Firing managers is commonplace in soccer. The quickest fix to a sinking ship or ship floating adrift at sea is relieving the head coach of his command. Maybe its my usual nature to be one of the last to join any coach firing fan contingent, but I feel Hackworth earned at least one more offseason in charge. For as much as I find disagreeable about Hack's managing decisions, I don't believe a Mike Petke or Caleb Porter (two managers who were hired last offseason) takes this team much further teetering on either side of the playoff line.
The most common motivation for firing a manager is if he loses the locker room. That's not the case in Chester. Except when playing for the U.S. Open Cup, the Union's young and old were an irrepressible bunch, fighting tooth and nail to find extra goals at the end of matches or prevent them from occurring. If the Union failed to score or let in a backbreaking goal like Saturday afternoon against Sporting KC, it was usually because of their own talent deficiencies. In the media the players have expressed nothing but one hundred percent backing of Hackworth, even when the team suffered through win-less streaks or when enigmatic midfielder Freddy Adu was exiled from the team. It stands to reason that a large part of Hack's locker room popularity lies in the fact that his Polish predecessor was such an erratic and arrogant gentleman, and Hackworth backs his players in press conferences even to the detriment of his public image.
Working with a limited budget thanks to dead money from buyouts and transfer fees occupying nearly a third of the team's salary cap, Hackworth kept his 2012 offseason transactions stateside and made a few moves (Casey, Le Toux, Parke) that all generated positive results. The Union were left without a first round pick thanks to the failed Bakary Soumare deal, so the Union spent a couple round picks on left backs Don Anding and Stephen Okai. Okai was a bust, but missing out on second round picks (especially in the age of MLS academies) isn't much to fuss over when nearly most of the players don't contribute at all or play in the reserve leagues during their rookie year. Don Anding spent most of the season on loan in Harrisburg, and figures to be part of the Union's 2014 roster.
As soon as the season started, Hackworth's biggest priority was draining the roster of its poisonous contracts created by his Polish predecessor. After reportedly refusing to play Adu and asking him to take a 75% pay cut to stay on the team, Hackworth managed to successfully move Adu's bloated contract to Bahia, but on the condition that the team take Jose Kleberson on loan. While Kleberson is arguably the most decorated veteran on the roster, he's a defensive midfielder, not a box-to-box one (at least at his salary). Going forward I don't think he's the answer for this ailing midfield. In the final month when he played in the central midfield in place of the oft-criticized Keon Daniel, the Union offense still failed to generate good chances in open play. However, there's no question that when he arrived here and after he recovered from a June injury suffered in Toronto that he should've played more.
Next, Hackworth took advantage of the chaos to trade Gabriel Farfan for what-is-now the second pick of the 2014 MLS Superdraft, and then moved Bakary Soumare to Chicago to effectively unload part of his 2013 salary and his entire 2014 salary. Farfan and Soumare both desired more playing time than they were even going to earn this season, and both moves allowed the Union to sign Oka Nikolov, Fabinho, and Gilberto Souza during the summer. While Souza's impact is yet to be known (Hack stated immediately that he wasn't going to feature prominently this season), Nikolov's arrival brought about an immediate step up in Zac MacMath's goalkeeping, and Fabinho brought about mixed results as a speedy winger/wingback on the left side.
Hack's moves have been a moderate success considering his limited budget. However, this winter the Union cap situation will finally clear up, and it'll be time for Hackworth and the front office to prove to fans that they don't have a barrel of money stashed in a dark warehouse next to the Ark of the Covenant. Ricardo Ansaldi has to prove he hasn't spent this year just sipping mates and help this club a potential starting box-to-box central midfielder, left winger, and left back.
The box-to-box midfielder is the most crucial purchase because that'll help this team play a more attractive brand of soccer, another critique many fans have also laid at the feet of Hackworth. The lack of pure, reliable creative midfielders on the roster this season was probably limited to Michael Farfan and Roger Torres.
Farfan had some good moments here and there when he wasn't being played out of position on the wing, though I'd much rather see him come off the bench in the future if he's going to be on the team. Earlier in the season I wrote a fanpost about why I didn't rate Torres nearly as high as most of the fanbase. While most fans see him as the club's most exciting player (and admittedly, the source of my favorite Union goal ever), I see a 140-pound midfielder who's not very quick, gets knocked off the ball too often, and has never played well during a match for more than 30 minutes at a time. In addition, Torres has a tendency to hold the ball in place before delivering a long ball; that element goes against Hack's desire to keep the ball moving. Unless the team needs to a central midfielder to help the team push hard for a goal, I don't see any reason to bring Torres on the field.
It's true the Union has played ugly, unwatchable soccer during much of this season. Part of that has to do with Hack's conservative brand of soccer that relied on goals from counterattacks and set pieces. However, I believe the dearth of talent is the biggest reason the team can look so bad at times. Everyone wishes their team could play like Arsenal or Borussia Dortmund, but a team needs the appropriate players like Mesut Ozil and Marco Reus to execute that playing style. Besides, Jose Mourinho's Chelsea and Real Madrid teams were and have been ultra-conservative at times, but dynamic players like Ronaldo and Juan Mata are able to dazzle and leave fans wanting more. There are creative talents like Dillon Powers stateside and Diego Valeri abroad that can play hard-nosed, physical soccer and exploit holes in opposing defenses regularly. It's up to the front office and scouting unit to find and convince these players to play in Chester.
We knew coming into this season that it would be a rebuilding year. The team had a preseason goal of making the playoffs, but that's merely a bar hanging in the door frame to jump and touch because this team isn't ready for the big time. Perhaps it's this club already entering its 2nd rebuilding phase that has fans frustrated, but that's the price this club pays for letting Polish di Canio run amok on this roster at the beginning of 2012. Perhaps it's the fact that the sports gods have put HARD TIMES on the fans of every team in the Philly metropolis. Perhaps it's the dark doubt of what this ownership is willing to do in order to create a winner. Like it or not, the Union are a small market club. They can't spend dollar for dollar with the Red Bulls, Galaxy, or Seattle Sounders, so they must use methods to acquire quality talent at a sustainable price. Building their own academy high school is a good step in that direction, just as long as the purpose of said high school is to develop them for the senior Union squad or sell them to bigger clubs a la Ajax Amsterdam (and not to build an all-local Union team. Good grief, Nick Sakiewicz.). Such a high priced commitment shows some desire to want to build a future contender.
John Hackworth is a player development coach, and his impact on this roster has been felt on young talents like McInerney, Okugo, MacMath, Hoppenot, and Raymon Gaddis. The problem with development-oriented managers is that there comes a time when the development is less needed and the tactical mind is required to take the team further. That time may come as early as next summer, next November, or maybe not even anytime soon.. Free from the shackles of cap inflexibility, Hackworth has earned a right to find and buy the players that will turn this team into a contender. Next season both local and national eyes will see Hack truly being in a hot seat situation for the first time, and it'll be up to him to prove he can take this club to the next level.