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Zen and the art of managers’ listening skills

Photo: Barb Colligon

John Hackworth’s first game managing Philadelphia Union without the interim tag showed two things:

  1. He listens.
  2. He’s perfectly capable of deciding when to ignore what he’s listening to.

Those are important traits in a manager.

When to listen

He showed the first when he deployed Freddy Adu at central attacking midfielder Saturday, with Michael Farfan back on the flanks. Yes, some outside the team (OK, me) called for this to happen sooner or later, but I’m not implying Hackworth played Adu there because someone told him to.

More significant is that he listens to his players. That doesn’t mean necessarily doing what they say, but rather hearing what they’re saying and managing individuals accordingly.

Adu recently went public for the first time with his desire to play the CAM role, and he did so in a way that didn’t fit the prima donna persona with which he’s often labeled.

Hackworth’s deployment of Adu there Saturday doesn’t indicate a caving in. Rather, it shows an open-mindedness to try new (and possibly good) ideas while listening to his players to determine their comfort zones, something his predecessor never did. It also means Hackworth is exploring his options with Adu before the off-season, which makes sense considering Adu’s high salary.

That Hackworth did this after benching Adu for two games makes the move more notable. Adu played well in limited time in both those matches and earned his way back into the lineup. Then he kept it up against New England.

Hackworth has shown he won’t give Adu preferential treatment because he’s a big name, but he also won’t treat Adu more harshly because of it either. Adu played his way back into the lineup just like any other player might.

It’s too early to tell, but Hackworth’s permanent appointment and Saturday’s match could mark a turning point in Adu’s career. At the very least, it’s now put-up-or-shut-up time for Adu, and on Saturday, he put up.

When not to listen

Nobody likes a scoreless draw, except maybe goalkeepers. So it frustrated many to see Hackworth keep two holding midfielders in late Saturday when he could have chased a win.

But after Wednesday’s heartbreaking, last minute loss against Columbus, the last thing Hackworth’s young squad needed was another late death blow.

Saturday’s road result doesn’t really dent the standings, but the playoffs are out of reach anyway. Instead, the draw helps stabilize a young team whose confidence is one of the most important things Hackworth has to manage.

“Long term contract”?

All that aside, there’s one thing to question about Hackworth’s elevation to permanent manager.

The Union indicated Hackworth was “rewarded with a long-term contract”.

Yes, Hackworth has done a good job, but is it enough to warrant a long-term extension? Regardless of that, is a long-term deal necessary?

Are the Union in danger of losing Hackworth? Of course not. It’s his first professional managerial job, and he’s very invested in this particular club. The Union had all the negotiating leverage.

Sure, it shows magnanamity after Hackworth’s good work, not just since Peter Nowak’s firing but during Hackworth’s entire three-year tenure.And yes, it should give Hackworth the comfort zone to confidently reshape the team as he sees fit.

But some prudence is in order after Nowak’s lawsuit against the Union.

The details of Hackworth’s contract aren’t publicly available, so maybe the Union learned from past mistakes and didn’t guarantee his salary for the entire length of the contract, as they did with Nowak.* If they used the same contract language, someone should be fired.

Hackworth doesn’t need a full three years to show he’s worth keeping. 2013 should be enough. He doesn’t need to win the MLS Cup next year, but it should be clear by 2013’s end whether the team has progressed. Personally, I think he will prove a very good manager, but if 2013 comes and goes with Hackworth shown to be tactically wanting, the Union should want the contractual flexibility to replace him.

Union chief executive Nick Sakiewicz’s decisions to fire Nowak and retain Hackworth were good ones, but the moves to guarantee Nowak’s full contract and extend it a year before it expired were Sakiewicz’s too. If the Union regress in 2013 and are too contractually tied to Hackworth to replace him, it might be time to introduce Sakiewicz to the hot seat.

Of course, if he got it right, flowers and fireworks for him.


*NOTE: Nowak’s contract looks fully guaranteed. Forget the legalese. Read the highlighted section below. If anyone can find the Union’s legal wiggle room in the contract (Paragraph 8 might offer some), feel free to point it out.

Paragraph 3C

Upon termination of this Agreement pursuant to Paragraph III A) or (B) above, all of the rights and obligations of the parties hereunder, except as set forth in Paragraph XX, shall forever cease, including, without limitation, the rights and obligations of the parties under Paragraphs IV and V, except that (I) Club shall remain obligated to pay Manager any portion of the applicable Base Salary Amount and all bonuses that have been earned by Manager pursuant to Paragraph IV(A) or IV(e), as applicable, below but have not yet been paid as of the date of termination  and (2) in the event of Manager’s termination by Club pursuant to Paragraph III(B) above or by Manager pursuant to Paragraph III(B) above due to a material breach of Paragraph IV below or Section 1.2 of the Pino Agreement by Club that is not cured within ten (10) days after written notice thereof is provided to Club, Club shall remain obligated to pay Manager, in accordance with the payment scheduIe set forth in Paragraph lV(B) below and subject to the terms of Paragraph III(D) below, the applicable Base Salary Amount provided for in Paragraph IV(A) below through December 31, 2015 (the “Severance Payments”).


  1. You read “good”; Nowak’s contract will cause Union agita shortly. They should pay him and be on their way. Hackworth has a limited time to show “his” team dynamic ’cause losing is not a virtue. Stop one touches to no one; force supportive runs; and, cut anyone with a bad attitude. It is clear that someone on coaching staff is counting ball touches and passes…count the “aggressive” ball to someone instead.

  2. III(C)(1) entitles PN to Base Salary Amounts earned on a year to year basis, III(C)(2) entitles PN to Base Salary Amounts through the end of the Term. PN gets III(C)(1) payments in any termination, but only gets III(C)(2) payments if the Club terminates pursuant to III(B) for ‘no cause.’ In its letter to PN, the Club exercised its right to determine in good faith whether a termination occured pursuant to III(A) ‘for cause’ or III(B), by stating reasons for which it had terminated pursuant to III(A). In the end PN may get payments through 2012, but these were not guaranteed before he coached during 2012.

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