    Nowak's demeanor with journalist and fan clubs was temperamental at best. Perhaps all those years behind the Iron curtain of Europe shaped his public relations. But this is not 1980's Poland. The MLS, and indeed most american sports leagues grant access and openness to the media. It doesn't mean a coach has to be friendly, but it never hurts. Even a tough guy gets a break if the team is winning. Nowak ran out of everything. I said: Dobre Dania
  1. Philippe Fontanelli
    commented on: June 14, 2012 at 11:17 a.m.
    Nowak was a good player but as a coach and player he had no respect for US bred players. I always thought that he screwed up Adu's development way back with DC. But when he discarded Le Toux his top scorer and player I knew he was off his "rocker" and it was only a question of time of his dismissal. Philly and most teams are better off w/o him.

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