Peter Nowak: A Mental Approach

Peter Nowak is the only man to win an MLS title as a player (Chicago, 1998) and head coach (D.C. United, 2004). The former Polish international fills a dual role as assistant coach to Bob Bradley with the national team and head coach of the U-23 team vying to qualify for the 2008 Olympics.

In some parts of the world, the Olympic men's soccer tournament is an afterthought, a glorified youth competition that occupies the even-numbered years not devoted to the World Cup.

Not so in the United States, which regards the U-23 competition as a critical phase in the development of its elite younger players. The 1996 team groomed players for the national team, and the 2000 squad that reached the semifinals spawned vital members of the 2002 World Cup team, including Landon Donovan. Failure to qualify for the 2004 Games is regarded as a setback U.S. Soccer doesn't wish to repeat.

Peter Nowak regards the Olympics as vital, and not solely because he's head coach of the U.S. U-23 team that opened preparations in December with a 10-day training camp and two games in China. He was a young boy growing up in Poland when that nation achieved its greatest success in soccer at an Olympic Games marred by the killing of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists.

Nowak, born in 1964, in Pabianice, Poland, aspired to follow in the footsteps of a glorious generation of Polish players, who were united by years of playing in the domestic league and shrewdly harnessed by head coach Kazimierz Gorski. Poland took the gold medal at the 1972 Olympics and finished third at the 1974 World Cup after a narrow 1-0 loss to host West Germany knocked out of contention for a berth in the final.

"For them, competing against the best in the world was natural stuff," says Nowak, who would eventually play 24 times for Poland. "They had the inner confidence, they knew they had been playing together for five or six years, and they believed no one could beat them. In 1972, they beat Hungary in the final, and Hungary had their greatest team since the 1954 World Cup, when they lost to Germany in the final.

"As soon as this happened, they began to believe they can compete with Germany, with Italy, with Argentina. No problem. Piece of cake. The football part, nobody can figure it out, how to beat them.

Kaz Deyna, Grzegorz Lato, Jerzy Gorgon and Robert Gadocha led a fluid yet resilient Polish team to the gold medal. Other stars like Jan Tomaczewski and Henryk Kasperczak joined the World Cup squad and Poland nearly pulled off another shock triumph. On a drenched field in Frankfurt puddled by standing water that slowed down the energetic Poles, the West Germans prevailed in the final game of their second-round group.

"I remember watching the games on television," he recalls. "All of the country was watching, I think. There was a pretty big surprise at how they came together. The coach who managed that team in '72 and '74, he was an old-school guy, like a father to them. He had the good side but he could also be a very tough man. But they knew, all of them, what they can expect from him."

After a 10-day training camp at Home Depot Center and a pair of games against the Chinese U-23 team, the U.S. players know quite well what they can expect from Nowak. There's a lot of the old school in him. He's blunt, tough, honest. His harsh approach won a title in his rookie season (2004) with D.C. United, yet his harsh approach rankled some people, including a 15-year-old named Freddy Adu and his devotees.

Like U.S. head coach Bob Bradley, who coached Nowak with the Chicago Fire at the tail end of Nowak's playing career, Nowak can scale evangelical heights when preaching teamwork and chemistry. They have to. What they are trying to instill in American players is a drive and commitment that is second nature to their foreign counterparts, who have lived and breathed the game and fought each day for contracts and starting slots.

"He's just really good at communicating with players," says midfielder Sacha Kljestan, who played for Bradley in 2006 at Chivas USA and was named by Nowak as team captain for the trip to China. "He was a midfielder but he can talk to defenders and forwards as well. He's bringing a good understanding of what our soccer needs to look like in order to be champions of something.

"He's got it figured out. He did real well with D.C. United and he's learned from Bob. They have a good understanding and they try to teach us what it has to be like for the U.S. to be successful at any level."

DUELS WITH DAD. Players may be playing to the crowd and the cameras when they kiss the club badge on their jerseys, but just about every one will tell you pulling on the national team shirt is different. Nowak knows he can't replicate his own experiences, but he can borrow from them.

His father tested him every week, challenging him 1-v-1 and constantly badgering him to get better, to be stronger, to win every duel. As he ascended up the ladder of the soccer hierarchy in his native town of Pabianice, Poland, the rigors of daily training took on a familiar feel.

"In the club team, you got a lot of pressure from these older guys to get better," recalls Nowak, who played with four Polish clubs before moving on to Turkey and Germany. During a season with Widzew Lodz, he played with several members of the 1982 and 1986 World Cup teams.

"Every practice, every drill, every possible scenario, even in the hotel, how you act, how you behave, you had a lot of words coming to your face. They know the young players are the future of the team, and they know the commitment it will take."

In the 1970s, Polish players -- like those in many Eastern European countries - were forbidden to join clubs abroad, or were restricted from doing so until they reached a certain age. For the most part, they played in the Polish league, and for major competitions, the clubs would release them months in advance. How the times have changed!

"The old days were different," says Nowak. "You had a camp for three months, four months, five months, whatever the coach wants. The country gave the national team coach the full support so he can manage these players for a long time."

Nowak had just two of his European-based players for the December camp and trip to China: forwards Charlie Davies, who plays in Sweden for Hammarby IF, and Sal Zizzo, who signed with German club Hannover following the FIFA U-20 World Cup. Davies will stick around through January; the U-23s will train in Bradenton, Fla., and the national team is scheduled for two weeks at Home Depot Center leading up to a friendly against Sweden Jan. 19. But Zizzo, who sat out both games in China with a high ankle sprain, will be back in Germany.

Like Bradley, again, Nowak is juggling his needs with those of players in Europe, some of whom are scraping for a few minutes with the first team. The sword cuts both ways: a player appearing regularly is too valuable to release, and guys on the fringe don't want to rock the boat and wreck their slim chances to get into the team.

Looking ahead to the CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers in March, Nowak knows the coaches know that as per FIFA decree, the clubs are obligated to release players, since the tournament is part of an official FIFA competition.

The reality is starkly different for Freddy Adu (Benfica), Michael Bradley (Heerenveen), Jonathan Spector (West Ham United), Benny Feilhaber (Derby), Lee Nguyen (PSV Eindhoven), Danny Szetela (Racing Santander) and Preston Zimmerman, who just signed a first-team, professional contract with German club Hamburg after playing a year in the reserves.

"There's a lot of good players in this age group, playing in MLS and overseas," says Real Salt Lake second-year player Nathan Sturgis, one of numerous players to step up from the U-20 team. "Once all the players come in, it's going to be tough to make that final roster. There's a lot of competition for positions; we already have a lot of talented players in the pool, so I think the competition will also make the team even better."

Nowak's cachet as a player - he scored three goals in 24 appearances with the Polish national team, and played in Germany (1860 Munich, Kaiserslautern, Dynamo Dresden), Switzerland (Young Boys Berne) and Turkey (Bakirkoyspor) - has helped him negotiate with the managers of foreign teams. Somewhat.

"I talked to the Hannover manager, Christian Hochstetter, who I know from the playing time, the old days," says Nowak. "He understands that we need to have a look at Sal, and we know it will be difficult for the club to release Sal during the January camp because it is a very important time for him. We come to the agreement that it is good for him to be with us now, and they will keep him in January with the first team."

CHINESE LESSONS. In 10 days of training at HDC, Nowak worked on the minds of his players as well as their bodies. They began the China tour with a 0-0 tie, and in the second game blitzed to a 3-0 lead before a slew of halftime subs enabled the host to rally with three goals of its own.

Nowak's English isn't flawless. Every now and then a sentence doesn't escape a twist or two. Still his themes couldn't be clearer.

"Mostly I was very pleased with the mentality and the work we did, with their work ethic and also the learning process," says Nowak, who used all of his available players except back up keeper Zak MacMath, called up from the U-17s. "We discuss a couple of issues after the first game and the first half of the second game was big progress.

"But you don't play only first half, you have to play second half, and that's what we need to work on in January, to have depth in the players and for them to understand that the game is 90 minutes and it's going to be very hard."

Subject matter during sessions on the training fields and in the locker rooms ranged far beyond positioning, tactics, and systems of play. Nowak thinks a lot of American players are too lazy or nonchalant about their careers in general and won't tolerate any such shortcomings in those who play for the United States.

In the popular parlance, he can be a real hardass.

"I have a feeling that some of our players that they would rather have the easy life than have stress and pressure and all this stuff," says Nowak, without naming names. "Being young and hungry for success is one thing; being hungry for media attention is a second thing.

"I told them in the first meeting, they are the future of U.S. Soccer. From now to the next 10 years, they will play most of the games for U.S. national team. They have to understand, it's not just coming and going. There is some kind of responsibility to be in this program, and they have to take this responsibility.

"This is not like MLS, you sign with a club, you have a contract, and you have to fulfill it. Here you are not signed to anything, it is your decision, you've got to make it or not. Our job as coaches is to help you, to evaluate you, to give you information, and give you the feedback, for you to be successful, not only as an individual, but as a team."

(This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)



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