Featured / MLS / Union

The case for John Hackworth

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

There was an awkward moment in one of John Hackworth’s first interviews as manager that revealed a lot about Hackworth and Philadelphia Union.

During the first match as interim manager. Lalas led into the question by saying, “Now John, this obviously is not your team. Obviously it was all put together by Peter [Nowak].”

Fortunately, Hackworth isn’t the sort of guy who tears heads off.

Instead, he took a deep breath, collected his thoughts, conceded credit to Nowak, and mentioned that, oh by the way, he had a little something to do with building the Union too.

“I arrived very shortly after [Nowak],” Hackworth said. “So we did a lot of work together to put this team together. And the idea from ownership all the way down was to make sure we brought in a lot of young players and invested in them. So when it came time for me to make the decision on who was starting, I wanted to make sure that we … went back to our roots a little bit and invested in those players who we feel have a lot of potential, guys like Amobi Okugo and Jack McInerney. They’ve been here three years, you know. They’re originals of the Philadelphia Union. And I wanted to send that message very strong and clear to the guys in that locker room, but [also] to our fan base and everybody, that we have some great young talent here, and we got to give them a chance.”

One thing has become abundantly clear during the Union’s 4-2-0 stretch under Hackworth:

This has always been Hackworth’s team to a degree.

Six Union starters — Sheanon Williams, Zac MacMath, Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo, and Michael and Gabriel Farfan — played regularly for Hackworth arranged Williams’ signing with Harrisburg (and therefore the Union) after the young defender’s career had stagnated. It was Hackworth who brought Okugo into the US youth international pool as a high school sophomore.

Who do you think found the Union’s young American talent?

The man who knew the American youth soccer pool best, former U-17 US national team coach John Hackworth.

The tug of war is over

But Lalas, a smart analyst, was right about this: This is not fully Hackworth’s team yet.

Diego Gutierrez’s firing was a step in that direction.

Nowak may have pulled the trigger on the controversial trades that helped cost his job, but Gutierrez’s fingerprints were all over the gun. Former Union stalwarts Danny Califf, Sebastien Le Toux, Danny Mwanga and Jordan Harvey were all traded so they could be replaced by players identified by Gutierrez.

Time will tell how Gutierrez’s players work out. Porfirio Lopez looks like a scouting failure, as he’s obviously not the attacking wingback Nowak wanted, but Carlos Valdes is one of the league’s best center backs. The jury’s still out on the others.

What’s clear is the Union got away from the vision sold to fans from day one. Everyone knows they diverged from the open, fan-friendly atmosphere that former team president Tom Veit and the Sons of Ben created. Just as significantly, they lost their way by acquiring journeymen who held down promising young talent and replaced the lunch bucket veterans fans loved. On paper, Gutierrez and Hackworth looked like perfect Moneyball compliments: One to find young American players, the other to secure undervalued Latin American players seeking a financially stable league. Instead, Hackworth’s players were often marginalized by Gutierrez’s.

Now the Union have gone back to basics, and Hackworth’s kids are shining. The secretive, uncommunicative approach of the Nowak era is gone. Identities of trialists are no longer treated as state secrets. Hackworth mans up and answers tough questions rather than avoiding them. He even talks to his players. The team is playing exciting soccer, and the guys on the field earned the right to be there.

No, this isn’t fully Hackworth’s team yet, and it won’t be for a while. Too many good players were jettisoned or played out of position too long under Nowak, and you can’t undo the damage done to this roster in one month. Hackworth must determine whether Brian Carroll and Gabriel Gomez can coexist, how best to deploy Freddy Adu and Michael Farfan, and where Okugo, Roger Torres, Keon Daniel, and Gabriel Farfan belong on the field.

So it’s time to drop Hackworth’s interim tag and guarantee him the off-season and training camp he’ll need to make this team entirely his own. Hackworth has earned the manager’s job, not just over six matches, but over three years, by making good on the original Union vision, putting a quality team on the field, and restoring class to the organization.

The wine finally tastes how the Union always hoped it would: Damn good, and getting better.


  1. James "4-3-3" Forever says:

    hopefully Hackworth is turning into another truly talented young American soccer coach ala Kreis

  2. and ben olsen. Look give him the title. The players believe in him and play for him. How rare is that in soccer especially worldwide. Not only does he deserve it but what do we really lose giving it to him versus what do we gain.

  3. McMohansky says:

    hear hear. its a no-brainer

  4. Philly Cheese says:

    Not as concerned about interim title as some seem to be. If Hackworth continues to provide quality performances, it will absolutely happen. The fact that players who were treated like 12 year olds by Nowak, are now treated like professionals is refreshing. Excellent analysis of how Diego had ” his guys” signed, and then influenced playing time to justify the signings. Still wonder about agent relationship through his “family” business in those decisions.

  5. OneManWolfpack says:

    Excellent writing. Really enjoy this site. I agree that Hack has done more than enough the earn the full title. Now go get a win tomorrow night in the US Open Cup… I’ll be there!!

  6. WilkersonMcLaser says:

    Well said!

  7. Well argued. Hack has certainly earned the right to lead this team. Not sure how accurate this is, but Hoppenot strikes me as another Hackworth guy and he has been an absolute revelation…

  8. I’m not sold on Hackworth yet. He needs a few more games to see where he is taking this team.
    He has clearly simplified Union’s game play. A lot of over the top balls. But the team has clearly improved, and the players (who were taught primarily the over the top game all their lives) have responded.
    However, Hackworth is winning so no reason to complain. The question is whether he can continue to do so.

    • …Well, from the looks of what Hack has accomplished thus far, – he’s on track to turn water into wine and no doubt Nick will be diggin’ on that for sure!

  9. Hackworth seems to be a coach who can get the best out of players, something a lot of coaches can not accomplish. If results continue to be great then the interim title should be removed around the end of July – after another 4 games.

  10. Hackworth deserves to be coach!!!! Sheanon, Zack, Jack, Omobi, Michael, and Gabriel have all played for him as youths and feel comfortable having someone who believes in them. These guys will go the extra mile for Hack and it shows in there ability on the field. Look at the effort coming from these players. This young talent is all of Hackworth doing and his accomplishment should not go unnoticed.

  11. James Korman says:

    Outstanding article! Thoroughly enjoyed reading it and learned a bunch. Great stuff. With Coach Hack’s background in US Soccer’s youth development he has assembled some really talented American kids. I think he’s doing a kickass job managing the team. Love the 4-3-3 (or whatever it morphs into) and completely agree with his lineups and subs!

    Does anyone know how many tickets have been sold so far for Wednesday night’s semifinal game? I’m hoping we rally! Go Union…!!!

  12. Just love this article! I did not want to bail on this team but it almost happened.Then it happened…out with the old coach and in with the new. Hack has really done a great job of righting the ship! He needs to be “coach” . Now!

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