Union's Problems May Run Deeper Than One Bad Winemaker

CHESTER, PA - APRIL 11: (L-R) Phil Stoops of AT&T, team manager Peter Nowak of the Philadelphia Union, Nelson Rodriguez of MLS and Nick Sakiewicz of the Philadelphia Union pose for a photograph during the MLS All-Star Game Press Conference at PPL Park on April 11, 2012 in Chester, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

With Peter Nowak now gone, it's worth asking if the Philadelphia Union are simply being mismanaged from the top down.

That Peter Nowak was finally fired (official wording aside) is hardly a surprise. Many of us who have watched this team over the past year saw this coming. OK, just about everyone who watched this team saw it coming. Whether it was the head-scratching trades, the odd tactical decisions or simply the way he managed his own image, the obvious conclusion was that this was going to end badly.

Nowak might be some kind of mad genius -- at least that's what people keep telling us -- but most of his time in charge of the Union was just maddening. The man swooped into town and everyone loved him for his eccentricities ... for about a year. Eventually, those lovable foibles started to look more like irreparable character flaws.

That's all water under the proverbial bridge now, though. What remains is essentially all of the support and infrastructure that allowed Nowak to operate in the first place.

The Union launched with what seemed to be a perfect model. A rabid fan base was already in place. A gorgeous soccer-specific stadium was being built. An experience MLS hand was running the front office. And yet, here we were are in Year 3 with a team that is suddenly in rebuild mode.

Nick Sakiewicz carries the title of CEO and essentially oversees the entire operation. When hiring the franchise's first coach, the man around whom the team's personality would be built, Nowak was called the "first, second and third choice." It was a remarkable amount of faith to put in a man who already had a reputation for wearing out his welcome within a few years.

It's also not exactly clear why Sakiewicz picked this moment to do what has seemed inevitable for most of this season. In explaining the move, he actually suggested he felt the team was playing well despite their 2-7-2 record and a -6 goal-difference that is better than just three other teams. He also said that Nowak's reported pursuit of a head coaching position in the Scottish Premier League with Hearts. Instead, he used a vague analogy about the wine Nowak was making not tasting right.

If we take that analogy a little further, it would seem that Sakiewicz believes there was no problem with the grapes but something happened from harvest to table. That leaves Hackworth with trying to figure out how it all turned into absolute swill.

In my own limited interaction with Hackworth, he seems to be a stand-up guy who can at least communicate effectively. But this is the first time that he's been the manager of pro players and I'm not so sure this team is nearly as close to turning it around as Sakiewicz does. There still isn't a veteran goalkeeper on the roster. The offense is still scoring at a lower rate than any other team in the league. The team still lacks a clear leader.

If there is a ray of hope, it's that despite the horrendous start, the Union are still just eight points behind the playoff pace with a couple matches in hand on most of their competition. Stringing a few wins together, especially as the schedule turns more unbalanced and games are increasingly played within the conference, the season can still be salvaged.

A failure to do so shouldn't necessarily reflect directly upon Hackworth, though. Let's remember that each of Nowak's moves were done with the tact approval of upper management, and most of them were designed to save money. Very little of those precious allocation dollars that the Union received in exchange for Jordan Harvey and Sebastien Le Toux appear to have been used.

To fall back on Sakiewicz's analogy one more time, maybe the entire vineyard has been poorly managed.

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