(Published by The Philly Soccer Page on Nov. 11, 2013)
John Hackworth will be the first to admit the 2013 season didn’t end the way he wanted.
But he understands the big picture. Ask him whether he should get congratulations on a good season or condolences on Philadelphia Union’s crash out of the playoff picture, and he’s candid.
“In the big picture, it’s probably both,” Hackworth told the Philly Soccer Page. “I think we had a good year, especially [considering] where we came from previously and the constraints we had in comparison to our opponents. But we’re still disappointed, because despite those obstacles and hardships, we thought we deserved to be in the playoffs.”
Hackworth directly addressed those obstacles and constraints — and more — during a nearly one-hour telephone interview Saturday with the Philly Soccer Page. Generally, he does not like to discuss those limitations because he thinks it does a disservice to his current team, and he typically avoids publicly criticizing players so as not to add pressure upon them. “Secondly, I don’t like to sound like I’m making excuses,” Hackworth said.
But I asked, and Hackworth answered.
In the background, I could hear the sounds of the Union youth academy’s U-14 team playing against longtime youth soccer giants Continental FC, previously known as FC Delco.
In the foreground, Hackworth explained how he plans to move forward with the Union going into next year’s training camp, touching on topics including:
- The Union’s style of play;
- Previously unknown details of the Union’s salary cap limitations;
- Offseason needs;
- Prospective player acquisitions;
- Which players will return and who will not;
- Amobi Okugo’s future;
- Fixing the Union midfield;
- And plans to sign at least one designated player.
Style of play: Pragmatism vs. idealism
Philadelphia spent much of the season as a physical, counterattacking team. At home, they often tried to play possession ball, particularly early in the season. The result was a the league’s fifth worst home record.
On the road, the Union sat deeper, pressed less, beat teams on the counterattack, and produced one of the league’s five best road records. Over time, the Union veered more often toward that counterattacking style, because it won games.
“That’s not the style of play I prefer at all,” Hackworth said, “but as a coach, you have to play to your strengths.” Those strengths were a solid defense and good strikers.
Hackworth said his ideal Union squad would play possession-oriented attacking soccer, based on a short passing game in which players keep the ball on the ground. He doesn’t envision a game of constant lateral ping-pong passes, but rather one that uses the fewest amount of passes necessary. “We certainly saw glimpses of that style this year, but we just weren’t good enough to do it game in and game out,” Hackworth said.
The formation that team would play depends on the pieces available. “To have a free-flowing attacking style, I like the 4-3-3,” Hackworth said.
But he is not the type of coach to determine a system and force his players to play it. For example, he said, Kansas City plays what they bill as a 4-3-3 but often functions as a 4-5-1, and while the team is effective, their style of play can often be “ugly” to watch. In the end, Hackworth said pragmatism will win out over idealism, but he hopes to put the pieces in place to veer his team toward his preferred style.
Clearing the salary budget
Hackworth didn’t have all the players he needed to do that in 2013, particularly in midfield.
That’s because the team’s salary cap was still occupied by salaries — all or partial — of players no longer with the club. Midfielder Freddy Adu’s salary comprised much of it, but the Union also took hits for Bakary Soumare, Josue Martinez, Gabriel Gomez, Porfirio Lopez, and Jorge Perlaza. (That means the off-season trade for Sebastien Le Toux resulted in the Union keeping part of Martinez’s salary on their books.)
The Union could have paid down some of those salaries with allocation money but chose not to, Hackworth confirmed. Instead, the team left those salaries on the cap so they could save allocation money and build enough of a cache to make bigger signings for 2014.
That means the team knowingly went into 2013 with a long-term plan, rather than a quick fix Band-Aid, to right the franchise’s course after former manager Peter Nowak and scouting director Diego Gutierrez revamped the roster in 2012 by jettisoning Le Toux, Danny Califf, Faryd Mondragon, and Danny Mwanga and importing several high-priced but underperforming players to replace them.
“The goal for us this year was really to be a team that was competitive, to build back some of the trust with our fan base,” Hackworth said.
Next year comes the next step of that process. A bit of Soumare’s salary will remain on the books, but otherwise, those dead salaries will clear. “Nine tenths of it is off the books next year,” Hackworth said. “It’s minimal compared to what we had last year.”
Fixing the midfield: Start with a No. 10
Hackworth’s first order of business is fixing the Union’s midfield.
“It’s not a secret that our midfield struggled in that [attacking] capacity, but it wasn’t them alone,” Hackworth said. For example, the Union spent the season with natural right back Ray Gaddis playing on the left. While Gaddis performed well defensively, he rarely attacked down the left like he could down his natural right side.
The Union hope to bolster the attack with new player signings. Hackworth traveled to Ecuador last week to scout a player. Meanwhile, top assistant Rob Vartughian was in Europe as of Saturday, having traveled to Denmark, Greece and Germany. Vartughian might also head to Sweden, where the season is over but the Union are interested in a player whose club is playing in one of the European tournaments, Hackworth said. The Union are also actively exploring the trade market.
First and foremost, the Union are looking for a center attacking midfielder, a true No. 10 in the mold of Diego Valeri or Federico Higuain. “So if we did find the right guy, we would sign him,” Hackworth said.
In 2013, Hackworth tried to shoehorn Michael Farfan and Keon Daniel into the No. 10 role, but he and his coaching staff learned neither fit the role perfectly. In retrospect, both should be “supporting midfielders,” Hackworth said.
Farfan struggled for much of the season after playing in the MLS All-Star Game just a year earlier, although he closed the season with several strong games.
“Michael epitomizes the kind of player I like and I want on a team,” Hackworth said. “We probably put a little too much pressure on him to be a No. 10, to be the playmaker on the team, and I don’t think he played it as well as he could.
“He really picked it up at the end of the season, and I just wish it could have been that way all year.”
Hackworth acknowledged Farfan was not a true No. 10, but he’s also not a straight winger who hugs the sideline. “He’s a wide player that likes to come inside, feels comfortable playing in those tight places and coming out of them,” Hackworth said.
Daniel is a different story.
“I first saw Keon while on Bob Bradley’s [U.S. national team] staff,” Hackworth said. “I watched him be one of the best players in CONCACAF playing attacking midfield for Trinidad. But I think Keon would be the first to tell you he didn’t have the best year doing that.”
Hackworth believes Daniel can flourish playing attacking midfield. For him to regain that form, however, Hackworth said Daniel needs to be looking more for shots and passes penetrating into the field’s attacking third, something he seldom did this year.
Midfield isn’t the Union’s only need, but it tops the list.
“I think midfield is where our most pressing needs are,” Hackworth said. “A No. 10, and a guy who can lock down the left side of the midfield.”
Hackworth would also like to sign a true left back to pair with Fabinho at the position, where natural right back Ray Gaddis started for most of the 2013 season. “You have Ray there, who did a phenomenal job this year, but he’s a right back,” Hackworth said. “I think it’s a disservice to Ray if we ask him to do that again next year.”
The club also needs depth at center back and goalkeeper after skating by this season without a true backup center back or third goalkeeper. “We were really fortunate not to get hit by the injury bug this year,” Hackworth said.
The club could pick up a forward as well, Hackworth said, but that is not a priority.
Finding an impact designated player or two
Hackworth hopes to sign one or two designated players, but it will not be a player of the renown of David Beckham or Thierry Henry. Rather, the Union would explore the league’s other designated player tiers, such as the young designated player option.
More notable may be the new “impact designated player” alternative, which became available this season after Major League Soccer sold a reported 25 percent of its marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing, to Providence Equity Partners for a reported $125-150 million in 2012.
“The league would match up to $1 million of the investment [on impact designated players],” Hackworth said.
The player must meet certain requirements to qualify as an impact designated player. Notably, the player must be a young attacker. Colorado used this mechanism to sign forward Gabriel Torres this year, as did Toronto with Max Urruti and Portland with Diego Valeri.
Hackworth also made clear which players are returning to the club.
The Union are picking up contract options for every player who had them, including Conor Casey, Brian Carroll, Amobi Okugo and Jack McInerney. Essentially, all their regulars are under contract, including Fabinho, Mike Lahoud, and Aaron Wheeler.
However, Hackworth is exploring the trade market and noted that someone could leave via trade. He once again made clear his preference for acquiring proven MLS players, as he did to good effect last year with Le Toux, Casey and Parke. So everything is subject to change.
Also of note:
- Gaddis and Sheanon Williams are both likely to return, despite the fact that both could start at right back for most MLS clubs, Hackworth said. “Both of those guys epitomize the type of young professional and type of players who do what we want to do.” Hackworth said Williams brings talents unique to the U.S. national team’s pool of right backs and called Gaddis “easily the most mature and mentally tough young professional I’ve been around.”
- Okugo and McInerney will get large salary bumps in this option year of their rookie contracts, and the Union hope to sign each to long-term deals.
- Zach Pfeffer’s loan to Hoffenheim in Germany expires Dec. 31, and Hackworth said he will probably return to the Union next season.
Who’s not returning?
There are several players who may not return.
- Kleberson: His loan deal expires before next season. While the Union and Kleberson are exploring ways to keep him in Philadelphia, his rights remain with Brazilian side Bahia, which likely necessitates a transfer fee, Hackworth said. Kleberson is unlikely to return unless the Union can work out a free transfer with a salary under $150,000.
- Roger Torres: The young Colombian is out of contract and free to explore moves to other clubs. The Union would explore bringing him back if it’s at a salary lower than his 2013 figure of $121,968, Hackworth said. “Roger is a guy our staff personally liked,” Hackworth said. “He has a lot of talent, and he just has a bit of maturing to do.” He disspelled the notion that playing time incentives in Torres’s contract — which was negotiated while Torres’s former agent, Diego Gutierrez, was working for the Union — kept him on the bench. “It had no bearing whether to play him or not to play him,” Hackworth said.
- Oka Nikolov: Nikolov could return, but only if at a low enough salary, Hackworth said. He signed a six-month contract for the league minimum in June. Nikolov is considering retirement and could take a job in Germany as an assistant coach, Hackworth said. He expects to know by the end of the calendar year.
- Greg Jordan: The center midfielder/back will not return to the Union after two years spent mostly on loan in Harrisburg.
Who is unclear?
Several players will be invited to training camp, but it’s unclear whether they will make next season’s roster.
- Don Anding, Leo Fernandes, Matt Kassel: Each was on a one-year contract, Hackworth said. They will be invited to training camp, but they must earn their contract and roster spot. Like Torres, they are free to explore other options, but the Union currently hold their rights.
- Yann Ekra: Philadelphia signed the former Harrisburg attacker late this season so they could avoid the discovery process next year and observe him in practice with the team, Hackworth said. They plan to invite him to training camp, where he can earn a new contract.
- Gilberto: The Union have not yet decided whether to bring Gilberto back, Hackworth said.
The futures of Carlos Valdes and Amobi Okugo
Lastly, former captain Carlos Valdes is unlikely to return to the Union before the World Cup, if at all, Hackworth said. His loan with Independiente Santa Fe in Colombia expires Dec. 31 and includes an option-to-buy clause. Santa Fe could buy Valdes, the loan could be extended, or another club could acquire his rights.
“He’s in a terrific situation,” Hackworth said. “His stock has risen tremendously. Someone else could [buy him]. He’s got a ton of value right now. I know what Carlos wants to do. He wants to play in a World Cup.”
Right now, Valdes looks set to do that, slotting in as a starting center back for Colombia. But he won’t do it while in MLS, which is why Valdes left on loan last winter. “Carlos said, ‘Look coach, [Colombia national team coach] Jose Pekerman said I have to be playing closer to home in Argentina and Colombia,” Hackworth said.
The Union do not plan to add a starting center back to replace Valdes because Okugo will remain at center back rather than move back to midfield.
“Our plan right now is for Amobi to continue being, in our opinion, one of the top center backs in the league,” Hackworth said.
When asked about the debate over whether Okugo should return to midfield, Hackworth said Okugo could play some defensive midfield, but that’s not where he envisions his future. “For me, I think it’s kind of silly that there’s this debate going on,” Hackworth said. “If we get Carlos back, and we have Jeff Parke and Amobi, then you start to think about it.” But not unless that happens.
The right track?
The Union enter the offseason with a decent-sized cache of allocation money, two of the first six picks in January’s amateur draft, a salary budget cleared of dead money, and the prospect of signing a designated player or two.
Some may view that as a bit too optimistic, but those are simple facts.
“The future looks good for us,” Hackworth said. “We’re on the right track.”