John Hackworth held his final press conference of the preseason on Wednesday at PPL Park. Heading into his first full year in charge of the Union, Hackworth fielded a wide range of questions and gave some lengthy answers regarding his goals and expectations for the coming season.
Here's a transcript of his remarks.
What's the difference between the team that's starting this year and the team that finished last year?
We've added some really important pieces. That's the thing that's most obvious. When you add in [Conor] Casey and [Jeff] Parke and have a healthy Baky [Soumaré], Sébastien obviously, it changes the makeup of the team.
The locker room is different, to say the least. You now have the young guys that have grown up and have a very comfortable knowledge of what it's like here, and you have some veterans that have won trophies and can share their experiences. But they're also trying to find their way here, within our team. I think that's the biggest difference.
It wasn't so long ago that the 2012 season ended. Are you and the team ready for the new season to begin on Saturday?
I do think we're ready. I would qualify that by saying that it's really difficult to try, in the amount of time we have to spend together in preseason, to get it 100 percent right. And I know talking to coaches around the league that every single team is having their own little issues right now.
But our team is really prepared right now, I feel. We ended our last day of training in Florida and every single guy was training - nobody was sitting out. We feel like we're fit, we feel like we've worked on the things tactically that we wanted to go through, we got a lot of work done on our technical ability. Mentally, guys are in a good frame of mind.
So all those little things you check off. We feel like we're prepared.
What are your goals and expectations for this team this year?
Right off the bat, it's to be consistent. I try not to look too far down the road. A lot of people have said, "Hey, you've got to make the playoffs this year." And of course that's our goal, that's a given, because I think any team that's successful in this league wants to be in a position to play in the postseason.
But really, if we put together the kinds of games that we did last year - and are certainly capable of this year - we'll put ourselves in a much better position to be in the postseason.
With the additions that you've made up front, how dangerous do you expect the team's attack to be?
It's a significant change. I don't know that you'll see that over one game, or even two games, but over the course of the season. We've now added players that can play different tactics, that can play to our strengths and hopefully take advantage of our opponents' weaknesses. We see ourselves as not one guy that's going to carry the workload, but a real team effort.
We haven't scored as many goals as we wanted to in the preseason. We're not really worried about that. It's been a collective effort, about how we play and who has gelled well, all those things.
Talk about Sporting Kansas City, the team you'll face in your season opener on Saturday.
They're a very good team. Probably not my first choice to open the new year with. But we have to do it, and we know that we will have a very good teams - if not one of the very best teams in the league - here on Saturday. That means we have to get that much better that much sooner, and it's a challenge, because they're pretty good.
But that said, we're focused on what we have to do. We truly believe that of the two teams, I think Sporting is going to have a little more concern coming here to PPL Park, where I think we've established the fact that we're a pretty tough team to play against.
Now add in our quality, the fact that we tried to reinforce that Philadelphia mentality into everything we do, and we hope that makes for a very interesting game on Saturday.
In addition to Kansas City, many teams in the Eastern Conference have made big moves this offseason - the Union included.
Over the last few years, the Western Conference has been perceived as being better than the East, but it seems like in this offseason the balance of power has shifted. How much harder does that make it for you to achieve your goals for the team this year?
It just means that we're never going to get a break. I think you're right - the Eastern Conference is significantly improved from last year. On paper, if you look at Columbus last year, they had 15 wins and didn't get into the playoffs. That's a phenomenal stat. And it's better this year, on paper for sure.
All the contenders have improved, and I think the teams that weren't in the playoffs have made significant improvements, us included. And that's just going to make it a really tough season every single weekend.
And then when you get that "break" against a Western Conference opponent - it's going to be tough for all of us. But the good news is that we all have to do it, so it evens out the playing field.
Without divulging - you can if you want to - is your starting lineup set in your mind, or are there still a couple of places that you haven't decided on yet?
Honestly, there are still a couple of spots open. That means we have some good competition. It also means we have to keep guys in a really good place to be ready for Saturday, which is a challenge for any coaching staff. But to the players' credit, they have not flinched in that regard at all.
I think they get it, that it's maybe not as automatic as it was last year. And for guys that are veteran players and have won championships in this league to the younger guys, it's all the same.
Are you surprised at how difficult the process of getting to a starting lineup has been?
Yeah, a little bit, to be perfectly frank. I would have thought that the starting XI that we have on a board in our war room in the back - in a perfect world, that same lineup would be the lineup that we'd be rolling out on Saturday. I don't think that's going to be the case.
So that means a couple of things. Maybe some guys aren't in the positions we thought they were in. Some guys have stepped their games up. What it does mean is that we're a team that has some good depth right now, and that's a great thing for a coach to have.
I don't think you can be successful in this league being 13 or 14 players deep. You have to go deep into your roster, especially when you get into the bulk of the year and the grind starts happening. You'll get some injuries, guys will get called away on international duty, all of those things. I think you have to be deep and for the time being, we certainly on paper think we are.
So is it a positive or a negative that you haven't settled on your starting lineup for Saturday yet?
An absolute positive.
is it more guys that are coming up and surprising you than guys that are not where you expected them to be?
Yeah. Now the challenge is all on the coaching staff to get those decisions right, and that's the tough part. But you want that as a coach, for sure. Referring back to last year, it's a much different process of trying to look at a starting XI, or even a system, putting down definitively that we want this guy in this place.
Speaking of systems, you tried out a few different formations during your preseason games in Orlando. From what you've seen so far, do you have a sense that one might work better than another?
Yeah. I can't really divulge that in a press conference, but we do for sure. I would go back to saying that having the ability to play in a couple of different systems will be a strength of ours this year. That will mean teams have to adjust to us, that we won't be as predictable. But it does mean that maybe we won't be the same [as often]. That has its own challenges.
What have you seen in the preseason from Zac MacMath, and what role will he have in finding the consistency that you are striving for?
I think he is one of the players that we are going to lean on very heavily to do exactly that. He has to be consistent week in and week out for us to be successful. He has been here knowing that he's going to be the No. 1. He has that swagger about him, that confidence. You can see that very easily.
But the reality is that he's got to make some key plays in games and keep us in it when he can. He's got to be solid in all areas, so that from that standpoint he allows us to be successful.
What have you seen from him in terms of how he has worked with the new defenders that you have acquired?
It's a little different. I'll give you the example of having Jeff [Parke] back there. Jeff's a vocal centerback. He tries to organize people really well, and that's helped Zac, I think.
Zac tries to do the same thing, and it's not a comparison to Carlos [Valdés] versus Jeff, but Carlos was a centerback who was a little more instinctive and led with his actions more than his words. Jeff's a little bit more of an organizer there.
I think that helps Zac, because he's certainly like that as well.
Along that line, thinking back to past years, Faryd Mondragón was a very vocal organizer as a goalkeeper. So it's interesting to hear you say that Zac is less of a vocal organizer, and Jeff can step up into that role.
I think Zac does it in a quieter way. People say he doesn't talk - he talks a lot. He's just not that vocal. He doesn't bring that attention to himself the way Faryd did. But he certainly does it.
So now, having a goalkeeper and a centerback who do that - Baky [Soumaré] does the same thing - it means we're communicating a lot more. We've just got to get all of those lines of communication correct.
How much easier it is to put your own stamp on the team when you've had a whole offseason and preseason instead of coming in midway through a campaign?
I think there was a lot of continuity that occurred last year naturally. It's not like I had to walk into the locker room and introduce myself, or change the things that I had always done as a coach. It is different, though, adding the new guys, and having the time to be prepared and go through a process where we're really trying to build through for Saturday.
I think everyone feels good about the work that has been done and our preparedness for Saturday.
With regard to the final roster decisions you've been making, especially guys like Georgi Hristov and Jordi Vidal, how difficult has that process been?
It's been rough. Those are the hardest conversations for any coach to have with players, and with us - I said it last week in reference to Damani [Richards] for sure - it doesn't have as much to do with those individual players and their talents as what we have with our roster right now, what we have with our cap space.
You make decisions in this league and they carry over from year to year, and sometimes it takes many years to get through that process. Sometimes you can solve them in different ways in this league. But it's also tough.
So when you talk about getting rid of some of the players that we've had to in this preseason, there were some guys that we didn't want to get rid of, who we would love to have in our locker room. But we don't have that luxury. We don't have that space, both in roster spots and cap space.
We have to be compliant [with MLS' roster rules] by Friday, and we still have a couple of very tough decisions to make.
Having three guys graduate from Generation Adidas in the same offseason - Zac MacMath, Jack McInerney and Amobi Okugo - surely can't help. How much more did that complicate your decisions?
That adds to it a lot. Not one dime counts against your salary cap. The minute they come off [Generation Adidas status], their numbers are pretty significant.
And so to a roster that's already being challenged to be under the cap, to have spots available, to have three guys in a different slot on your roster - they go from roster spots 21-30 to now having to put them in spots 1-20 - that's awfully tough.
This league is challenging in that regard. Once you have one decision on a player or a contract that changes how a player counts, it has a domino effect down the line.
How much have you talked to the City Islanders so far about the relationship you want to build with them, including which players you may want to send to Harrisburg?
We've been in constant communication with them. [City Islanders head coach] Bill Becher came out to a few practices in the preseason. I know [Union assistants] Rob Vartughian, Brendan [Burke] and Jim [Curtin] have all had conversations with him about what we see as potential players that need time.
Damani [Richards] is a really good example of that. Without going into too much detail, he's a guy whose development we need to invest in. That relationship certainly allows us to do it. And it allows us to balance our roster a little bit better as well.
What are the challenges of starting the season at home, as opposed to on the road?
The only challenge is the pressure. Because now you don't have the excuse of being on the road. Which is why I would prefer that some other team than Sporting Kansas City be here on Saturday.
It's also fantastic for us. Not only do we get to come back from preseason and make sure we're in our homes, rested and prepared, but you know you're going to have a more favorable atmosphere.
What impact do you think the departures of Kei Kamara and Roger Espinoza from Kansas City will have on the team? And what impact do you think the arrival of Benny Feilhaber and the increased prominence of Uri Rosell will have for Sporting coach Peter Vermes?
With Kamara and Espinoza, that says a lot about our league more so than anything - that guys are being plucked out of MLS and put into really important teams around the world. It's great for all of us in the big picture, because I think it elevates our game in this country, and it elevates our league around the world.
For Sporting, it's a big hit. I know Peter Vermes has worked really hard in the offseason to replace those guys, and in some cases those guys are not replaceable. He and his staff needed to go out and find guys, and Benny Feilhaber certainly was a good one.
I was fortunate enough to work with Benny [while an assistant coach with the U.S. national team], and he's a really good player. I don't think this league has seen Benny play at his best. So we certainly feel like that's going to be a major situation on Saturday that we have to deal with.
They're a good team, though. We watched them a lot during preseason. I have a good sense of what their strengths are. They had a good preseason, they played pretty similar to the way they played last year - which bodes well for us, because I think we both play a similar style.
It's more of a chess match, to see who can make plays and benefit from the opportunities that we're given.
So we know each other well, and that's going to be really interesting. They're good, and Benny's certainly a major, major player for them.
What is a fair expectation for this team? It's year four of the organization. You take a step back last year, but at this stage, what should fans' expectations be for this franchise?
I think that in a very basic way - and I think it's an excellent question, by the way - the unrealistic expectation is for us to be one of the powers in the league right away. In our league, you don't go from seventh to first without some major shifting occurring.
But the expectation that I think all of us in this locker room feel is that we're going to be better, and if we can be consistent week and week out, our performances will add up to something that hopefully puts us in a position to be very competitive when the postseason comes around in the fall.
There's a lot that is going to happen between now and then. There will be significant hurdles. We know they are going to come. How we deal with them, and the maturity that this team has shown - we are very positive that those are going to be things we have learned from in the past.
We expect a lot, but we are not trying to put some unrealistic expectations on this season.
Was it intentional to go get some more seasoned players to go with all of the young kids you've had? Guys who've played know about winning.
Sure. When you add a Conor Casey - two years ago he was the MVP of the MLS Cup Final. He led the U.S. men's national team to the 2010 World Cup. To have him and to have other guys with rings on their fingers, that's really important.
And that was truly one of our main targets in the offseason - to try to elevate the level of player in our locker room, so that there was a better combination. We still have a lot of guys who have no idea what that feeling is, what it really means to go through a full season or a competition and stand on top of the platform at the very end of it.
But having guys in the locker room who have been there and can share those experiences is invaluable.
What does it mean to you to have Jeff Parke, a Philadelphia-area native, as such a key part of this team, joining other local guys such as Chris Albright and Jim Curtin?
I'm sure that if you've listened to anything I've said in the last couple of months, our organization - not just me - has put a premium on the fact that we need to get back to our roots. We know what this city expects. We know the kind of fans that we have, and the way that Philadelphia teams in general are expected to play.
Having Jeff Parke, having Chris Albright, bringing Jim Curtin on to our staff - those guys know it. They've lived it. They grew up in it - it's ingrained and they're part of the culture. That certainly is something we wanted to grow within our locker room and our organization. So I feel really good about that.
I think it's going to be great for Jeff to step on the field here for the first time wearing a Union jersey, and having so many family and friends here.