John Hackworth’s Tenure Remembered, and What’s Next for the Philadelphia Union
When it really comes down to it, a firing is one of the most conflicting events in sports.
At times, change is absolutely necessary in a team to the point that a player or coach needs to be let go. The only way improvement can happen sometimes is to change personnel–even at the expense of somebody’s job and living situation.
The dismissal of John Hackworth as manager of the Philadelphia Union is one such case. On the surface, it is a move that probably needed to be made for many reasons. However, the timing and the man it happened to add layers of pain to the affair. Worst of all, it comes amidst the fifth season of the Union’s existence–one that has been fraught with disappointment and continued mediocrity since it was founded in 2010.
It is worth remembering when Hackworth’s tenure began: June 13, 2012, almost two years ago. At the time, the Union were 2-7-2 (8 points), woefully underperforming, and had seen the identity of the squad stripped down by enigmatic manager Peter Nowak. With key players like Danny Mwanga and Sebastien Le Toux sent packing and a host of unknown players from South America imported in, the team and its manager had alienated themselves from the very fan base who had prompted the founding of the team.
Into the breach as interim manager stepped Hackworth, the main assistant to the club and before that a manager in the youth levels of the U.S. National Team. Not only did he have to somehow pilot the club to the end of a disastrously started season, but he would also have to begin to undo the damage Nowak made both on and off the field.
The team started brightly enough. After a somewhat promising 1-0 defeat to D.C. United, they erupted for a swashbuckling 4-0 victory over Eastern Conference contenders Sporting Kansas City at PPL Park. League wins over the Los Angeles Galaxy on the road and Toronto FC, Montreal Impact, and New England Revolution at home would follow over the next seven league matches (4-3 record in that span), results filled with attacking play and spearheaded by the promotion of young Jack McInerney to a greater role. With the uncertainty of Nowak gone from the head of the club, it was clear the players were responding to Hackworth.
On August 30, a day after a dramatic 2-1 win over New England at PPL Park, the interim tag was lifted. It was now Hackworth’s team.
The Union would finish 10-18-6 (36 points), eighth place in the 10-team Eastern Conference and 17 points outside of a playoff position. In the offseason that followed, Hackworth shipped out Nowak pupil and longtime United States soccer wunderkind/enigma Freddy Adu to Bahia in Brazil, offloaded South/Central American imports Gabriel Gomez, Proforio Lopez, and Josue Martinez, and pieced together as much of a squad as he could muster through the financial restraints caused by Nowak’s ill-fated decision making. This included getting a deal to bring Le Toux home to Philadelphia, where he had become a folk hero in the club’s first two seasons.
Expectations were hardly high coming into the season given how the team and Hackworth had yet to shake Nowak’s damage. But thanks to several good results and an early-season scoring spree from McInerney, the Union stood at 10-7-7 (37 pts.) on August 10 and still in the thick of the playoff race. Late draws consecutively against FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake at the end of June and beginning of July had been cause for concern, but results were still coming.
And then it all dried up.
The Union closed 2-5-3 to end the season and scored just six goals in that span. McInerney scored just two goals after returning from a summer stint with Jurgen Klinsmann’s U.S. squad before the Gold Cup. The midfield, an constant point of criticism all season, was never able to perform well enough to compliment the team’s attack and defense.
In reality though, many viewed it as a buffer season–Hackworth was given Nowak’s leftovers and was dealing with them as best he could. With several contracts going off the books that following offseason, high-caliber signings Maurice Edu, Vincent Noguiera, and Cristian Maidana bolstering the midfield, and the implementation of a 4-3-3 system long-championed by Hackworth, now it was finally his team. A true evaluation could now happen.
The rest is all quite fresh in the mind. The Union performed well in their first few matches, playing strong possession soccer but struggled to finish chances and saw late equalizers conceded often that led to some dropped points. After four matches, with an eye toward future budget constraints and with some potential tactical and internal issues in mind, Philadelphia traded McInerney to Montreal for local product and former No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Wenger. It was entirely out of left field, especially since the Union had started 1-1-2 and shown well in their early matches despite the concerning lack of goals.
From there, the wheels came off. Nine straight matches without a win from mid-March to mid-May, ended by a stunning 2-1 win away against Sporting Kansas City. Since then, they have picked up another win–a controversial 3-0 result away at Chivas USA–but also two losses and a draw, three results where the Union have been outscored 12-7. A three-match span.
And here they are now. The Union stand 3-7-6 (15 pts.), just three points outside playoff positions but with other teams above them holding games in hand. Hackworth’s final record as manager at the time of his dismissal is just 23-30-20.
In reviewing his tenure and the matches his team played, it was very clear that Hackworth was not a skilled tactician. His hope was always that his teams would play a style based around quick, decisive possession that would rapidly move from defense to attack and make good use of being on the ball. There were flashes of it during his only full season in charge back in 2013, as the Union often benefited from the dynamic wingback runs of Ray Gaddis and Sheanon Williams and the deliveries of makeshift winger Le Toux. However, the continued criticism of the rotating midfield of Keon Daniel, Brian Carroll, Michael Farfan, and whoever else was thrown in there did not help matters. There lacked a real plan of attack, with things often happening on a whim; even this season thus far, the improved midfield group has struggled at times to show a real gameplan of how they approach attacking and defending, leaving holes in the defense that have led to numerous trailing runs for goals and forward play that has lacked decisive chance creation.
The players certainly deserve sharing in the blame, but Hackworth and his mostly green technical staff have long been at the center of it. Lineups have been constantly in flux. Le Toux was deployed as a winger, Sheanon Williams moved to center back, and a constant rotation of both strikers and defenders was used in an attempt to find the right combination. Players under criticism for poor performances (Keon Daniel last season, Brian Carroll in both) or having mainly “athletic” qualities but lacking technical skill (Danny Cruz) have been favored by Hackworth, while others have been inexplicably dropped for long periods of time (Roger Torres and Kleberson in 2013, Austin Berry and Ethan White in 2014). Young talent, especially homegrown players Zach Pfeffer, Jimmy McLaughlin, and Cristhian Hernandez, have not been allowed to flourish or get adequate opportunities at the First-team level.
And yet, in spite of all the technical and tactical problems Hackworth was a player’s manager. The sight of most of the eleven on the field coming to him to celebrate Danny Cruz’s opening goal against Sporting KC back in May after a week of heavy criticism from the fans was proof enough that the players backed him. Their comments postgame and in other matches only further underline the point. As a former assistant, he had built these connections even during the Peter Nowak era. It was a strong link.
He was always courteous to the media, soft-spoken and often very measured in his comments when it came to dealing with players. Hackworth strove for a “Philly tough” mentality from his squad, in hopes that they would endear themselves to the fans and truly represent the city.
Behind the scenes, he was a skilled navigator of working the MLS marketplace for deals. He was a focal point in the deals made to bring in Maurice Edu, moving Jeff Parke to D.C. United for Ethan White and the top spot in the allocation order for Edu’s rights. This past MLS Draft was also proof, as he and the Union came away with No. 1 overall pick and the consensus top player in goalkeeper Andre Blake and navigated along the trade board multiple times to secure other talented players such as Pedro Ribeiro.
Perhaps the only downside post-draft is that none of the Union’s draftees have appeared in MLS minutes this season–evidence of his problems as a tactical and game manager of the players at his disposal. But he pulled off several big moves and was also able to gain some allocation money from the proceedings for future signings.
By his talents, Hackworth proved himself more suitable of an assistant manager role or a General Manager/Technical Director position than Manager. To see him let go mid-season is a bitter blow for the Union in any case.
All the work done to mold this team is slightly undone with the visionary displaced. In the midst of a season where the team has struggled to historically bad lows on the stat sheet and standings and where beloved Sons of Ben supporter Eric Shertz tragically passed away, this firing is the latest blow to strike a downtrodden team.
It is worth mentioning that Nick Sakiewicz deserves much of the spotlight in the midst of this dark time for the club as well. Two managers have been displaced–one because of philosophy, not results according to Sakiewicz, but now the other because of on-the-field results that were almost as bad as the former’s. A firing in the middle of a season should, in most cases, have a successor automatically tied in. In this case, Sakiewicz announced yesterday that a global search is now underway, and that applications are already flooding in. Certainly not much promise of an immediate or thought-out hire that prompted the firing. If Sakiewicz cannot get it right a third time around in choosing a man to helm the club, then perhaps it is time for him to go. Just ask New York how they feel about Sakiewicz running club matters from the front office.
So here we are. The Philadelphia Union are in the midst of Year Five. Only once have they reached the playoffs, a quick first round exit back in 2011 under Nowak. Two managers have come and gone, just one player remains from the original squad (Amobi Okugo) and they stand seemingly nowhere near closer to contending for an MLS Cup title. It is a disheartening time for a team who stood to gain so much in the public eye of Philadelphia during a time where the Phillies are struggling into the summer slate of baseball games. Instead, the team and its promising components are heading back to square one.
John Hackworth gave Philadelphia what he could with what he was given. Off the field, it was seemingly enough. On the field, it never came together under his tutelage. Now, once more, the Philadelphia Union will try again to find the right visionary to give the fans the club they deserve–the club they helped to found.
Here’s to a better five years.
Follow Joel on Twitter @JoelHoover