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Season review: Peter Nowak

In Clint Eastwood’s westerns, a hardboiled, no-nonsense gunslinger would often arrive in a town bereft of leaders and solve seemingly intractable problems with a combination of terse words, deceptively complex strategies, and a clear-eyed sense of right and wrong. Eastwood never stayed long, pausing on his journey long enough to point the town in a good direction before continuing on his way.

Peter Nowak’s career is that of a gunslinger. As a player, he was a dominant midfield presence. After years of success in Poland, where he started playing professionally as a 15-year-old, Nowak moved to Germany. He won the Playmaker of the Year award in the Bundesliga playing for 1860 Munich in 1995-96 before moving to MLS to play for the expansion Chicago Fire. The five years he spent in Chicago were the longest Nowak would stay in one place. He led the Fire to an MLS Championship in their inaugural season and remained a central influence in the Fire’s midfield until he was traded to New England in January 2003. Nowak was named to the MLS All-time Best XI in 2005.

A month after being traded, Nowak retired. His coaching career began less than a year later when DC United named him head coach prior to the 2004 season. Inheriting a team that had not finished better than fourth in four years, Nowak became legend by leading the team to the MLS Cup. What was Nowak’s response to the win?

“I got my trophy back.”

It is a quote that says everything about why Peter Nowak was seen as an inspired choice to lead the Philadelphia Union. Soccer is not often seen as an American sport, but MLS – for all its flaws – is America’s version. Steeped as it is in American history, Philadelphia needed a manager who considered the MLS his sport and the MLS Cup his championship.

Nowak’s appointment also signaled that the Union intended to win now. Along with a history of success, Peter Nowak exhibits a history of short stays and a daredevil’s burning need for new challenges. Nowak is passionate about his team and his players, but don’t expect to see a “Jungite aut Perite” tattoo on his bicep any time soon.

“We are one with our supporters.”

Union fans, however, can be forgiven for getting Peter Nowak tattoos. His importance to the franchise is underlined by the total power he wields. Final word on all player-related and tactical decisions rests with the Polish manager — for better or for worse. At the Union’s 2009 expansion draft, Nowak said of his picks, “They’re going to provide some leadership from the beginning. We chose the players that fit the characteristics of this city and the region.”

Preseason

“Each player we selected has something we want and need to help create the kind of club that will play and fight every time out for 90 minutes.”

Of the ten players chosen in the expansion draft, six remain on the Philadelphia roster. More tellingly, only two were protected from Portland and Vancouver during the 2010 expansion draft. From this perspective, it might seem as though Nowak’s first personnel decisions were poor ones. But another way of describing the expansion draft would be to say that five of the draftees were regular starters in 2010, while Andrew Jacobson, Nick Zimmerman, and Shea Salinas also made significant contributions. Through this lens it would appear that the expansion draft was a success, but finding regular starters that miss the playoffs complicates this answer further.

However, if the Union’s expansion draft is going on the scales, Nowak could have picked eight more David Myries and still come out positive thanks to Sebastien Le Toux, who will probably go down as the best expansion pick ever.

Nowak’s other preseason moves are also hot and cold. The Union brought in Danny Califf to be a rock in the middle of the defense and to captain a young team. In the MLS SuperDraft, Nowak acquired budding star Danny Mwanga, U.S. U-20 national team studs Amobi Okugo and Jack McInerney, and free kick specialist Kyle Nakazawa. There is a good chance these selections will make everyone forget that the Union also drafted Toni Stahl one spot before recent USMNT call-up Tim Ream.

The move that brought Nowak the most criticism was initially seen as a coup. In need of a starting goalie, the Union traded for Real Salt Lake back-up Chris Seitz. The 23-year-old Seitz was a standout in college and perpetually seen as being on the verge of breaking into the national team picture. Nowak believed that reuniting Seitz with Rob Vartughian, his goalkeeping coach at Maryland, would help the young goalie turn the corner to stardom. Nowak’s treatment of Seitz would turn out to be the most controversial storyline of Philadelphia’s inaugural season.

Regular Season

“Creating a great environment for players to learn and practice playing the game the right way was from the start and remains our goal, first and foremost.”

The above quote was Nowak’s response when asked if the Union had a chance to with the MLS Cup in 2010. Nowak has been a very successful player and manager, but he maintains that achievement is an outcome rather than a goal. The goals are much more focused: Learn the system, perfect the fundamentals, and never, ever give less than everything you’ve got for as long as you’ve got it.

But in the opening match of the 2010 season, the Union failed on all three levels. The team had trouble controlling possession, and first touch seemed like more of a theory than a practice. First overall draft pick Danny Mwanga wandered around in a central midfield role that seemed to involve staying as uninvolved as possible while defender Michael Orozco was equally lost as a defensive midfielder. Whether the Union was even playing a system is a question that would have been debated endlessly if it hadn’t been made moot by Toni Stahl’s 40th minute red card.

It was a harsh red and effectively ended Stahl’s season, as a combination of being in Nowak’s doghouse and a nagging knee injury kept the second rounder out of the lineup. The Union looked so bad that a Seattle reporter asked Sebastien Le Toux whether he thought striker was the right position for him. Nowak avoided any tactical discussion after the match, blaming the second goal on Stahl’s absence and decrying Freddie Ljungberg’s flopping and whining.

“I believe when you play the game you not only try to win but try to be honest with your effort. I think it is below his standards.”

With two weeks between the Seattle game and the Union’s home debut against DC United, Nowak had to assess the damage. It is difficult to identify a team’s root problem when they spend so much time down a man. Nowak jettisoned human dime store mannequin David Myrie in an effort to fix the defense, with USL star Cristian Arrieta brought in to play right back. The starting eleven were reshuffled into a more traditional 4-4-2, although Nowak introduced what would become the hallmark of the Union system: Narrow wingers.

The Big Rethink

The team that emerged onto Lincoln Financial Field for the second match of the year was very similar in both personnel and style to the team that Union fans would come to know. Jordan Harvey was locked in at left back. Danny Califf and Michael Orozco (not yet -Fiscal) were in the middle and Arrieta was the newest rider of the merry-go-round at right back. Fred and Andrew Jacobson played out of position as wide midfielders with stalwart Stefani Miglioranzi and teenage distributor Roger Torres in the center of the park. Alejandro Moreno and Sebastian Le Toux were up front and would remain Nowak’s first choice pairing for most of the season.

The decision to simplify the shape of the team reaped immediate benefits. In the fourth minute, with many fans still outside the stadium protecting their junk from Vice President Joe Biden’s security, Sebastian Le Toux headed a Roger Torres cross into the left corner of the net, turning a city of cynics into a scene fit for a carnival. Le Toux finished with a hat trick, showing the work rate and finishing that should have earned him the league’s MVP award.

Chris Seitz also showed the form he would carry throughout the season. He struggled to deal with a Santino Quaranta drive on the first DC goal and looked like he was devoid of confidence when he gifted the second to Jaime Moreno (although it shouldn’t have counted).

Nowak was not on the sidelines for the DC win out of respect for the victims of the Polish TU-154 crash.

The Goalie Conundrum

“This is not American football where you have three, four quarterbacks and you change them. The confidence in the goalkeeper must be there.”

Chris Seitz’s early season performances seemed to worry everyone except Nowak. After struggling against DC, ask if Seitz was all hype. Nowak leapt to the young goalie’s defense. It fits Nowak’s character to treat glaring mistakes as minor lapses in confidence, and thus less reprehensible than failing to understand your role on the field or playing outside of the system. But as the season wore on, it became clear that Seitz’s lack of confidence was less fleeting and more fundamental than Nowak wanted to believe. The difficulty handling free kicks in Toronto begot trouble handling crosses and corners, which begot difficulty with punches and positioning.

Meanwhile, the Union were the only team in MLS without a clean sheet, and as August rolled around the playoffs were looking like a pipe dream while Brad Knighton warmed the bench. When he finally got a start, Knighton did himself no favors by earning a red card in the first half against Dallas. Seitz came in cold and had one of his better games of the season, sending Knighton back to the pine until a memorable mistake gave the former Revolution backup another shot.

The mistake came against Kansas City on September 4th. With the Union up 1-0, Davy Arnaud floated a free kick into the box that drifted, cloud-like, over Seitz’s head and into the net. The look on his face as the ball wobbled over him says everything about Seitz’s confidence at that point in the season. Nowak was forced to insert Knighton against Chicago, and his reward was a 1-0 victory and the Union’s first clean sheet of the year.

Stubbornly Consistent or Consistently Stubborn?

Great coaches toe the line between consistency and stubbornness all the time. A good manager is known as such because he can devise a system that works, and he can motivate players to learn and adapt to the system. It’s a lot to ask of a single person. Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was taped saying that Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat was worth its price in gold, “and I’m not just giving it up for (expletive) nothing.” Yet the prosecution couldn’t convince 12 people that Blagojevich was guilty of selling the senate seat. From this perspective, convincing a team of athletes to play your way seems a daunting task indeed.

It’s strange to say, but for a manager who stresses teamwork and group success, Nowak’s most enduring contribution during Philadelphia’s first season might be the growth of individual players. I publicly criticized Nowak in August for stunting the growth of the Union’s young talent by keeping them on the fringes of the squad as the team faded from playoff contention. To an extent, I still feel like I was right. Experimenting with a new tactical system might have been the shakeup that the Union needed to make a playoff run. But that line between consistency and stubbornness is so thin.

Nowak stuck with his 4-2-2-2, and players like Le Toux, Mwanga and Sheanon Williams emerged as stars. Jack McInerney seemed to understand his role as an energy striker and Michael Orozco-Fiscal rescued his season from the depths of Shavar Thomas Land to emerge as a quality central defender. The consistency with which these players played in Nowak’s system contributed to their swift development.

On the other side of that coin are the moves that seem little more than stubborn. The depth chart at center midfield is deep and talented. Talented at playing center midfield, that is. Fred, Andrew Jacobsen and Roger Torres logged big minutes on the wings, and as a result the Union’s wingspan was comparable to a very small bird. Perhaps a wren. This is not to say that having narrow wingers is essentially a bad idea, but it is a system that excels with offensive-minded outside backs. Jordan Harvey, Cristian Arrieta, David Myrie, and Michael Orozco-Fiscal had ups and down this year, but they rarely spent time up the pitch. Why did Nowak insist on this system? If Le Toux was less than magical, the Union’s offense often produced less than a goal. For all the pretty passing strung together in the midfield, there was no outlet; nowhere to go.

It is incredible that over the course of an eight month season, Philadelphia put together a winning streak exactly zero times. Even with Knighton in goal and Sheanon Williams shoring up the defense, the Union could not put together back-to-back wins. This lends credence to the theory that for all Peter Nowak’s insistence on consistency, he was never able to get that type of performance from his team. The veterans played like good players past their prime. The rookies played with energy and ambition but their lack of experience was obvious.

I Am The State Team

Peter Nowak’s biggest strength is his self-belief. Gunslinger managers need to maintain a certain level of obliviousness in order to believe that they can walk into myriad situations and succeed. Nowak has self-believe in spades, and it is one of those character traits that has an emotional resonance that others pick up on. As the unexplainable mistakes piled up for the Union, there was never rumor of locker room dissent. As on every team, there was plenty of dissent under the surface. But even as the team faltered in the summer months they stuck together. Amobi Okugo seemed nailed to the bench at times, with Miglioranzi, Coudet, Nakazawa and Jacobson above him in the pecking order. That’s a difficult situation to come to terms with for a teenage prodigy who just spent the year dominating the Pac-10. Danny Mwanga spent most of the early season without his name on a team sheet. Even though Moreno rarely scored, Mwanga remained professional. Played out of position all year and struggling under scrutiny and the scorn of some PSP writers, Fred was positive and showed a level of leadership beyond what could have been asked of him.

The positive outcomes of these situations are attributable to Peter Nowak’s leadership. But the mixed bag of results on the field are worrying. Many individuals grew as players during 2010, but the team failed to grow into a cohesive unit. While there is no crisis in Philadelphia, remember that Nowak has never remained in one place for very long. If the team doesn’t take big strides forward next season, the window of success under Peter Nowak could be quite short.

Offseason

It has been an eventful offseason thus far. Shea Salinas and Alejandro Moreno are gone, with Salinas saying that Nowak told him he would be protected. Brian Carroll was brought in from Columbus, creating ludicrous levels of depth at the defensive midfield spot. The Union have yet to make a move for a goalie or a striker although they have been linked with Köln’s Faryd Mondragon, the oldest player in the Bundesliga.

Peter Nowak is a rare breed of manager. Most fall into one of two categories: The player’s manager or the cold tactician. Nowak appears to be neither. He demands that the players be manager’s players, and he is capable of swiftly shutting out anybody he deems unfit for his plans. Yet he treated Chris Seitz with stunning patience, rode a goal-shy striker in Moreno, and retained Miglioranzi in the side even as the team’s midfield begged for creativity. These are decisions designed to make the team and the fans believe that a bigger plan is in place and that each setback is more or less an expected bump in the road. Whether Nowak’s approach will bear fruit before the critics become vocal is the question for next season. Nowak’s track record suggests he will answer the doubters, and there is little question that the best fans in MLS hope he does.

5 Comments

  1. Excellent writeup of the season – I have to admit i’m in complete agreement with all of your listed criticisms.

    But after watching the past few weeks, I’m becoming increasingly worried that Peter’s stubborness will choke the Union for years to come.

  2. Pingback: The Philly Soccer Page » The Best of Philly Soccer Page in 2010

  3. UnionMaid says:

    Wow, reading this again after our first season is over and done and the 2nd season rolling along…I am chuckling. I agree with all of your very astute observations and critiques. But I had faith in Nowak throughout the 1st season in spite of any little doubts that crept in, I just KNEW he had a plan, he would make it work. I remembered him as a player, that stubborn tenacity, toughness and drive. Absolute confidence on his face when he played, he was something to watch. He is using all of that to build the team that, while still struggling in some areas, has leapt so far this season. A team Philly & the area (hell, all of PA for that matter, if they cared to pay attention) can be proud of & back whole heartedly. I certainly do. I LOVE my Union & trust in Nowak.

  4. Pingback: The Philly Soccer Page » Time for Nowak to show his managerial worth

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