A rule-breaker, autocrat, or something else?

(Published by The Philly Soccer Page on March 21, 2012.)

Saturday’s road game against Chicago is a must-win for Peter Nowak.

Imagine the spectacle on March 31 if Philadelphia Union lose to Chicago and limp into PPL Park winless to host Sebastien Le Toux and the vastly improved Vancouver Whitecaps. What would be louder, the cheers for Le Toux or the jeers for Nowak? Then Philadelphia would face a good Vancouver team featuring three players Nowak discarded in spite of their solid play.

Not a happy scenario for Nowak.

Nowak’s latest controversy surrounds team captain Danny Califf, who showed up at PPL Park on Sunday ready to play, only to find his name left off the lineup card because of an injury Califf says doesn’t exist, despite Nowak’s claims to the contrary.

Califf’s name did not appear on the injury report filed by the team to the league office. The same thing happened a week earlier against Portland, when Roger Torres didn’t appear on the team’s injury report but was a surprise scratch due to what Nowak said was an ankle injury. An anonymous, well-placed source told PSP that Torres was perfectly healthy.

Teams are required to file injury reports with the league office each Tuesday and Friday as a service to media and fans, according to league spokesman Will Kuhns.

“The expectation is that those be as accurate as possible, with the expectations that conditions can change,” Kuhns told me on Monday.

The league can fine a team for inaccurate reports, but league officials usually opt for a common sense fix, Kuhns said.

So did Nowak break league rules by not accurately reporting an injury to the league office?

Not likely.

In all likelihood, Nowak simply wanted to tinker with his lineup, as he often does, and used Califf’s off-season knee issue as justification for excluding Califf from a three-man back line after the center back’s ordinary performance against Portland. Whatever your view on Nowak’s use of a 3-5-2 formation against Colorado’s 4-3-3, a manager has the right to choose his lineups.

What’s notable is that Nowak didn’t personally tell his captain he was sitting out and instead left him in the uncomfortable position of hearing why from the media. Similar incidents happened previously when Califf was replaced as captain last year without being told first, Shea Salinas was exposed in the 2010 expansion draft after Nowak told him he’d be protected, and Le Toux learned via Twitter he was going to be sold.

Players and coaches often differ on a player’s fitness to play, but Nowak thought Califf was healthy enough to warrant a spot on the substitutes’ bench. Nowak’s claims of an injury run up against his captain’s denial that it exists and the fact that Califf isn’t on this week’s injury report either. For his part, the typically candid Califf appears to have simply responded to media inquiries about his injury as he usually does, telling the truth as he knew it.

After spending much of his playing career in Germany, Nowak looks every bit the German autocrat of a coach, in the model of Otto Rehhagel or, perhaps more accurately, Felix Magath, who Goal.com described as “dealing players with the freewheeling abandon of a young child with a PlayStation.” Each has won his share of trophies, but their styles often alienate players and fans along the way.

When Philadelphia native Bobby Convey said during the KYW Philly Soccer Show two years ago he’d never play for Nowak, many presumed the outspoken Convey was the problem child in the equation. Now, considering the pattern emerging with Le Toux and others, it’s not so clear.

Fans have already blackly observed that Califf may be a dead man walking, the next (and only remaining) popular team leader to be shipped out for questioning Nowak. Will that happen? Or will Nowak right the ship?

Tune in Saturday. Same batty time, same batty channel.