Kerith Gabriel: Nowak's undoing as Union manager was of his own making
THERE IS NO shortage of captivating story lines recently in Philadelphia sports.
Wins, yes; page-turning story lines, no.
The Union added news of its own to go with the listless Phillies, the Eagles' changes and watching former Flyers players (and a coach) hoist the Stanley Cup. On Wednesday, the club announced manager Peter Nowak "stepped down" from his responsibilities, which now belong to Nowak's longtime, trusted assistant, John Hackworth.
The news swept in fast and quick, like a guillotine. If there was blood, it hasn't been visible, as Nowak has remained unreachable for comment, but it's believed he had time to prepare — or at least knew the beginning of the end was upon him. Following a 3-2 loss against minor league affiliate Harrisburg Tuesday night, a despondent Nowak made his way over to the Sons of Ben supporters, shook their hands and conversed with them for quite some time. One media member on hand said he thought Nowak's actions were "beyond bizarre, almost like he knew this would be his last match."
Meanwhile, right around the same time, CEO and managing partner Nick Sakiewicz was on a flight back to Philly after a business trip in Florida. It's unknown when Sakiewicz and fellow owners such as Jay Sugarman decided to pull the plug on Nowak's tenure, but Sakiewicz said Nowak was informed Wednesday morning, spurning Wednesday's impromptu news conference.
Undoubtedly serving as a final straw was the knowledge that (whether truth or rumor) the report from Scotland's Edinburgh Evening News that Nowak submitted a resumé (without club knowledge) to a vacant position with Hearts, a Scottish Premier League team destined for Europa League play next season.
While Nowak responded in a text message to the Daily News that the claim was "absolute false," don't tell me that with the Union, a revamped club languishing at the bottom of a perennially weak Eastern Conference and struggling to find some headway, Sakiewicz and Co. didn't take this as disrespect.
Because make no mistake, if true, it was disrespectful.
But I see that as a microcosm for many of the head-scratching decisions made over the course of 2 years and 11 MLS matches so far this season. Sakiewicz left many confused Wednesday when he said "we as owners are very active" when Nowak suggested bringing in or releasing a player. Conversely, later in the news conference Sakiewicz followed up that such decisions were ultimately Nowak's.
"Those [were] Peter's decisions," Sakiewicz said. "I am not the type of owner or manager that whispers in ears or makes those decisions; those are 100 percent the team manager's decisions and we [as an ownership group] support those decisions, we provide input, we provide consultation, and when I say we, a number of us, including our board of directors. I don't veto anything, and I've fully supported his decisions, but ultimately those are Peter's decisions, as they are now John's."
Nowak had made some head-scratching decisions, some I agreed with and some I called him out on. I've never been down with the aptly titled "face of the franchise" talk, especially given what these so-called faces have amounted to elsewhere. Sebastien Le Toux, the biggest gripe among fans, has the same amount of goals (three) for Vancouver as Lionard Pajoy has for the Union. The way Jordan Harvey was dismissed by Nowak was criminal, but Harvey plays primarily as a substitute, also for the Whitecaps. And looking at it in retrospect, don't tell me Gabriel Farfan isn't a much better long-term fit at left fullback.
But it was the dancing around questions, the ban on media attending extended time at practices, the assumption that, as a general public, we knew very little about how the soccer world works — Nowak was repeatedly at fault in these things.
Philly fans may not have a firm handle on how MLS' convoluted allocation-money design works, but they know that when you trade away for cash and get little value in return, that ain't smart business sense.
To be honest, I think Nowak took Philly fans for granted. Given the team's expansion status and his pedigree as a coach, I think he believed this would be a place where his words and actions reigned supreme and that everyone would believe (with virtually no explanation, in many cases) that his decisions were in the club's best interest.
But that cake don't bake here.
Philadelphia had soccer fans long before there was a team and most of them can sniff BS a mile away, something I think this experience also made the Union front office realize. Smoke might be coming out of the River End, but those supporters can still see through it.
In Wednesday's news conference, Sakiewicz tapped the Union emblem on his jacket and said he owes it to a host of people involved to do "what's best."
One thinks Sakiewicz also means what's best for everyone's sensibilities, too.
All-Star coach in flux
With Peter Nowak out, MLS is deliberating who will coach its July 25 All-Star Game at PPL Park. In recent years, the league has designated the coach of the host city as manager, but with John Hackworth playing an interim role, it's not guaranteed that he'll get the job. Nelson Rodriguez, MLS' executive vice president of competition and game operations, released the following statement, Thursday:
"As we only just became aware of the Philadelphia Union coaching change, we will take the appropriate time to consider who should lead the MLS All-Stars against UEFA Champions Chelsea FC on July 25 at PPL Park."
A Union representative told the Daily News that MLS is expected to announce the decision in "a couple of weeks." n