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Under Hackworth: What’s going right

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

The Philadelphia Union have played three fewer games under interim manager John Hackworth than they did under the recently fired Peter Nowak but they are already only one point shy of doubling their point total under Nowak’s management. Since Hackworth took over, the team is 5-3-0, having scored 14 goals while allowing 8, earning 15 out of a possible 24 points. When Nowak left the team was 2-7-2,  having scored 8 goals while allowing 14 to earn 8 out of a possible 33 points.

What a difference a coach makes.

Here’s a quick look at some of the particulars that have come out of the Union’s turnaround.


An article on the Union website notes that the win over New England brings the team’s win streak at home to four games, outscoring opponents at PPL Park 11-2. What the article doesn’t mention is that this is the longest win streak in the team’s history. While the team had a six-game unbeaten streak at home in 2010, and a nine-game unbeaten home streak in 2011, the team has previously never won more than two games in a row at home, though it had back-to-back home and away wins twice in 2011.

Looking at home and away results, the recent three-game win streak that began with the road win in LA and ended with the loss against New York is the longest winning streak in the team’s short history. In fact, only four times before has the Union won two consecutive games in a row: the wins at home to Columbus and away to Chivas in April, and at Los Angeles and home against Toronto in June; the win at home over Chicago and away over Toronto, and the wins away to Houston and at home to Vancouver in 2011.

Under Nowak in 2012, the Union suffered 2 3-game losing streaks. Previously, the Union had suffered a 2-game losing streak once in 2011 and 2010, and a 3-game and 4-game losing streak in 2010.

Possession and passing

Since its beginning, the Union philosophy was one of attractive, possession-oriented play. In 2010, we saw a fair amount of that but consistent results were doomed by a very shaky backline. The team’s early success in the first half of 2011 was built on a suddenly parsimonious defense that, for a time, provided cover for the low scoring offense. Meanwhile, Nowak tinkered with formations, player selection, and the positions those players played in.

The tinkering continued in the beginning of 2012 as we waited for newly arrived players to “settle in,” a process that seemed to stretch from weeks to months. That attractive, possession-oriented game became something occasionally glimpsed, however much Nowak insisted it was still present. Under Hackworth, the commitment to possession seems to have returned.

Possession is no guarantee of success—the Union’s lowest possession numbers of the season, 33.6 percent, came in the win against Chivas under Nowak while the lowest under Hackworth, 40.2 percent, came in the win against Kansas City. Nevertheless, under Nowak the Union averaged 47.7 percent possession compared to the current 52.1 percent under Hackworth.

The possession game is tied to passing accuracy; after all, you can’t possess the ball if you are turning it over. Under Nowak, the Union averaged 296 successful passes and 118 unsuccessful passes for a passing accuracy of 71 percent. Under Hackworth, the Union are averaging 372 successful passes and 98 unsuccessful passes for a passing accuracy of 79 percent. Not only are the Union possessing the ball more on average under Hackworth than under Nowak, they are attempting and completing more passes for a higher passing accuracy.

Shots and goals

All of that passing and possession means little if it doesn’t result in goal attempts. From a low of 4 shots in the win against Chivas to a high 21 shots  in the home loss against New York, the Union averaged 10 shots per game under Nowak. In 8 of the games under Nowak’s tenure in 2012, the Union managed only 1 shot (1 game) or 2 shots (7 games) on goal for an overall average of 2.6 shots on goal per game. The overall percentage of shots on goal from shots was 28 percent.

Under Hackworth, the Union are averaging 10.4 shots per game. But they are also averaging 3.8 shots on goal for a shots on goal percentage of 37.6 percent.

Under Nowak, the Union averaged .73 goals per game with a goals from shots on goal average of 24.6 percent. Under Hackworth, the Union have more than doubled the average for goals per game to 1.9 goals with the goals from shots on goal average nearly doubling to 46.9 percent.

Backline selection consistency

While the Union’s goal production has gone up under Hackworth, the number of goals allowed has gone down. Both of these developments are related to consistent selection of the backline

Despite the number of losses under Nowak, the Union defense was not allowing the team to be blown out of games. Under Hackworth, the defense has become even more solid. From an average of 4.6 shots on goal allowed under Nowak, the Union defense is now keeping opponents to an average of 3.9 shots on goal. Another way to look at this is where MacMath sits among goalkeepers in terms of shots faced. Among goalkeepers who have started 16 or more games, MacMath has faced the second fewest number of shots.

In Wednesday’s press conference, Hackworth said that the Union’s current success is directly related to consistency of player selection and style of play. Looking at the official player stats in the MLS Gameday Guides, this is most obvious when we compare defensive starters under Nowak and Hackworth.

Over the first 11 games of the season, Nowak started 9 different backlines, 10 if we consider that Raymon Gaddis and Sheanon Williams were tasked with different outside back positions in two games in which they both started with Carlos Valdes and Danny Califf in the middle. Over the first 7 games, 7 different defensive lineups were used. Strictly in terms of players’ positions on the the field, the same backline was repeated, consecutively or otherwise, only once.

In his 8 games as interim coach, Hackworth has started 2 different backlines, one 7 times (6 times consecutively), the other once.

It is true that early in the season, Nowak was dealing with injuries (real or otherwise) and players being away for international duty. It is also true that he was dealing with problems of his own making such as the disappointing play of new signing Porfirio Lopez, and the absence of centerback Danny Califf, which most observers agree was related more to a Nowak grudge than any performance issue.

While Nowak deserves credit for starting Amobi Okugo at centerback in the US Open Cup match against DC United, it is difficult to understand why he played Sheanon Williams out of position for so long both at centerback and left back before deciding to do so. Given his history of tinkering with player selection regardless of a given player’s form, it is also difficult to confidently imagine that he would have backed Okugo with consistent selection for league play as Hackworth has done.

This consistency of player selection under Hackworth has also been evident to a lesser degree in the midfield and up top.

Between the posts

Under Nowak, the Union allowed an average of 1.4 goals per game from those 4.6 shots on goal. Zach MacMath, Chase Harrison, and Chris Konopka combined for an average of 3.1 saves per game. (With MacMath between the posts, the average was 1.44 goals allowed from 4.6 shots on goal and 2.9 saves.)

Under Hackworth, the Union have averaged 1 goal allowed from 3.9 shots on goal for 2.8 saves.

With 3 shutouts under Nowak for a 2-0-1 record, MacMath has 2 shutouts under Hackworth for a 2-0-0 record. He is 9th in the league in shutouts despite those ahead of him having played anywhere between 2 and 6 more games. The shaky start to the season in which he gave up 5 goals in the first 2 games and occassional young goalkeeper mistakes are reflected in his middling save percentage. Nevertheless, of the 17 goalkeepers in the league with 16 or more games under their belt, only 5 have a better goals allowed average than MacMath’s 1.18.



  1. At what point can we start criticizing Hackworth?

    His coaching is miles better than Nowak but I sometimes wonder if that is because Hackworth is that good or Nowak was so poor at the end.

    Little things have bothered me about Hackworth like leaving a sub open in the Open Cup game against KC or the team still disappearing for long stretches of games, or the fact we can’t handily defeat teams that we should on paper. I know he is still growing into the job and it isn’t his team yet but still I think it is time to stat looking at some of the negatives.

    • Good question – as the blog mentioned, he has been far and away more consistent with lineups than Nowak ever was. The back 4 stabilization has covered up for MacMath, opposed to early in the season when Lopez and Albright were in the lineup. Interestingly too, shots are up with Mwanga gone and Jack in. My biggest criticism of Mwanga was he wouldn’t shoot (not looking to wind up the argument that Nowak destroyed his confidence, just he wouldnt shoot), and SOG and GF are up. With a tighter backline (Soumare pushing Okugo upfield could be really good), this team could take some points.

      Not sure who you think they should be “handily” beating, as the Union are not strong on paper. Their strength is a scrappy, gutty team play. Not overwhelming talent.

      • I think we should be hoping to get more than last minute heroics against the Montreal’s and New England’s of the world. or at least not look so invisible against them for so long.

      • WilkersonMcLaser says:

        Honestly, given the state of the Union at the twilight of the Nowak era, it’s nothing short of remarkable that we’re even still in the playoff picture. That we’ve eked out wins and maintained a strong, consistent lineup gives me almost nothing to seriously complain about.

        The only thing, and I mean the only thing, that has bothered me are Freddy Adu’s starts. I can’t totally blame Hack for that though, as Freddy was probably Nowak’s project and he’s probably trying to do what he can to get an ROI on that high investment.

        But that’s really the only thing I would change. When he spoke at the half in the NE game and blasted the Union’s long ball approach, I wanted to rush the field and hug him. Didn’t though; court order.

      • I’m with Sieve! and I don’t care about playoffs as much as I care about what I see on the field from my seat. I want to see good football. The “playoff race” is about MLS parity. The Union should have pwned NE at PPL; instead they barely squeaked by. There are many games to play. I want to see the team play well all the time, with occasional moments of beauty. If they lose to a better team, that’s just the way the game goes. NE are not a better team, on paper or on pitch, so in the end that was not a great game to my eye. Montreal have been good at home but I am hoping that they’ll be tested this weekend. Come on the U!

    • In the SKC cup game, Hackworth was probably looking at saving a sub for extra time. Perhaps he thought we wouldn’t have gained anything offensively if we used the last sub and it would have been better to hopefully score and bring in a defense-oriented player. I’d have to go back and look at who was in at the end of the game. I’d be asking too much of myself to try an remember advanced tactics after a full game of enjoying beverages.

    • Ed Farnsworth says:

      It’s a good question Sieve. I think it’s obvious that we’re still in a bit of a honeymoon period, the ultimate length of which will likely be determined by how the Union does in the upcoming run against Eastern Conference opposition.
      Should things take a turn for the worse, you can count on an article titled “Under Hackworth: What’s going wrong.” Right now, though, after the terrible starting stretch under the previous management, I’m kind of enjoying having a number of positives to look at and share.

    • JediLos117 says:

      I will complain when he decides to fix what isnt broken…and it backfires. W-W-W-L-W says alot bout how things are going. Only if it backfires. Other than that he has done wonders and seems to make logical moves overall…at this point he’s my pick.

  2. Sean Doyle says:

    Note to self, never play Ed in Scrabble. Props for using parsimonious in a soccer article. Bravo!

  3. The Union got more accurate when Nowak left, and the Opposition got more blind. That’s awesome!

  4. JediLos117 says:

    Hackworth made the wrong sub in the 55th. Lahoud was having a great game and should have stayed on longer. Hoppenhot shoulda replaced Adu. Adu displays poor vision, pace and control. Second goal is on Adu.

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