Union, TFC in action with new coaches
Something had to give in Philadelphia, and in the end it was Peter Nowak.
The fiery head coach helped build the young franchise into a promising club with loads of talent. However in year three, with expectations set high, Nowak set about dismantling the team he had built and saw the fan base that once adored him start to turn.
The trading away of fan favorites isn’t what ultimately cost Nowak his job on Wednesday though. No, what finally pushed the Union to part ways with the only coach they have ever known was finding out that same coach had been looking around at other jobs.
Nobody will say it publicly, but sources have told Fox Soccer that one of the reasons for the decision to part ways with Nowak was the team’s confirmation that he had applied for the managerial vacancy with Scottish club Hearts. This is a claim Nowak denied vehemently to local Philadelphia media.
If true, such a betrayal seems to make no sense for a coach who spent so much time talking about the vision of the future of the club, and how the Union would be different than other teams because they would focus on long-term stability rather than quick fixes.
That belief and philosophy seemed to be in place when Nowak signed a contract extension a year ago, and it appeared intact as the Union turned down trade offers for their best young talent, even those who have yet to become regular starters.
Something changed. Whether it was Nowak growing impatient or disenchanted with the plan he originally set out to accomplish, or whether he simply began feeling the allure of coaching overseas, something apparently led him to make a play for another job.
Nowak’s link to the Hearts job only served to magnify the uncertainty about moves that he has made this year. There were three high-profile trades of Sebastien LeToux for allocation money, Dan Califf for more allocation money and Michael Lahoud, and Danny Mwanga, the club’s first draft pick, for Jorge Perlaza.
One by one, those trades served to push Philadelphia’s fans against Nowak. LeToux was the team’s best player who cultivated strong ties with the fan base. Califf was another fan favorite, while Mwanga was seen as a young star being held back by Nowak’s tempestuous coaching style.
All three were traded away, shipped off to West Coast destinations as if to get them as far away from Nowak as possible. The club stood by those decisions even as fan unhappiness continued to grow, and as the Union underachieved on the field.
After a while though, questions began to be asked by ownership amid the trades and fan unrest. Even that might not have been enough to see Nowak sent away, but the news that he was pursuing other opportunities proved to be the final straw.
Where does that leave the Union now? Not as badly off as you might think. The club does have a strong nucleus of young talent and, of the deals the team made, it can be argued that only the LeToux trade really set them back considerably. Califf is no longer an elite-level centerback and there are major question marks about whether Mwanga will ever come close to the expectations he entered the league with (not to mention the fact his salary next season will be in the Designated Player range).
What the Union have is quality young midfield talent and the pieces to field an athletic and above average defense. The task for interim head coach John Hackworth will be to rebuild the confidence in some of the players who might have been struggling under Nowak’s abrasive coaching style, while finding the right combination in midfield and at forward to help an offense that has struggled all season.
Key to that turnaround will be Freddy Adu, the high-priced playmaker who has looked good in recent weeks and will be needed to lead the attack. If Adu can keep playing as well as he has over the past month, and if newly-acquired forward Jorge Perlaza can form a good partnership with fellow Colombian Lionard Pajoy, the Union could turn things around.
Not without help though. One thing Nowak’s wheeling and dealing did was leave the club with a healthy pile of allocation money the team can use to bring in players during the summer. At the top of general manager Diego Gutierrez’s shopping list will be a centerback and a forward. If the Union can add a quality player at each of those positions, they have enough talent on their team to make a playoff push.
Philadelphia will have to wait for those reinforcements. For now, Hackworth will have to take the roster Nowak assembled, and try to help the Union climb out of the lower end of the East standings. He will have the support of an ownership group ready to give him a chance to prove himself, and he will have the support of a fan base that will love him for one simple fact: he isn’t Peter Nowak.
Here is a look at this weekend’s Top Five MLS Matches to Watch:
1- PHILADELPHIA UNION vs. DC UNITED
The post-Nowak era begins on Saturday, as the Union look to knock off first-place DC United just two weeks after eliminating them from the US Open Cup. DC will try to keep their league form rolling and the extended break should give Ben Olsen the chance to trot out a first-choice side.
The Freddy Adu-Perry Kitchen battle will be a fun one to watch, but the key for the Union will be containing Dwayne DeRosario. If Brian Carroll or Gabriel Gomez can’t keep tabs on the dangerous Canadian, it will be a long night for the Union.
2- MONTREAL IMPACT vs. SEATTLE SOUNDERS
The Impact are enjoying a good moment, having recently signed Marco Di Vaio, and now the team will unveil their new stadium, Stade Saputo, on Saturday. The Sounders have been struggling in MLS play, but a pair of blowout wins in US Open Cup play could help give Sigi Schmid’s club some sorely-needed momentum.
That said, it will be tough to go up against the added motivation that a sell-out crowd at a stadium opening should provide the Impact. Montreal won’t have Di Vaio yet, and Bernardo Corradi will be the key to breaking down a Sounders defense that has shown some vulnerability.
3- HOUSTON DYNAMO vs. FC DALLAS
It has been an awful year for FC Dallas, and you could argue that the Hoops’ season is pretty much over. But, if Schellas Hyndman still harbors hope of a dramatic turnaround it has to start on Saturday at a sold-out BBVA Compass Stadium against a Houston side that is unbeaten (2-0-1) at their new home.
Having Geoff Cameron and Andre Hainault back will help Houston get their defense back in order, and Dom Kinnear will need both to stop Panamanian forward Blas Perez, who is coming off some outstanding performances in World Cup qualifying.
4- NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION vs. COLUMBUS CREW
Two Eastern teams that have enjoyed some surprising early-season form face off at Gillette Stadium as the Revs put their 4-1-1 home record on the line against a Crew side unbeaten in five.
The Crew have been riding some tough defense and offensive contributions from Emilio Renteria to move into playoff range, but they will face a stiff challenge from a Revs side that would be unbeaten at home if not for a late DC United comeback in March. Saer Sene has been a handful all season, while Benny Feilhaber is coming off his best game of the season.
5- SPORTING KANSAS CITY vs. TORONTO FC
Yes, this sure looks like a mismatch and not a Top Five caliber clash, but this match will mark the beginning of the Paul Mariner era for Toronto, and could show us just what sort of difference the former England international will make on a team that Aron Winter skippered to a 1-9 start.
For Sporting KC, the match offers Peter Vermes’ team a chance to get closer to the Eastern Conference lead they held for the first two months of the season. Teal Bunbury will look to build on his two-goal effort before the break, while the KC defense tries to get back to its stingy ways without standout centerback Matt Besler, who has been sidelined after undergoing an emergency appendectomy.