Thursday, November 27, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Philadelphia Union manager John Hackworth fired

The Philadelphia Union announced Tuesday afternoon that manager John Hackworth has been fired. Assistant coach Jim Curtin has been promoted to the head job on an interim basis.

Philadelphia Union manager John Hackworth fired

(Steven Bisig/USA Today Sports)
(Steven Bisig/USA Today Sports)

The Philadelphia Union announced Tuesday afternoon that manager John Hackworth has been fired. Assistant coach Jim Curtin has been promoted to the head job on an interim basis.

“We are an ambitious club, and although we are just in our fifth season we expect to win and be in the top tier of MLS," Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz said in a statement issued by the team.

Hackworth had been in the job since June 13, 2012, when he took over on an interim basis after Peter Nowak's dismissal. The two-year anniversary of Hackworth's promotion would have been this Friday.

Just over a month and a half after getting the interim job Hackworth was given the job on a full-time basis on August 30.

At the time, Sakiewicz told me that Hackworth's "skilled leadership has reinvigorated our players in recent months," and that there were "some very promising signs that we are moving towards a style of soccer that is in keeping with our respected Union brand."

The promise shown back then never truly came to fruition.

So what happens now? While Curtin is serving as interim boss, Sakiewicz said in Tuesday's press release that the team has "begun an ambitious and global search for a team manager who will help guide us to our goal of competing to win the MLS Cup. Philadelphia is a major market and we expect that there will be significant interest from a wide variety of qualified candidates."

It is a notable change in rhetoric from back when Sakiewicz and the rest of the Union's brass decided to give Hackworth the job on a full-time basis.

Back then, Sakiewicz told me that Hackworth "ticks all the boxes," and that he did not want to spend "the next three to four months searching for someone outside the organization that fits."

Sakiewicz emphasized the point with this question: "Why put our fans through that, why put our organization through that when we’ve got someone in our backyard?"

Hackworth's all-time record with the Union goes down as 23 wins, 30 losses and 20 draws. The 2013 season, his only full campaign in charge of the team, accounted for 12 of those wins.

That total was the most in a single season in team history. But in both 2012 and 2013, the Union failed to make the postseason.

Right now, despite being just three points out of the playoffs, they are one of just two teams in Major League Soccer's 10-team Eastern Conference that averages a point or fewer gained in the standings per game.

The team's record in 2014 currently stands at 3-7-6 through 16 games. The number of games played is key, as it is tied with Houston for the most in the Eastern Conference. Three teams have played 15 games, three have played 14 games, last-place Montréal has played 12 and fourth-place Toronto has played 11.

Sakiewicz met with reporters Tuesday night ahead of the weekly team-produced radio show at a restuarant in Northeast Philadelphia. He tried his best to strike an optimistic tone.

"In a lot of ways, this move was to continue to instill hope in the fan base that we have a shot at winning something," Sakiewicz told the the Inquirer's Marc Narducci.

It will be interesting to see whether the fan base accepts the attempt to have hope instilled in them.

Further remarks were tweeted out by KYW and Soccerly.com's Kevin Kinkead: 

When I first saw the latter of those remarks, I took it at face value and concluded it was false. Top assistant Mike Sorber was part of the Chicago Fire team that won the 2000 U.S. Open Cup; assistant coach and assistant technical director Chris Albright won MLS Cups with D.C. United in 1999 and the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2002 and 2005.

I later realized that Sakiewicz was referring to Curtin being the only member of the coaching staff who has won a trophy as a head coach. On that point, Sakiewicz is correct.

Though Curtin has never held a senior-level head coaching job, he was in charge of the Union academy's under-17 and under-18 teams for a few years. He coached the under-17s to the 2012 Generation Adidas Cup title, which is no small feat. The squad included current Union midfielder Zach Pfeffer and highly-touted goalkeeper prospect Zack Steffen, who's a rising sophomore at the University of Maryland.

Sorber, Albright and technical director Rob Vartughian, meanwhile, have no head coaching experience at all.

Looking back on the events that led to Hackworth's downfall, here's something that I think was a big factor. In five of the Union's 16 games this season - including this past Saturday's 3-3 draw with Vancouver at PPL Park - the team failed to hold on to a lead.

Not all of the collapses were caused by the same factor or factors, to be sure. But many of them were tied in some way to the failed attempt by the Union's coaching staff to transform forward Aaron Wheeler into a central defender.

The exact division of responsibility between Hackworth, Sorber and the rest of the staff for the Wheeler debacle may never be fully known. Hackworth was the public face of the decision, though, so he had to own it.

In recent weeks, Hackworth started subtly admitting the conversion was not working. Finally, on June 4 - at what turned out to be his final midweek press conference as Union manager - Hackworth gave up the full truth.

"He’s been playing more as a forward in training," Hackworth said. "Not to say that we won’t ever use him in the back again, but I think we made that conscious decision going into the L.A. Galaxy game [on May 25]."

Later in that same press conference, I asked Hackworth to assess how responsible the coaching staff was for the move not working out.

Hackworth's answer:

It’s a hundred percent our responsibility. Our decisions as a technical staff, I think we should be held accountable a hundred percent for those, because it’s our decisions. But, when you try different guys in different positions, I think that’s the risk you run. In this case, clearly we decided that was a direction we were not going to forward in.

Six days after Hackworth's admission, Sakiewicz pulled the plug.

"We appreciate the work, time and efforts John Hackworth put into building the club and his influence on our youth academy," Sakiewicz added. "He is a first class person and we wish him the best in his future endeavors.”

MLS is now on its two-and-a-half week World Cup break. Between now and a trip to New England on June 27, the Union's only on-field matter of business is a U.S. Open Cup game against their USL PRO affiliate, the Harrisburg City Islanders, on June 17.

That will give Curtin time to put his philosophies to work.

So what will the Oreland, Pa., native bring to the job? Though he has never held a senior-level head coaching job before, he has a a deep knowedge of MLS' inner workings to the role, both as an assistant and as a player in the league.

Curtin became part of the Union organization in June of 2010, when he joined the club's academy staff at YSC Sports in Wayne, Pa. He served as YSC’s Director of Curriculum Development, and as I noted above he was also the Union’s Under-18 Academy head coach. 

In November of 2012, the Union promoted Curtin to an asisstant position with the first team

Although Sakiewicz has promised a global search for a manager, Curtin's lack of senior-level experience should not necessarily disqualhim from the job. Many former MLS players have made quick and successful transitions to the bench, including Mike Petke (New York Red Bulls), Ben Olsen (D.C. United) and above all Jason Kreis (Real Salt Lake and New York City F.C.).

I have known Curtin for a few years now, and see no reason why he can't join those ranks. He has a sharp soccer brain and is well-respected by a lot of people in the MLS community. Though he may not end up getting the Union job full-time, he deserves a fair chance to show what he's got.

Curtin's solid reputation goes back to his playing career as a stalwart central defender. He helped Chicago win the the 2003 and 2006 U.S. Open Cups and the 2003 Supporters' Shield. The Fire also made the MLS Cup Final in 2003, losing to Landon Donovan's San Jose Earthquakes. Curtin finished his playing career with Chivas USA from 2008 to 2009.

Only once in Curtin's nine years as a player did his team not make the playoffs, including both campaigns with Chivas. The Goats have not reached the postseason since his retirement.

That is the kind of standard Curtin will hope to impress upon the Union's players and front office in whatever time he will have as head coach.

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Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, U.S. national teams and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

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