How Oka Nikolov explains the new Union

Photo: Barb Colligon

Oka Nikolov reveals the pattern.

Want to understand Philadelphia Union’s signings? Curious as to what kind of players they’ll sign in the future? Would you like a sense of how the Union will approach things?

Look at the Union’s new goalkeeper.

As far back as February training camp, Union manager John Hackworth had identified Nikolov as the veteran goalkeeper he wanted as the mentor and competitor for young starter Zac MacMath. He even kept just two goalkeepers on the roster because he was saving a place for Nikolov.

Hackworth never revealed that publicly though. He simply waited patiently and quietly for the summer transfer window, by which time Nikolov’s final Bundesliga season had ended and the Union had secured additional salary cap space and allocation money.

Hackworth didn’t leap early for MLS veteran Kevin Hartman, who was a quality starter last year but is probably winding down his career at age 39. Hartman would have joined the team likely expecting to compete for a starting job. At the very least, when MacMath suffered the inevitable difficult game that young starting goalkeepers experience, Philadelphia fans would have agitated for Hartman, who many Union fans have seen play at a high level. (Heck, many have called for Chris Konopka, including me.)

Nikolov too is 39, but he better fits the specific role Hackworth has in mind. He has been the starter, but he has also accepted a backup and mentor role. When called upon by Eintracht Frankfurt, he stepped up once again this year in a starting role as the club earned a Europa League spot. He spent over 20 years with Frankfurt and was the Bundesliga’s longest tenured player with any team until he left. Nikolov departed Frankfurt as a well regarded, loyal servant of the club. He knows his career is winding down. He’ll play the role Hackworth wants.

This is probably what we can expect from Hackworth when it comes to the player signings he actively wants: Proven players who will be solid in the locker room, bring good character to a young club, and add something on the field when needed.

Nikolov isn’t the only one. Conor Casey, Sebastien Le Toux and Jeff Parke fit the mold too. They are a bit younger, of course.

Hackworth has publicly identified two more roles he wants to fill on the club: A potential starting defender and a midfielder. The defender would probably be a true left back (and possibly a backup center back), while the midfielder could be a left-sided player or central attacker, provided the Union can close deals.

Either way, don’t be surprised if Hackworth has already identified the players he wants and is just patiently and quietly waiting for the dominoes to start falling once the summer transfer window opens in July.

The Brazilian way

Were you planning on going to Brazil next year for the World Cup? I was. Now I’m not so sure, even though I have family there. Brazil is a mess.

As with the Gezi protests in Turkey, Brazil’s suddenly massive protest movement has been a long time coming. The country’s financial waste in its World Cup spending is just the final straw after years of frustration in the post-military rule era.

The country is as corrupt as major countries come and has for a long time had one of the world’s largest divides between the rich and poor. It’s a place where you can become quite wealthy from being a government judge (as one of my extended family has in Belo Horizonte), and fighting your way out of the slums (as my mother-in-law somehow did in Rio de Janeiro) is far harder than it is in the United States’ poorest neighborhoods. Public schools are very weak. The government doesn’t pay the hospitals on time despite promises of subsidized health care, which in turn hurts the quality of care. Police are often abusive. Gangs run large sections of the biggest cities. And “the Brazilian way” is all about advancing more through who you know than what you can do. (Yes, all places have that to a degree, but in Brazil they actually have a term for it, which should explain how pervasive it is.)

In recent years, a Brazilian middle class has truly begun to emerge as the economy improves, and they’re educated enough to know that continued skimming off the World Cup cash pile is coming at the expense of social services, education and health care.

It’s no surprise that people are angry. Soccer can only be the opiate of the masses for so long. When you use it to make their lives even worse, that’s the ultimate insult.

On the bright side, if Brazilians force the World Cup out of Brazil, there are only a few countries that could host it on short notice. You live in one of them.

Watch NBC Sports’ great new MLS show

Lastly, if you didn’t catch the inaugural edition of MLS Insider on Friday on NBC Sports, you should. It’s quite unlike any weekly sports show I’ve ever seen. The storytelling style is similar in style to the great work from the best 30 for 30 documentaries from ESPN. The cinematography is jarringly beautiful at times — words you’ll rarely read in the context of a sports program. And the focus is on the players and stories, rather than the commentators and critics.

MLS has posted the video on their web site, and you can watch it below.


  1. I actually don’t minds Hackworths transfer strategy. It’s not that far from temas like MTRL. Have good young talent, and ocmpliment that with veteran players who are good on and off the field.
    My only concern with him is his tactical abilities. Playing crap players, playing players out of position, and seemingly incapable of making subs on the fly (Hopponent is NOT an every game, every situation type of sub!!!!).
    But on the other hand, he is still young and learning so he could eaily improve his tactical sense as well.

  2. Is that Blue Steel or Le Tigre that Hack is giving us?

  3. I agree with you that Oka Nikolov reveals a pattern but I do not agree with you what that pattern is. One it shows the Union have taken on veterans to act as a surrogate coaching staff. He is better that Chris Albright in the fact that he can actually fill in as a starting goalkeeper for a sustained period of time if something were to happen to Zac Macmath. Downside is he cannot say I’m from Philadelphia repeatedly whenever a TV camera is pointed at him. (or at least not convincingly)

    This signing as good as it may be doesn’t even begin to excuse the fact that Zac was thrown under the bus by the organization for the beginning of the year with out adequate back up, mentorship and not even a dedicated goalie coach. For a player who is just starting out this is not acceptable.

    I have a hard time believing that Oka was the only player in the whole world who could have filled this role. And if there were other players none were available at the beginning of the year.

    So I am unconvinced about the Hackworth master plan for steady veterans.

    • Unnecessary to take shots at Albright.

    • scottymac says:

      I’m super not convinced in the “bring in players who wont play” approach. Certainly not to hold it up. Also, MTL brings in aged players who are at the top of the league in scoring, not stylish in their training togs.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Albright wasn’t exactly the example I was aiming for. But really, I don’t see the problem with Albright. He’s a depth player, he looked solid enough in friendlies, and he’s local. Agree, not necessary to take shots at him.

      I’m not claiming Nikolov was the only player in the world that could have filled this role. But he clearly was the one player they wanted. And they were willing to wait for him. That patience to wait for the guy you want, rather than rush for the one who might be close but not quite right, is what I was pointing out. It means they might be similarly waiting for other players.

      • The patience to wait on a back up keeper? Even one from Germany, Even one who is a default goalkeeper coach, is a bit much. This assumes that they really targeted him exclusively as they said they did. But even as of last week other goalkeepers were rumored to be in talks with the Union.

  4. Ditto on the MLS Insider. That first segment on Cahill was so good, it actually made me despise Red Bull just a tiny fraction less. Shows like this are what MLS desperately needs if they intend to bring in a larger viewing audience. It’s the same formula that turned the Olympics from a novelty into one of TV’s biggest money-makers… it’s the “stories behind the scorelines,” that draw people in. The production value of MLS Inisder makes “State of the Union,” look like it was made by a high school A/V club (no offense). Looking forward to next episode.

  5. Only an idiot would have passed Casey up in the Re-Entry draft. I don’t think Hack deserves credit for that. Parke wanted to come to Philly rather than Hack striking a solid deal. I still believe Le Toux was brought back for mostly PR reasons. You give Hack too much credit on these deals.

    • Idiotic things happen all the time in sports. I doubt if we passed on Casey Union fans would be bringing it up now as a missed opportunity. Casey was an unknown quantity with the potential for a strong upside and most importantly cheap. Grabbing him was a good call but it was a calculated risk. (still is a risk if he gets injured.)

      The other two more or less what you said.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Well, then idiots DID pass on Casey. Los Angeles and Seattle among them.

      Or … maybe … it … was … something … to give credit for? Hmm. Naaaaaaaaahhhhh…

      • A quick look at the strike-force of those two teams and you know why they passed on Casey.

  6. Being patient is one thing. However, paying someone to sit on the bench is another. If they want to spend money they need to spend it on players that are going to play. Otherwise, I don’t see the difference between him and Nowak in this regard. If you’re paying for a goalkeeper then he has to be able to start (if he is better than McMath). Otherwise, go hire a goal keeping coach. If they spend money toward the salary cap then they should do it with players that are going to do more then “coach”

  7. Dan,

    Brilliant job with your Brazil commentary! You have a great name btw…


  8. I thought it was interesting that Nick said at the SOB summit that it was important to not just take any player, but a player who is a “Philly” player. We have some great guys on this team and we have seen what happens when there is a prima donna who destroys the locker room. I am willing to wait to get the player that fits into our team.

    The MLS Insider was great – thanks for including it. I will set the DVR to record it.

    • sieve!!!!!! says:

      The whole Philly player thing is bullshit. It has as much meaning as Philly Tough.
      A good player in this locker room will be a good player anywhere else.

      • Finally convinced Seba to play wide where he has been happy and effective. New York and Vancouver couldn’t do that. I think when they say philly player he talking style of play, much like Pittsburgh in football.

      • Where else is Letoux gonna go? Really? He never needed convincing to play anywhere on the field, he has always played where ever and when ever the coaches have told him to go. He would do that anywhere.

  9. Dan,
    Great article. I think you hit the nail on the head. In fact the Adu and Soumare deals show as well that hackworth is willing to wait and be patient for the right deal to come.
    Any thoughts or speculation who the defender and/or midfielder might be he is targeting?

    • How was the Saomare deal the right deal? It was more of a desperate fire sale.

      • both deals eventually took time, moves could have been made earlier but without the salary cap savings we are getting next year.

      • we are partially paying the salary of Saomare this year and the next. With no return. So how is this a good deal? Not to mention we turned down other deals that would have gotten us players back.

    • Well, no idea who he’s targeting, other than to think he probably wants to get Danny Califf back. Not to play left back, but to be a third center back (or possibly start). Not sure it’ll happen. In terms of prospective left backs, I have no idea. Good ones are hard to find, and he might have to look overseas. In midfield, also no idea, but my guess is he’ll want someone who can play on the left.

  10. Demarcus Beasley for left back. He has been told by his Mexican club that he is free to leave. Granted an older player approaching the end of his career but still has a few good years left. He is pacey and is a threat going forward. In years gone by very effective on the left wing for the USMNT and now his experience can dictate when to go forward and when to conserve those older legs. Klinsman plays a 4-2-3-1 which is why there was a learning curve at the start of his US tenure, choosing instead to leave more experienced players out of the squad that couldn’t easily adapt. Philly is playing what they call an unbalanced 4-3-3 in many games which is essentially a 4-2-3-1 (I have an acquaintance that sits real close to “Hack” on gamedays) This systems requires marauding runs from both full-backs to be the most effective, who better than Beasley to complement Williams. No disrespect to Gaddis but you need to be either left footed or essentially both to thrive at the leftback position. My nephew is on the coaching staff at Celtic FC Academy and he tells me that if you’re not using both feet at u10 you’re not making it.( his words, not mine) Begs the question which other sports did Gaddis play when he should have been developing, too much baseball or Lacrosse perhaps for it sure wasn’t basketball.

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