John Smallwood: Hackworth needs strong offseason to remake Union

Former Union manager Peter Nowak: The current team still has his fingerprints on it.ASSOCIATED PRESS
Former Union manager Peter Nowak: The current team still has his fingerprints on it.ASSOCIATED PRESS
Posted: October 07, 2012

In more than any other professional sport, soccer coaches have more say about the makeup of the roster that they go into a season with.

Soccer coaches aren't even called coaches. They are "team managers," and their responsibilities are as much about putting a team together as they are about directing one.

If former NFL coach Bill Parcells had been a soccer team manager, he would have never had to of made his famous comment, "They want you to cook dinner; at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries."

That brings us to Union team manager John Hackworth.

On June 13, Hackworth, who had been an assistant coach with the Union since its inaugural season in 2010, was named interim manager when Peter Nowak was sacked.

On Aug. 30, Hackworth was given the title permanently, or at least for as long as permanently means in professional sports.

After Wednesday's 3-1 victory over the Chicago Fire, Hackworth has coached the Union to a 7-8-4 record and 25 points.

That's not overwhelming, but considering the franchise was 2-7-2 in the 11 games before Nowak was removed, it certainly represents a change for the better.

But it probably was unrealistic to think that a change in manager would result in a complete 180-degree turnaround for the Union.

That rarely happens in any sport, and it's especially true in soccer, because the roster is almost a complete reflection of the manager who put it together.

Despite Hackworth being an assistant coach and then guiding the helm for more than two-thirds of the season, this is still Nowak's team.

In terms of playing style and ability, the team still has Nowak's hands all over it. He may have left the kitchen, but almost all of the ingredients he bought are still in the refrigerator and cupboards.

Nowak didn't leave a team that only he could coach, but it was still a team that was going to remain closely linked to his vision.

Of the 28 players on the Union roster, forward Danny Cruz and defender Bakary Soumare are the only ones not acquired during Nowak's tenure.

In fact, Cruz was acquired from D.C. United for Lionard Pajoy, who was one of Nowak's most glaring errors in trying to remake the Union for 2012, after the team had made the postseason for the first time the year before.

Because of Nowak's impact on the roster, Hackworth, despite being an assistant coach, was limited in how much change he could really make with the Union.

If Hackworth's vision differs drastically from Nowak's, it cannot be fully implemented with players he might not have chosen.

We've already seen Hackworth experiment with different formations and player combinations.

The final four games of the season are about evaluation, because the big part of Hackworth's job is under way.

Now we begin to find out how Hackworth will perform as a team manager.

With the playoffs out of reach, the focus for the Union in these last four games is building for 2013.

Hackworth will be putting a team together for the first time since he was the head coach at the University of South Florida (1998-2001) and was recruiting players to his team.

It will be a critical offseason for the first-time manager, and it will be interesting to see how the Union emerges from Hackworth's reshaping.

Right now, we don't know what Hackworth likes. He has no track record of building a pro team.

We can assume that his coaching tactics are similar to the ones that he's displayed, but, again, that has to be qualified by the fact that he is tied to the players he inherited.

He says he that likes his nucleus - that the Union is a team only in need of some tweaks and seasoning.

"I think we have a great core of players," Hackworth said when asked whether he thought the Union had a base he could work with or needed a complete overhaul. "I think we have a great group of soccer players, but we're on the young side, for sure.

"That youth had to be given time to grow and develop. That's the way it always is."

The reality is that Hackworth has to hope that is true, because a complete remake of the roster is neither possible nor desirable.

What Hackworth must show this offseason is that he is capable of making the type of acquisitions that will enhance the Union's growth - not retard it the way that Nowak did last year.

It will be interesting to see whether chief executive officer Nick Sakiewicz will give Hackworth autonomy with player personnel, as he did with Nowak.

That certainly did not work out well this season, as Nowak made a number of transactions that were unpopular with the fans and did little to improve the quality of the team.

It can be argued that Sakiewicz' hands-off approach to player personnel was as responsible for the Union's decline as Nowak's decision-making.

The first order of business for Hackworth was to be a coach who could pull the Union players out of the doldrums from their early-season struggles and simply play respectable soccer.

It's fair to say he did that.

Now, it's time for him to play the role of team manager and put together a roster that will erase the bad memories of 2012 and get this franchise back on track to a credible future.

"I went into the mindset that I had to do a good job of leading this team, Hackworth said, "and prove myself in every way possible."


Contact John Smallwood at smallwj@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/JohnSmallwood.

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