CHESTER PA - JULY 17: Coach Peter Nowak of the Philadelphia Union jumps into the arms of Sebastien Le Toux #9 after he scored the game winning goal against Toronto FC at PPL Park on July 17 2010 in Chester Pennsylvania. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
Earlier on this site, Scott Kessler called the firing of Peter Nowak "what may be the biggest news in the franchise's short history." I don't think he's wrong. It's remarkable news for the impact it has on the franchise, and under different circumstances, firing the only manager a team has ever known a third of the way into the season following a playoff appearance might seem hasty. But with the Union and Nowak, the puzzling few months that led up to this moment seem like an eternity.
A midseason firing is pretty rare in and of itself in these parts. It's been almost three years since the Flyers cashiered John Stevens 25 games into the 2009-10 season, but that was different. Stevens always kind of felt like the bridge between Ken Hitchcock and whoever would come next, and within weeks of his departure, the Flyers were very much Peter Laviolette's team.
Not so with Nowak and the Union. Peter Nowak is the Union, for better or worse. Nowak built this team from nothing and burned it to the ground. The franchise might feel familial and engender strong feelings of ownership in the community, but from a soccer operations perspective, it is utterly Nowakian.
Which is a serious problem.
Whenever fans call for a coach's head, the first question that needs to be asked is "Who can be brought in and do a better job." As an Arsenal fan who's been eternally frustrated by Arsene Wenger, this refrain rings constantly in my head. In the Union's case, the answer is that Nowak's former sidekick, John Hackworth, is the man for the job.
I like Hackworth. He seems like a competent enough coach, and he's already taken charge of in-game tactics and substitutions on numerous occasions, dating back to the Union's first-ever home game, which Nowak watched from the press box after the death of Polish president Lech Kaczynski. Hackworth was going to get his own MLS team at some point, and given the existence of a qualified in-house successor, the Union are probably better off going with Hackworth than than trying to fish around for a replacement.
Going back to the 2009 Flyers analogy, the in-season firing of Stevens worked because not because Stevens was the problem but because Peter Laviolette was the solution. Laviolette had turned around the New York Islanders, coached the United States in the Olympics, and won a Stanley Cup with Carolina before coming to the Flyers. I don't, however, think that a Laviolette exists for the Union.
The problem with Hackworth, however, is that he's just as Nowakian as the team itself. If Nowak was the problem, how much change are you going to get by replacing him with his top assistant?
I'm reminded of that incredible scene in Star Trek: The Next Generation (bear with me, I'm going somewhere with this, I promise) in which Commander Riker, in command of the Enterprise after Captain Picard's capture and assimilation by the Borg, discusses his predicament with Guinan. Riker complains that he can't defeat Picard, because "he wrote the book on this ship."
Guinan responds: "If the Borg know everything he knows, it's time to throw that book away. You must let him go, Riker. It's the only way to beat him. The only way to save him."
Hackworth is the Riker to Nowak's Picard. If the Union are going to undergo some sort of fundamental change in philosophy, considering that Nowak wrote the book on this team, Hackworth is going to have to divorce himself from his former boss's way of doing things, and quickly.
Unless the firing isn't a statement about Nowak the manager, but Nowak the man. Which could prove to be a much more troubling prospect.
Nowak famously clashed with Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Califf before shipping them to the West Coast, and reportedly had issues with Danny Mwanga before the former No. 1 draft pick followed his teammates to the Pacific. Nowak very publicly and very messily forced Le Toux and Califf out of town, despite both of their protestations to say. Maybe if Hackworth is in the driver's seat, the team's stars are happier, and the next time a critical player has a personal issue, it gets resolved without any of the public unpleasantness that plagued the Union's previous high-profile transactions.
Here's the problem with that line of logic. I'm far from the first person to say this, but if those moves were the result of a personality clash between Nowak and three of the most important and recognizable players on the team, then why let Nowak force them out of town, then axe him anyway? Why let Nowak work one of the most engaged and emotional fan bases in North American sports into a parricidal froth, then let him go after he'd already gutted the team?
The most plausible explanation for that would be that Union management was on board with jettisoning an expensive trio of Le Toux, Califf, and Mwanga for a less-expensive Michael Lahoud and Jorge Perlaza and a mountain of theoretical allocation money. It's possible that Nowak's firing and the removal of Le Toux, Califf, and Mwanga from the team are mostly unrelated, and the Union is so broke they can't afford to pay even middling salaries. The Union, in addition to being one of the worst teams in the league this year, might be even less healthy financially.
So there we are. Nowak had worn out his welcome with the fans, and given his puzzling personnel moves over the past few months, probably deserved the ax. I have faith in Hackworth, who deserves a chance to prove himself.
But here's the thing: the Union need a plan, now more than ever. The stakes have never been higher, both on the field and from an organizational perspective. If Nowak isn't the man to lead the Union to success, that's fine. But if that's the case, and this organization is still built in his image, the time for half-measures and following the path of least resistance has passed. Someone in that building needs to take control and reassure everyone that the folks running the Union know what they're doing. Maybe Nowak had run out of ideas and social capital, and Hackworth can juggle the lineup, make a smart trade or two, and salvage a respectable league finish. In which case, history will vindicate Nick Sakiewicz.
But if there's no money and no coherent long-term plan, we're going to be shocked by how much farther this franchise can fall.
How do you feel about the state of the Philadelphia Union in the wake of Peter Nowak's firing?
Better (81 votes)
Worse (7 votes)
About the same (24 votes)
Who knows? We'll have to wait and see. (58 votes)
170 total votes