5 questions: Union edition

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

As Bill Parcells once said, you are what your record says you are.

Philadelphia Union are a 9th place team. The Union have the league’s second worst points-per-game rate. The only team worse is Montreal, who the Union have drawn with and lost to already.

Yes, they have caught plenty of bad breaks. Their goal differential of -4 is the same as the Houston Dynamo, who sit in 4th place while the Union languish in 9th. The Union’s record in one-goal games is by far the league’s worst at 1-5. Had they not surrendered late goals in three early games, the Union would be six points better in the standings and tied with Houston.

But that Bill Parcells quote poses some questions.

How much time does John Hackworth have left?

As of late Monday night, Hackworth remains the Union’s manager. Chances are he won’t get fired this week. That would give the team very little time to adjust as it prepares for two tough games this week.

But the Hackworth death watch has certainly started. If the Union lose those two matches, against the two best teams in the Eastern Conference, Hackworth could be out of a job next week.

The schedule doesn’t get easier after that. The Union take a two-game road trip to Los Angeles to play the Galaxy and Chivas USA, return home to host Vancouver, and then get a three-week break for the World Cup.

If one was to replace a manager, that break would be the ideal time to do it, because the new manager would get three weeks for a mini training camp. Alternatively, one of the assistants could take over on an interim basis at an earlier time and then be replaced by a more permanent option over the World Cup break. After the break, the Union have two games — at home against New England, away at Dallas — till the summer transfer window opens for MLS. Those are tough matches.

Hackworth’s teams have stunned people before, often when it was least expected and particularly against Kansas City. If he can steady the team till the summer transfer window, he should get the chance to bring in the reinforcement he clearly needs at striker.

What options do you have to replace Hackworth?

The Union’s board of directors have to consider potential replacements when debating whether to replace Hackworth. Will the replacement be an improvement?

Internally, the options are not good. None of his assistants have head coaching experience. Brendan Burke had a stellar record leading Reading United in the USL PDL, but he left the Union staff earlier this year. Mike Sorber is probably the best internal candidate due his longer coaching career.

Externally, the options aren’t great either. Eric Wynalda remains an attractive big name, but could you imagine two strong personalities like Wynalda and Union chief executive Nick Sakiewicz coexisting, particularly after Wynalda’s farcical arrangement to “coach” in Atlanta? Martin Rennie remains available after Vancouver let him go. Former Chivas USA Robin Fraser is out there. Are you excited? You shouldn’t be. Alejandro Moreno may seem attractive, but the ace ESPN analyst has no coaching experience.

The only name that should interest you is Veljko Paunovic, who one inspired Union fan suggested two weeks ago. The retired Union attacker led Serbia’s U-19 squad to the U-19 European Championship last year. He speaks English and Spanish, is popular in Philadelphia, has some familiarity with MLS, showed loads of class in his time with the Union and … seems like a long shot who deserves a column in his own right, so let’s stop right there.

Beyond that, would any of them match Hackworth’s ability in the role of general manager? The Jack McInerney trade may not look good right now, but otherwise, he has done a very good job acquiring player personnel.

The dearth of good in-season replacement options should be considered when wielding the hypothetical axe over Hackworth’s neck. The Union board must decide what’s more likely: A success from a mid-season hire, or righting the ship under a coach who had a far less talented Union team a few points off the Supporters Shield pace last summer?

The most telling stats tell a damning story

Consider the story these stats tell about the Union attack. The Union:

  • have spent more time in their opposition’s half than all but two MLS teams;
  • have the league’s lowest percentage of attacks down the middle (26%);
  • are tied for 3rd in MLS in crosses per game (25) behind NY and Columbus;
  • have completed only 18% of their crosses;
  • rank 18th in MLS in shots on target;
  • rank last in MLS in goals from open play that aren’t counterattacks (3).

Basically, the Union control possession and push the attack, but they send everything wide and fire in cross after cross. Unfortunately, nobody collects those crosses to turn them into shots. That’s how Philadelphia ends up with two separate home games (Houston, DC) in which they completed 2 of 35 crosses, with every completed cross coming in a set piece situation.

Everyone knows what the Union are going to do, and they’re happy to let them do it. As former Union center back Jeff Parke said after Saturday’s game, “Today they were a little predictable and made it a little easier in the back, knowing they were going to whip crosses in. That being said, they had the ball the majority of the second half and are still a really good team.”

This is the Union conundrum.

How did the Union forward corps suddenly get so bad?

Philadelphia was 1-1-2 when they traded Jack McInerney to Montreal for Andrew Wenger in April. Since then, they are 0-4-3.

The Union miss McInerney and his creative off-the-ball runs desperately. (For more on this, click here.)

Casey chalkboard v DC 5-10-14

Conor Casey’s touches against DC United

It’s not that Andrew Wenger has been that bad. He just hasn’t been good enough soon enough. (Note his world class turn on Parke, followed by a shot right at Bill Hamid.) And he certainly doesn’t look capable of pairing with Casey — they’re both target forwards.

Look at Casey’s chalkboard to the left.

Where was he Saturday? Everywhere but where he should be, which is high and central. The Union sent in 35 crosses, but their best aerial threat wasn’t in the box to collect them.

Instead, Casey went to find the game out wide. Last year, that was understandable with the Union’s poor midfield. This year, it’s not.

The Union desperately need Casey to replicate the form that produced 7 goals in 10 games over two months last year. In 2013, he hit his stride in June after recovering from a preseason injury. You may have noticed it’s still May. Casey looks to be in preseason form after again starting the season with an injury.

And what of the rest of a group of forwards that looked like one of the league’s better ones in 2013?

Aaron Wheeler has been playing center back.

Antoine Hoppenot has been diving more than shooting.

Sebastien Le Toux hasn’t regularly played striker since 2011. Does he still have what it takes there? Yes, probably. But can he regularly score in the Union’s current setup? He hasn’t yet.

The Union’s trade of McInerney probably helped free up salary space for a summer striker acquisition, and based on recent history, the Union probably have some targets in mind.

But can they make it that far? Can Hackworth? How patient will Sakiewicz and the Union’s board of directors be?

Is there hope for this team in 2014?

Yes. They have too much talent for there not to be. This team is good enough to turn the season around under Hackworth. The players play, not the coaches, and the talent is there.

At this point, it comes down to five more questions:

  1. Can the attackers show creativity in finding scoring opportunities?
  2. Can a Union player hit the net already?
  3. How will the team change during Maurice Edu’s absence due to international duty?
  4. Can this team catch a break?
  5. How much heart do the Union players have?


  1. Standing by “see me in September?”
    I kid. Sort of.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      I was a bit flippant there, wasn’t I? 😉

      Yeah, by September it will certainly be clear what this team is.

      Obviously, if this team loses 10 straight games or something with a team this talented, nobody will wait that long to make a change.

      But if I was Sakiewicz, I would not have fired Hackworth yet. I recognize I may be in the minority, and at this point, I’m not trying to convince anyone. Who would I convince? Only wins will convince at this point, and they’re not winning. But to me, the cost-benefit ratio comes out in favor of giving him and his team a bit more time. Obviously they’re running out of it.

  2. 4. Can this team catch a break? They got an own goal and blocked a PK against Seattle and still lost. They got an incorrect off sides call in their favor and a completely choked 1-1 with the keeper from 10 yards out against DC and still lost. They played up a man 2 times already (0 shots, 0 goals while up a man). They even got a PK call a few games ago (considering the cold streak on that front, I’d call that a break).
    The Union caught plenty of breaks in the past month–they simply haven’t done anything with them.
    This team needs a new coach so badly it barely matters who it is. Unfortunately, I’ve got a feeling that Paunovic is too good for MLS and that he’ll want to stay in Europe. Find a promising head coach (not named Wynalda, obviously) from one of the lower ranks, and get a fresh start.

    • hobosocks says:

      Paunovic is definitely a sentimental favorite, but really he has less coaching experience than Hackworth did. It’d be a very risky choice.
      I was delighted to see him at the draft, and call me a cynic, but I don’t think he’d have been there if he wasn’t keeping bridges open with the team for just such an occasion.

    • Good point in regards to the breaks. Good teams create their own luck, or at least take advantage of fortunate “bounces.” Last year this team was up a man 2 games in a row and gave up the equalizing goal with the advantage both times. You covered this year well. This team is waiting for the luck to go their way instead of going out and making it change.

  3. they need to bring in the guys loaned to harrisburg or sign darius madison to a homegrown contract

  4. Tim Sherwood just got let go by Spurs! Just sayin….

  5. 1&2. So questions 1 and 2 are similar and my answer is they need some creativity from their coach instead of their coach hoping they will create magic in the penalty area. They do not have tactical awareness and that is why they do not score. I’m not trying to imply that it is easy; it is not easy. But they are good players and they look bad out there, so the problem is tactics pure and simple.
    3. I have been so disappointed in our USA international that I am looking forward to his absence.
    4. Juest is absolutely correct, this team has been given plenty of breaks, so the answer is, you’re asking the wrong question.
    5. They have plenty of heart. This is not an issue in Philadelphia or in MLS in general. The players care a lot and they work hard.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Sure, #4 could be a reach. But forget what they got in the past. They need some lucky breaks going forward.

      With regard to stopping PKs though, that’s not a break. That’s a difficult play.

    • I don’t understand the argument that it is all tactics when have more possession in the attacking half than most teams in MLS. The problem in my eyes, and those of the players themselves, is that they are not making the plays they need to win games. Pure and simple, no one is doing anything special yet.

  6. When watching a game, I feel like this is the tactic: “Hmm, all those crosses aren’t working. Maybe we should try more crosses.”

    The 2014 Union motto seems to be: “If at first, second, third, and 30th you don’t succeed, tell the media how frustrated you are.”

  7. james lockerbie says:

    Maybe they should start the Ben Franklin goal celebration the added motivation to be the first player with an official Ben Franklin goal proclamation will be just the thing to get the goal scoring drought to come to an end

  8. some new controversy from hackworth’s presser just now: he had the gall to imply that he thinks booing the team hurts their performance. truly that is the last straw

  9. I really question the notion that Hackworth has done “a very good job acquiring player personnel”. For every 2013 Conor Casey, there’s a Damani Richards AND Stephen Okai.
    Plus, it’s a bit disingenuous to say that “Hackworth’s teams have stunned people before … particularly against Kansas City”, when, in only his second game as interim manager, he somehow got Nowak’s roster to click. That was a flash in the pan.

    • there was also the win at the end of last season

      • Dan Walsh says:

        Thank you. Note the two links in that sentence, to the two recaps for the two surprise wins over KC.

        Richards & Okai were minimal risk, minimal loss. Guys get cut in training camp all the time. Big deal.

        If you want to successfully criticize Hackworth’s player personnel moves, hit the Mac/Wenger deal and stay there. Maybe Greg Cochrane vs. Don Anding. He hasn’t been perfect on player personnel, but he has been good.

    • hobosocks says:

      No one is going to have all successes with younger guys, and I think Hackworth’s record there is pretty good.

      Amobi, Jack, Zac (even though it was under Nowak, it seems pretty clear these guys came from Hack’s youth coaching experiences), Mike and Gabe, Ray, Leo, Wheeler, etc. (not Hoppenot) were all good calls.

      I don’t like that we missed out on guys like Cochrane and Mulllins, but I still think the Union under Hackworth is above average on youth finds. I want him to go at this point, but still think he deserves credit for that.
      Finding them isn’t the problem. It’s developing them and using them.

  10. Ugh. So tired of this rhetoric. The reason they cross is because they don’t know where to go. They don’t know where to go, because they don’t train based on a attacking plan in practice.
    The idea that coaches in soccer are overrated, just look at the differences between ManU and Liverpool.

    • or look at Everton and ManU…

    • hobosocks says:

      Agreed. In that last DC game, it really looked like half the players didn’t even have a position. Wenger and Casey seemed to have no idea where to be in relation to each other.

      • There was a good 15 minute period on Saturday where there was literally no one but fabinho on the left. They overloaded the one side and were not taking advantage of the space by having a player to switch the ball to.

      • hobosocks says:

        The worst part is that that seems to be on purpose. Hackworth talked in preseason about how he felt balanced formations were overrated.

  11. Dan- you could also do an entire article on the names being bandied-about for Hackworth’s replacement, IF he’s replaced this season. Along with Paunovic, I’ve seen both Steve Nicol’s and Jesse Marsch’s names in the mix, as well as Wynalda’s…

    • John Ling says:

      Nicol is an interesting name for consideration, actually.

      • hobosocks says:

        Not so sure about Nicol. I was a big Revs fan during his time, but I can’t help but feel like that time has passed. Most of the up and coming coaches in MLS are younger, league-experienced guys now.

      • John Ling says:

        That’d be for Nicky S to evaluate. (Which, yes, maybe doesn’t inspire confidence.) I don’t know if he’s the right choice or not. I know he was successul in this league, though that was during a different era.
        All my comment really meant was that if I’m Nick and I need to put together a “long list” of candidates, I think Nicol’s name should be on it. Whether that then leads to him making the short list is another matter.

      • scottymac says:

        Well, Sak’s next managerial interview would be his first.

        So if the results go as the schedule would indicate they will and it forces Nick’s hand, he’ll turn this disaster over to Sorber for the interim. Thus he can continue to avoid searching for and hiring a competent manager. Any, and I really do mean any, of the names being bandied about would be a dramastic improvement over Hackworth. Most matchdays Heather MItts seems the most soccer-competent person on the touchline, might as well let her give it a shot.

    • hobosocks says:

      I’ve liked the idea of Jesse Marsch for a while now. He seemed like he was doing well in Montreal and is a guy who obviously understands the league. I don’t really think it was his fault that Joey Saputo had a “different philosophy” (hire lots of expensive, aging Italian players).

    • Dan Walsh says:

      If Hackworth does get fired, we’d certainly write one. I’ve heard Nicol’s name too. (I meant to add that to the post but forgot.) Marsch is worth mentioning too.

      But they’re not particularly exciting names to me either. Whatever Nicol’s pedigree, I remember hearing him on ESPN some months ago talking about MLS, and he sounded completely out of touch with the league.

  12. Great stuff. I’d be interested in a follow-up on “Pfeffer: The cases for and against call-up and insertion.” The next home presser may be an awkward time to ask about changes going forward though.

  13. The organization never should have removed the word “interim” from Hack’s title. He was a good fill in, and that is all it ever should have been. Lesson learned. Now go get a seasoned coach with a proven track record of success and let THAT coach find us a world class striker.

  14. Best replacement coach that would re-energize the team and fanbase would be- Danny Califf!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  15. Here are some more “telling stats”. The Union’s top goal scorers this season are Le Toux and Fernandes. (Edu also has 2 goals, but his goals/90mins rate is lower than the other two.)

    In the 4 games started by Fernandes, the team has scored 6 goals with a record of 1W, 1L, 2D; in the 7 other matches, the team has scored 4 goals with a record of 4L and 3D.

    In the 8 games started by Le Toux, the team has scored 10 goals with a record of 1W, 3L, 4D. In the 3 other matches, the team has scored 0 goals with a record of 2L and 1D.

    With the Union’s clear need for more offense, why did Hackworth leave his top two scoring threats out of the starting lineup against DC United?

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