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Season Review: Reevaluating John Hackworth’s firing

Photo: Earl Gardner

Editors’ Note: PSP’s season review series will look at various aspects of Philadelphia Union’s 2014 season with the new perspective of having had a little bit of time to reflect. One post will run every weekday till Christmas.

In retrospect, you can basically trace John Hackworth’s firing as Philadelphia Union manager to two primary factors.

  1. Philadelphia’s failure to prevent goals in the final 15 minutes of games.
  2. The failure to adequately replace center back Jeff Parke.

Critics can toss a thousand shots at Hackworth, but those are the factors that matter the most by far.

What Hackworth did right

It’s easy to forget that Hackworth was dealing with one of the league’s most salary-handicapped clubs in 2013, when he took a team with perhaps the league’s worst midfield and had them within striking distance of the Supporters Shield in summer of that year. He did it by coaching them in a conservative and pragmatic fashion, sitting back on defense and living off the counterattack. Their late season collapse was a return to the mean for a club that had been punching above their weight a year after former Union manager Peter Nowak so memorably demolished the core of his team in 2012.

When Hackworth remade the Union over the last off-season, he did so in a way that responded almost point for point to demands of much of the Union fan base.

  • He overhauled that poor midfield.
  • He sought to change the counterattacking playing style that may have had the Union overachieving for much of last year but also produced some unattractive soccer. In its place, he sought to create a more attractive, possession-oriented style.

Combined with the trade of Jack McInerney for Andrew Wenger, Hackworth put all the pieces in place to establish a fantastic starting lineup.

If only it hadn’t taken so long for those pieces to gel.

The entirely reasonable “what if” scenarios

There are a lot of “ifs” when it comes to the 2014 Union.

  • If Jeff Parke hadn’t been traded and had remained a healthy starter for the Union this year, the Union’s early season defensive problems never occur.
  • If Austin Berry had stayed healthy as Parke’s replacement and played as he had his entire prior MLS career, the Union’s back line would have never become a sieve early this season and surrendered all those late goals.
  • If either of those two things happen, the Aaron Wheeler center back experiment never happens on as big a stage as it did.

Those are fairly reasonable “what if” scenarios that one could argue should not be fully blamed on Hackworth. Most people would have done exactly as Hackworth did, trading Parke and allocation money to D.C. United for Ethan White and the right to acquire Maurice Edu.

Further, it’s also fair to point out that it took time for the Union to figure out where all the new pieces fit best. Hackworth had already started deploying Cristian Maidana in the No. 10 role before his firing, indicating he was giving up on the premise of Maidana as a left winger.

But that brings us to the fatal flaw(s) that cost Hackworth his job.

What Hackworth did wrong: Misstep No. 1

During the Union’s first two and a half years, we consistently gave Nowak grief for playing players out of position. There was Shea Salinas, now one of the league’s best wingers (when healthy), playing right back. Michael Farfan moved from his comfortable right midfield position to center attacking midfield. Gabriel Farfan became a left back. And so on. Nowak deserved that grief.

But it became clear over time that Hackworth subscribed to this notion too.

For Hackworth, it wasn’t nearly as arbitrary as Nowak, who had a mad scientist’s approach that reflected his general stance of being larger than the team.

Hackworth had a more systematic and less capricious approach to positional switches. Consider his reasoning:

  • Aaron Wheeler: Yes, he’s a beast in the air. With his overall athleticism and aggressiveness, he could make a good center back.
  • Cristian Maidana: Yes, he likes to float out to the wings, and he is a good crosser. And he’s left-footed. Let’s try him at left winger.
  • Vincent Nogueira: Fantastic ball skills, great vision. Could be a No. 10 in MLS?
  • Michael Farfan: Good ball skills, and the Union needed a playmaker. Why not try it?
  • Amobi Okugo: Good defender, good discipline, good vision in the back. Center back?

All of these are potentially defensible moves in theory, particularly Okugo’s position switch, because it was so early in his career.

But that’s the key: Okugo was young enough to shape. Further, Okugo had played center back under Hackworth when Hackworth coached him on a youth national team, and even then, Okugo and his father had resisted the move. Okugo’s position switch in MLS initially occurred out of apparent necessity, making it easier for Hackworth to justify it even though he had believed Okugo to be a better center back even when Okugo was a youth player. But there was precedent, and that makes the Okugo switch an exception (or a success).

Each of these other players was in his mid-20s by the time Hackworth tried to change his position. None of the moves worked in the end. Each player was out of his comfort zone. None was as good as when he was in that comfort zone.

Had Andrew Wenger arrived in Philadelphia earlier and had his facility as a target winger been identified earlier, few of these problems occur in 2014. Maidana moves from left wing to No. 10, and Nogueira drops back to the No. 8 role in which he belongs.

But they did happen.

And it’s something Hackworth never got away from: His belief that he could mold players. He was right: He can.

But that takes time.

The Union didn’t give it to him.

What Hackworth did wrong: Misstep No. 2

Hackworth ran out of time for a simple reason: His team couldn’t hold leads.

Late goals surrendered to Portland, Chicago, Montreal and Vancouver cost the Union four wins and eight points in the standings.

If the Union had those points, Hackworth would not have gotten fired when he did because his team would have been higher in the standings. He would have bought himself the time to continue establishing the changes that Curtin cemented in place, most notably that Maidana was a No. 10 and Nogueira a No. 8. Everyone watching the Union was figuring this out, including Hackworth, who had already started playing Maidana in the No. 10 role more often.

Those late goals happened for various reasons. You can point to some as one-offs, but there are other factors.

Notably, you can point to Hackworth’s substitution patterns. Danny Cruz is a good substitution to jumpstart your team and add a home run threat down the wing. But if you want to maintain possession to hold a lead, he hurts you. Antoine Hoppenot is similar.

Hackworth lacked the possession-oriented players needed to hold leads. Cristian Maidana was tiring in those early games and leaving after 60 to 70 minutes, and that hurt the Union in terms of possession.

Imagine if the Union had retained Keon Daniel instead of releasing him. Daniel would have been the perfect late game substitute to maintain possession, because that’s what he did best. Instead, he is wandering the football wilderness, playing somewhere in Poland when last we heard.

That happens in part because of how Hackworth built the team, but it also happens by choice. He chose those substitutes. Maybe they were the best of bad choices available on a roster he built, or maybe there were better options. Either way, he chose them.

Time to learn from mistakes, or no time

Hackworth certainly made mistakes, but he also learned from them. Wheeler at center back remains an intriguing experiment — remember, he made MLS Team of the Week during that stretch, deserved or not — but it should have happened in Harrisburg. Then again, those of you who say that Ethan White was on the roster all along should remember that he didn’t exactly impress in those early days, memorably getting ejected for losing his temper while on loan in Harrisburg.

Yes, Nogueira and Maidana could have started the season in the positions they had historically played most often.

But Hackworth remained wedded to Brian Carroll as an automatic starter for far too long. There wasn’t room for Nogueira, Maidana and Maurice Edu in a center midfield trio as long as Carroll was an automatic starter. Hackworth had already begun cutting Carroll’s minutes in 2014, but it didn’t happen at the pace it needed to in order to open room for a Maidana-Nogueira-Edu trio early enough.

That also left the problem of left winger. Who was going to start there before Wenger came along? Danny Cruz? Fabinho? Until Wenger arrived and was moved to target winger, there was nobody on the roster justifiably good enough to do so in a 4-3-3.

Whether Hackworth considered Wenger on the wing before he was fired is not known. Regardless, Curtin obviously hit the ball out of the park with his move of Wenger to target winger. If Wenger had emerged in that role earlier, Carroll would have gone to the bench earlier.

But again, it can take time to recognize how best to incorporate so many crucial new players into a new team, and that’s what happened for Hackworth.

Hindsight is 20-20. Yes, White should have been the choice at center back after Berry went down, regardless of whether White impresses you or not. It simply would not have brought the same ridicule that the Wheeler selection did, and White was a serviceable player for Curtin in 2014. But some of these other moves were justifiable experiments considering the lack of options on the left flank.

Did Hackworth deserve to get fired?

After Hackworth was fired, I was in the minority of those who believed that the Union should have given him more time.

One could easily look at the good short-term results after the good job Curtin did as a replacement and justifiably say I was wrong.

Then again, think about that now that you know Amobi Okugo will play his next MLS game for Orlando.

Hackworth leaves a mixed legacy in Philadelphia, but on the whole, it should be considered a good one.

No, he did not take the team to the playoffs.

But Hackworth helped make the club accessible to the fans again. He stabilized an extraordinarily and uniquely bad situation after Nowak was fired. And he was a fantastic general manager, taking a salary cap disaster and somehow building what was probably the most talented starting lineup the Union have ever fielded.

Would more time have made a difference? Maybe, maybe not. It doesn’t matter now.

You have to admit though: He could make an awfully good general manager for the Union right now, don’t you think?

You can bat that pinata around in the comments section below.

39 Comments

  1. Can you explain what seemed to be a personal vendetta against Ethan White? Why trade your starting CB for one who you’ll never play? Curtin can’t be the only one on the coaching staff who saw Ethan White do well in training every week, can he?

    • To answer your questions:

      1) No, not definitively. White did seem like a loose cannon in Harrisburg though, so that may have played a part.

      2) White was a throw-in. The trade was for Edu.

      3) Different opinions. I don’t rate White as highly as many others do, for example.

      • WOuld you rate him higher than say, Aaron Wheeler? Because your assertion that reasonable people would lead to the conclusion that the only way to fix the loss of Parke and then Berry to injury was a karate kicking, neverplaythepositionbefore, not a clue positionally-but-hes-really-tall forward seems to overlook that Ethan White was available then. And Hackworth’s (who not only deserved the firing but isn’t qualified to be a pro manager) real mistake was somehow believing he could make it so. His true challenge with Wheeler was trying to mold him into being an MLS quality forward, something that is still not achieved. Increasing the odds to include CB sealed his fate.

        This team is many things, but better with Hack ain’t one of them.

      • How is Curtin more qualified than Hackworth to be a pro coach? Curtin has significantly less coaching experience than did Hack.

      • Had to re-read where I mention Jim Curtin and his coaching qualifications, nope, still not there. Don’t read my comment that Hackworth is still an unqualified disaster as a ringing endorsement for Curtin.

      • As usual, Scotty, you’re making stuff up that I didn’t write. No such assertion is in the post above. Carry on.

        And yes, I’d rate him above Wheeler on average. Give Wheeler 6-8 months at center back, and Wheeler would be better.

      • Dan – not to get personal, but when have I made things up? Why exactly are you still defending Hackworth? What do you see in Aaron Wheeler that no one else does? Even Hack called it a mistake. He’s a ‘beast’ alright.

        My use of the word “reasonable” was based on you bolding it above.I appreciate you do this for free, but you have more often than not come across as a FO apologist. Perhaps you feel you’re playing the voice of reason in the face of Negadelphians.

      • You routinely distort things I write and restate them in a way that I did not write them. For example, at no point did I write that Aaron Wheeler was the only option to replace Berry. In fact, I seem to recall very clearly stating that Wheeler’s CB experiment could/should have taken place in Harrisburg, not Philadelphia, both in this piece and elsewhere.

        That’s just one example. This distortion is so consistent from you that it’s hard to take your comments seriously anymore. (As people can tell, I read as many readers’ comments as I can.)

        As for me coming off as a front office apologist — well, you’re entitled to your opinion. Then again, considering I was probably the first one calling out Peter Nowak way back in 2012 back when many were saying nonsense like “in Nowak we trust” and considering the column I wrote yesterday, I fail to see how any reasonably fair person could view that as acting like an apologist. The above column is just something you disagree with.

  2. I’m whacking that piñata with all my might. Awful coach. Completely out of his league. No mention of the substitutions that were planned 2 days before the game started? Every coach in the league ate them up because they knew what was coming. Not having the guts to say “I put maidana in a bad place” but rather blame his kids for keeping him up at night and late meals!!! Never playing Kleberson except when you really needed him, and he scores arguably the best Union goal ever. No mention of trying to change Ribeiro’s position either? Not having the wit to realize Edu and Carroll were bumping into each other on the field and still throwing both out there? No folks, John Hackworth might’ve been the worst coach in MLS history.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      The subs were mentioned. At least read the article…

      • I did read the article boss. My point is he only substituted 2 people ever. I wanted to clarify how ridiculously obvious they always were. That is a huge failure for any coach. I can’t believe how many people here seem to be defending his tenure. Please post here when Hackworth gets his GM job. Not happening, he’s best dealing with youth. Nice guy, yes, bad coach, you bet ya.

      • Yes Hackworth did only sub Cruz and Hoppenot most of the time but I think it comes down to the time they were put in, especially with Hopp. subbing about 10 min. or less in a match isnt really enough time for players to be productive, unless youre Henry,Messi,Donavan….You get my point. Hackworth should have been subbing earlier in the match.

      • +1

    • If you take Hackworth out of the picture you can say goodbye to Nougiera and Maidana as well cause getting them here was all him.

      • Joey youre 100% correct. So I think his coaching was suspect but his GM tactics in getting players worked out well.

  3. So do we think Curtin is different? I mean that as a sincere question. Curtin, by his own words, would like Edu at centerback, an idea that seems to meet with the approval of the fanbase. Maybe the number one positive thing cited about Curtin is his decision to move Wenger to the wing.

    We continually vilify Hackworth and Nowak for tinkering with positions, and Curtin seems to be continuing that, yet we don’t seem too upset about it.

    • agreed. Coaches move players around all the time. Just look at Klinsy moving Jermaine Jones back to CB. It’s really not that scandalous.

    • Well I sure as shit don’t want Edu at CB now that our DM pressure release valve has been traded- unless they bring in some DM from Nova Scotia or Saskatoon or Latvia or Angola who is at least as good as the one we just fired.
      .
      Yes I said fired.

      • The Union have been rumored to be looking at William Kvist, a CDM who plays for Wigan Athletic in the Championship and for the Danish national team.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      I personally don’t think Curtain is any different. He is not the manager that will lead this team to a trophy. I don’t think he’ll be a bad a manager, but I just don’t think he’s good enough. We shall see.

    • I think the problem is that we don’t look at the three coaches individually. As Dan said, Nowak was a madman with it while Hackworth had some valid ideas that never really worked out. The underlying theme for those two is that 99% of those moves failed and that’s why they’re villified. In terms of Edu, he’s already been played at CB by Klinsmann in the national team and if Edu wants to get back into the USMNT picture, playing CB is probably the best way to do it.

    • Edu and Wenger are different. With Edu, there has been debate for years over which is his best position, CB or CM, and he has played CB before. With Wenger, coaches have been trying to identify his best position since he was in high school, and he has played everywhere.

      Okugo is a bit similar to both of these, insofar as his position. Nogueira, Maidana, Wheeler — less so.

  4. I was in the minority with ya, Dan. I think he needed more time.
    .
    Guess what? Curtin couldn’t hold on to late leads either. By switching managers, now we have to give Curtin time to move the players around that fits his style. And when people start calling for Curtin’s job, I will make the same argument…give him time.

    • Move players. What is with this moving players. I struggle with these assertions. Let us stop moving players. My God that is all this club seems to do, (move move move tinker tinker tinker) because they keep mucking it up. If you’re doing it right you ain’t moving players every third thursday. IMO that is. I don’t want to be brash.

      • That is what football coaches do. They move players depending on their needs, not what the player wants or even feels is his best position.

      • I understand jbh. I acquiesce. Players get moved sometimes. Asked to play in other positions for the benefit of the team. I imagine next season I should not at all be surprised then to see Noguiera as a 9 or Maidana as a 3.

      • If Chaco is a 3, that would displace Wheeler.

  5. As a side point, I think the insinuation that Okugo might still be here if Hackworth were is crazy. Okugo seemed pretty clearly–if carefully and professionally–unhappy with how he was being deployed under Hackworth (interesting to compare his handling of the situation to Gabe’s).
    .
    His comments long indicated that he wasn’t a guy who wanted to spend his career with what I think he considered his “starter” team. I blame the Union for not doing more to change his mind, but I don’t think Hackworth would have done so any more than Curtin did.

    • I agree. I think Okugo was gone regardless. The offseason additions of Edu, Noguiera and Maidana pretty much confirmed that Hackworth had no vision of ever seeing Amobi as a midfielder for this team. He saw him as a center back. The thing about position switches is that players have to buy in. Amobi did for the first two years, but I think he gave up this year. Part of the early season woes were just not that Berry got hurt, but that Amobi was playing poorly on defense as well. Okugo back to midfield this year had less to do with the teams needs at midfield and more to do with a need to improve the defense.

      And Curtin apparently shares Hackworth’s view. Because the first time he had Valdez and a healthy White for the USOC final, Okugo was on the bench while Edu moved back to midfield.

      For Okugo it was time to move on.

  6. Dan, it’s nice to see you mention the Brian Carroll Situation, because that’s kind of emblematic of Hackworth’s tenure. Even during 2013 many of us fans could see Carroll’s limitations as a DM, though of course our midfield was so bad that we didn’t have better options. Come 2014 and we most certainly DID have better options — the ones Hackworth himself obtained — and Carroll’s play seemed to decline a notch, and yet there he was, an automatic starter every game. I wondered if perhaps I were missing something that happened in practices… until Curtin came, benched Carroll, and the Union clearly got better. So now it must be asked: How could the coach not see what was obvious to most of the fans watching the game?

    Hackworth performed some great feats of player acquisition. But he just didn’t seem good at using the pieces he had acquired.

  7. It is aggravating that they Union let Parke leave so easily, but probably not the worst thing if Hackworth paid that price. He was in over his head and seemed to not be ready to coach at the MLS level.

  8. they didn’t let parke leave, he asked/pleaded to go. curtin has no where near the coaching experience hack had or has. obviously edu had to play CDM until the WC as part of the deal to bring him here. the players on the field failed to hold the late leads. hack picked the players but its not like he was picking a fantasy football side. it was unfair and unreasonable to let him go midseason. I believe the results would have been better overall had he stayed. i know I am in the minority … comfortable being there.

  9. Its cool everyone…..relax, now Hack is in charge with developing our best youth players?????? So, when your pissed at the MNT in 5-10 years……..you know why. In other countries, coaching the youth national set-up is an honor and not taken lightly. Even more prestigious than the full mens team. Here in the States, its an easy paycheck for the Old Boys network……..

    • ridiculous bile. we could just as easily and validly say the lack of MNT progress will be your fault. or that the poor performance of whoever you work for is obviously attributable to your efforts and you never deserved the job in the first place except for some improper favoritism you received.

      • if you don’t think there is an old boys network…….you really haven’t been involved in the game………ignorance is bliss!

    • Boy o’ Boy this is going to rub some people the wrong way 215. I just felt the temperature rise with that zinger. US Soccer a good old boys network? Sadly. I believe so as well.
      .
      That doesn’t mean I am disappointed for John Hackworth though or the fault lies with him. The system still has dead weight and that, I believe is the ultimate point of your point- which is dead accurate.
      .
      US Soccer needs a shake down. The revolution needs to be televised. But I won’t get in to all that jazz.

      • dude, its really not that hard to see, I don’t understand why people get so pissed when you point out the obvious! Having said that, I have no doubt Hack is a very good youth technical director………..just not for the BNT set-up. I could easily see him running an academy somewhere and doing a very good job. I just don’t see him developing our best, thats all. To him, Jack Mac…Cruz….and MacMath were his Bradington kids……..how did they develop?

  10. I’m glad the firing didn’t stop the “in defense of Hack” posts.

    More in 2015 please.

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