Time for Nowak to show his managerial worth

(Published in The Philly Soccer Page on Oct. 25, 2012.)

Philadelphia Union manager Peter Nowak can prove Sunday just how good a manager he really is.

It will happen when the starting lineup is announced.

Outsiders may think Nowak’s a potential coach of the year, but those who follow the Union closely know he’s been a better executive than a chooser of starting lineups. He’s been terrific at building a team from scratch, but his questionable lineup choices have repeatedly cost the Union points.

That was never so clear as on Thursday, when Nowak deployed a two-defensive midfielder set that’s failed for two years and inexplicably gave a 16-year-old kid just his second professional start and third appearance in a big road game against the club’s primary rival. Amobi Okugo and Zach Pfeffer may be talented and deserving of playing time, but the situation wasn’t fair to either. Most wondered why Roger Torres and either Danny Mwanga or Jack McInerney didn’t start.

The results were predictable. The Union had no punch in one of the season’s biggest games. And they lost.

The double halftime sub: A familiar sight for Union fans

To Nowak’s credit, he acted to rectify his mistake with two subs at halftime, inserting Mwanga and Freddy Adu for Pfeffer and Okugo.

If that seemed like a familiar sight, it’s because it is.

Nowak has spent two halftime subs in nine different games this year. That’s 26 percent of the Union’s games, a stunningly high ratio.

One halftime sub isn’t uncommon in soccer, but two is an admission that your lineup failed. When Nowak replaced Okugo and Veljko Paunovic with Torres and Adu against Chivas USA, it was an acknowledgement that the two-defensive midfielder set limited the attack, as usual. When he yanked Stefani Miglioranzi and Gabriel Farfan for Mwanga and Michael Farfan in that wild New England game, the double d-mid set had failed on both ends.

Each choice — the starting lineup and the replacements — is consistent with the most notable Nowak trait. It’s not just tinkering. It’s wanting to control the game.

Too smart for your own good

The problem isn’t that Nowak isn’t smart. He has a great soccer mind.

But too often he tries to be too clever. He tinkers when he doesn’t need to. He puts his stamp on the game as much as he did when he was the best playmaker in Germany and Poland. But sometimes, less is more.

Sometimes, the simplest, most obvious solution is the right one.

  • When Sebastien Le Toux wasn’t scoring, it was because new acquisition Carlos Ruiz clogged the middle and pushed Le Toux away from goal and Mwanga.
  • When the Union’s dual-defensive midfielder set fails, it’s because you’ve subtracted a central creative presence and limited Brian Carroll’s strengths (huge coverage area, great defensive vision) while highlighting his weaknesses (offensive distribution).
  • Yes, Roger Torres plays best in the middle of the field.
  • No, Michael Farfan was never a fullback. (And maybe his brother isn’t either, but time will tell.)
  • Yes, Andrew Jacobson is a good holding midfielder, not an outside attacker, just like we observed over and over and over and over again.

And so on.

Sometimes, you just play a guy where he’s most comfortable and historically played best.

Sports are about players, not coaches

The great New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel once said, “If we’re going to win the pennant, we’ve got to start thinking we’re not as smart as we think we are.”

Great coaches recognize that. Sports aren’t about coaches. They’re about players. Phil JacksonJoe TorreBill WalshKenny DalglishBrad Gilbert — Regardless of the sport, they all know you can put the player in position to succeed or fail, but the player still has to do it. A coach’s role is to guide players, but he can’t play the game for them. Tactical approaches matter, but it’s the players who win games.

Nowak was a great player, and he has the intellect, presence, experience and work ethic to be a great manager, as he showed in D.C. United’s 2004 title run. If not for the Carlos Ruiz debacle, Nowak would deserve to be named MLS Executive of the Year. His vision in building the Union with youth has been largely spot on, he’s identified and acquired key veterans (Sebastien Le Toux, Danny Califf) and great young players (Danny Mwanga), and he’s hired good soccer people in John Hackworth and Diego Gutierrez who have helped secure key players (Sheanon Williams and the Farfans for Hackworth; Carlos Valdes, Faryd Mondragon and, more indirectly, Roger Torres, for Gutierrez).

But over and over again, Nowak has shown he has a hard time letting go of the control he had as a player.

It might just be that Nowak recognizes this. After the loss in New York, Nowak had this to say:

“I think the team needs to take charge right now to be in a position to challenge themselves. I think that if you work every single day to push these guys, the message sometimes is going to get old. They need to take the reins from me and the coaching staff, and make sure they will compete against each other and against the teams they will face, whoever it’s going to be.”

It’s time for Nowak to prove just how good a field manager he really is — by stepping back.

This time it matters

One can argue the MLS regular season doesn’t mean much, that it’s all just preparation for playoff time, and therefore, the lineup tinkering was worth doing to find that playoff starting 11.

If so, now’s the time. It’s one thing to maintain perspective with expectations and remember the Union are just a second-year club. It’s quite another to look ahead to your third season as part of a team-building plan and miss a chance to seize the moment in a season when the league’s best teams (Los Angeles, Seattle, Real Salt Lake) have key injury problems (Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, Mauro Rosales, a still-slowed Javier Morales) that could leave the MLS Cup wide open for the taking.

Now’s the time when Nowak gets to show everyone he was right and they were wrong, something the fiercely defiant Nowak clearly likes to do.

Well, that’s cool. Most Union fans would rather see Nowak put up than shut up.

So put up. Show us your best 11 already. Then get out of the way and let them play.

Union halftime substitutions, 2011

1 sub – 0-1 at LA (Daniel for Mwanga) – 4/2

2 subs – 1-0 vs San Jose (Farfan, Migs for Torres, Mwanga) – 4/30

1 sub – 1-1 vs LA (Mwanga for Daniel) – 5/11

2 subs -0-2 at Dallas (Ruiz, McInerney for Mapp, Carroll) – 5/14

1 sub – 0-1 at Vancouver (Mwanga for Migs) – 6/19

2 subs – 3-2 vs Chivas (Mwanga, Daniel for McInerney, Harvey) – 6/25

2 subs – 2-1 vs Colorado (Torres, Marfan for Daniel, Nakazawa) – 7/29

2 subs – 1-1 vs Houston (Mapp, Torres for Mwanga, Marfan) – 8/6 

1 sub – 1-2 at RSL (MacMath for Mondragon, injury-related) – 9/3

2 subs – 4-4 vs NE (Marfan, Mwanga, for Migs, Garfan) – 9/7

2 subs – 3-2 vs DC (Mapp for Okugo) – 9/29

2 subs – 1-1 at Chivas (Torres, Adu for Okugo, Paunovic) – 10/2

2 subs – 0-1 at New York (Adu, Mwanga for Okugo, Pfeffer) – 10/20