Should John Hackworth be fired?

(Published on Sep. 25, 2013 in The Philly Soccer Page)

Should John Hackworth be fired?

Fans have been asking the question.

Some skip the question, demand the firing, and criticize anyone who disagrees.

Philadelphia Union are in the midst of what could become an epic season-ending collapse. They have:

  • not won any of their last five games;
  • scored only one goal in that stretch and not a single one in their last 310 minutes;
  • fallen from within a few points of the Supporters’ Shield to beneath the “red line” and out of a playoff spot.
  • Only four MLS clubs have fewer points in the standings.

So here’s your answer to the question of whether Hackworth should be fired:

Probably not.

Why not to fire Hackworth

On paper, the Union are who we predicted they were in preseason: A classic middle of the pack team.

The Union punched above their weight most of the season to briefly come within striking distance of the Supporters’ Shield. Three major factors determined that:

  • an excellent forward corps (Conor Casey, Jack McInerney, Sebastien Le Toux) built by Hackworth;
  • an unusually high number of opposition red cards;
  • a generally solid back line shielded by Brian Carroll.

Then the rest of the league figured them out.

The game plan against the Union can be fairly simple:

  • Don’t get beat on the counterattack.
  • Don’t earn any red cards.
  • Hope that Le Toux’s set piece service is off, which it has been of late.

If you do those things and your midfield is better than the Union’s, which it usually is, you will win or draw.

A messy salary budget situation inherited from Peter Nowak handicapped the club from the outset. They still have not had the freedom to sign adequate midfield help. The key missing piece* remains a creative linchpin around whom to build the attack, in the model of Diego Valeri, Javier Morales, David Ferreira and Federico Higuain. Rightly or wrongly, Hackworth clearly doesn’t think Roger Torres or Kleberson is that player. Neither should be with the club next year.

Hackworth has yet to operate this club without major salary budget handicaps from the contracts of Freddy Adu and Bakary Soumare. Next year is his shot.

Why the heat should still be on

If the Union win none of their final five games, the firing question still needs to be asked, however. You can’t go from within striking distance of the Supporters’ Shield to a 10-game winless streak to end the season, particularly when two extraordinarily bad teams in Toronto and D.C. United are on the schedule. Those are must-win games.

Missing the playoffs is not a firing offense on a team that began with the significant financial handicaps that Hackworth faced. However, an epic, season-ending collapse might be.

The fact remains that Hackworth has mismanaged his midfield. Philadelphia’s midfield failures remain the primary factor holding this club back from being a championship contender.

  • Danny Cruz is not starting quality in a four-man midfield. Maybe as a winger in a 4-3-3 in which his defense is not required, but that’s it. He offers nothing to the possession game, plays soccer as a wind sprint instead of a marathon, and typically only influences a game in brief bursts.
  • Keon Daniel is good in possession and underrated in defense, but his deployment in a four-man midfield with Brian Carroll eliminates any attacking push through the center. His selection is inherently conservative. Daniel won’t lose a game for you, but he won’t win it either.
  • Michael Farfan has been so misused in so many positions that his confidence looks shot. We now know his limitations: He is a creative right-sided player who must be deployed in the right role.
  • Le Toux is an auxiliary forward with good passing vision who, if deployed in midfield, must be balanced by a possession-oriented midfielder on the opposite flank.
  • The foursome of two stay-at-home center midfielders (Daniel, Carroll) and two full-on wingers (Le Toux, Cruz) has been a disjointed, disconnected and ineffective mess.

Hackworth has stuck with a midfield rotation of Le Toux, Cruz, Daniel, Carroll and Farfan because he clearly does not think his other midfielders have much of a future. I disagree with that choice, but I understand it.

Hackworth’s long view

Hackworth is a patient, long-term thinker whose primary goals over the last year and a half were to stabilize a club that his predecessor devastated last year, consistently deploy a competitive team, and develop a nucleus of young talent and veteran leaders. He has accomplished those goals.

On the flip side, his long-term approach is probably why he failed to make necessary lineup changes once other teams figured the Union out. The thought was probably, “We may not impress anyone, but maybe we can continue keeping games close and then pull out a win or draw on a Le Toux set piece, quick counterattack or opposition red card.” That’s not unreasonable. It worked most of the year. And what’s the point of inserting a player (Kleberson, Torres) who won’t be here next year if your best case scenario might be an immediate playoff exit?

By hewing too close to that vision, however, Hackworth failed to seize an opportunity. Few predicted Casey and McInerney would play as well as they have, McInerney’s current cold streak notwithstanding. The Union suddenly had one of the league’s best striker tandems and a solid defense, but Hackworth failed to capitalize on it. In a year without dominant clubs, a competitive midfield could have put the Union among the league’s elite, even with an inexperienced goalkeeper in Zac MacMath.

That’s what has fans so frustrated. An opportunity was missed. (Also, this is Philadelphia, where we brutalize players and coaches.) And the soccer has been ugly.

Do observers overestimate the quality of Kleberson and Torres? Possibly. But few outsiders would bury Torres as completely as Hackworth has. You can’t tell me Torres didn’t show enough in practice — practice??? — when everyone saw his excellent performance in preseason games and his past (albeit inconsistent) quality in 2010 and 2011.

Do outsiders underestimate the Union’s lack of salary budget flexibility? Probably, although one wonders if the $209,000 spent on Fabinho, Gilberto and Yann Ekra would have been better spent on a proven creative fulcrum.

Do fans bash Hackworth too much for conservative tactics and lineup selections? Maybe not, but if he had gambled on the beautiful game without adequate talent to play possession ball like Portland or Salt Lake, things might have been Toronto-style worse.

Most of Hackworth’s player acquisitions have worked out. Even if you criticize some, it’s hard to deny he has played the general manager game well when you consider his acquisitions of Le Toux, Casey and Jeff Parke and development of Amobi Okugo and Jack McInerney. (Yes, this might mean Hackworth is more GM material than coach material, but that’s a case for another column.)

And Hackworth has returned a semblance of respectability to the organization, which should not be underestimated in Nowak’s wake.

Plus, the critics forget one thing: The Union aren’t out of the playoff race yet. If the Union somehow make the playoffs despite the team’s salary budget problems, you can’t deny Hackworth the opportunity to show what he can do next year without those obstacles.

But next year is put up or shut up time. I don’t care what your record is. Ugly soccer is not acceptable.