The downfall of John Hackworth

The downfall of John Hackworth

I’ll start by saying this: I like John Hackworth. He was a very nice guy that made covering the team an enjoyable experience. And after seeing him interact with his players and interviewing him for this long-form feature, I still believe he was the right man to be the Philadelphia Union’s manager after Peter Nowak was fired two years ago and that, contrary to what some might have thought, running an MLS team was the logical next step in his coaching career.

But being close to the team, you also notice certain problems (not all of which were his fault) that when put together make Tuesday’s firing of Hackworth understandable, even if most of the onus for the team’s struggles should fall on team CEO Nick Sakiewicz.

Here’s a summary of what I think the biggest problems were (though I’m sure you guys might have a few more to add in the comments section) that led to Hackworth’s demise and the promotion of a Philly guy who had a 4th-and-26th-themed wedding:

1. Playing favorites (and vice versa): OK, so every coach has his favorites and we all know that Hackworth valued (some would say overvalued) guys like Danny Cruz, who’s known for his hustle and grit more than his soccer savvy. But, in my opinion, his biggest issue was stubbornly not playing certain guys who clearly had a lot of skill – players like Roger Torres, Bakary Soumare, Kleberson and even Freddy Adu. Not starting Soumare at the beginning of the 2013 season, you could argue, set the stage for the serious center back problems that plagues the team today. And even though Kleberson wasn’t the player he once was, giving him more minutes last season (if only for his free-kick expertise) could have been the difference in making the playoffs and not making the playoffs.

2. Tactics/lineups: This is a broad one and there’s certainly a lot to dissect, but I think his main tactical misstep this season was trying to play high-pressing attacking soccer when his team lacked the personnel to do so. As such, the Union often looked disjointed and were prone to counter-attacks and defensive giveaways. Perhaps they could have overcome this but the backline lacked any kind of stability because of Hackworth’s lineup shuffling, led by converted striker Aaron Wheeler starting eight games at center back before Hackworth finally admitted it was a mistake. Trying to fit aging captain Brian Carroll into the central midfield along with Maurice Edu and Vincent Nogueira also proved more difficult for Hackworth than he anticipated.

3. A player’s coach: Hackworth once told me he didn’t want to be known as a “player’s coach” because he thought that term made him look a pushover. But there’s no denying that he fostered a great locker room environment and that his players loved him, as they showed when they all ran over to hug him in a very memorable celebration in Kansas City last month. But when you consider the Union then followed that up with two of their worst games of the season, perhaps loving their manager wasn’t enough. Perhaps they also needed to be fearful of him. Perhaps they needed a happy medium between someone like former manager Peter Nowak (who, as we all know, was a little bit crazy) and an affable, level-headed guy like Hackworth.

4. His technical staff: As a young coach, Hackworth could have used an older guy on his staff to lean on and make tough decisions. Instead, his technical director was the team’s goalkeeper coach (Rob Vartughian) and the rest of his staff was younger than he was. That’s a lot of pressure to be put on Hackworth, who clocked ridiculous hours not only running the team but spearheading most of the personnel moves. And when he did count on his staff, I would argue he didn’t always get good advice – like on draft day when I don’t think the team made the most of having two top six picks.

5. Bad luck/bad timing: For better or worse, soccer coaches are put on the hot seat any time they don’t win. Hackworth had been given a year-and-a-half cushion to clean up Nowak’s salary mess, but after bringing in some quality players in the offseason and finally making the team his, he had lost the one thing he probably needed most: time. And it was a combination of him not being able to figure out a way to make all the pieces mesh together and many of the returning players he counted on struggling that doomed him. In many ways, he was a victim of his good offseason acquisitions – because there was probably too much turnover for him to win early in the season while winning early in the season was what he needed to save his job.

Vince Velasquez feels the heat in Phillies' Sunday loss to Pirates

Vince Velasquez feels the heat in Phillies' Sunday loss to Pirates

BOX SCORE

PITTSBURGH --- Vince Velasquez wasn’t able to stand the heat Sunday afternoon.

The game-time temperature was 89 degrees with humidity to match at PNC Park. The Phillies' right-hander admitted he didn’t handle the weather well.

"You're going to go through various conditions, and it's something that you've got to really take into consideration -- to really lock in, stay hydrated because it can mentally drain you,” Velasquez said. “It kind of took a toll on me but I have to make the best of what I've got.”

Velasquez wound up pitching six innings in the blistering heat but did not factor in the decision as the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Phillies 5-4 on pinch-hitter Adam Frazier’s leadoff home run in the seventh inning, his first in the major leagues, off fellow rookie Edubray Ramos (see Instant Replay).

Velasquez had his worst of his five starts since coming off the disabled list June 26, allowing four runs and seven hits while walking four and striking out five. He threw 107 pitches, 64 for strikes.

In his first four outings after begin activated, he was 3-0 with a 1.88 ERA to raise his record to 8-2.

“Just looking at his body language, he showed that he was struggling to find the strike zone,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. “He didn't have his best location. He did a good job; he just made a couple bad pitches when they scored the two runs. Obviously, he wasn't at his best, but he kept us in the game.”

While that kind of outing can breed confidence in a 24-year-old pitcher, Velasquez took no consolation in it. He was bothered about not being able to hold a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the sixth inning, giving up a tying two-run home run to Matt Joyce.

“I knew it was my last inning when I went out there and I have to be able to close it out there,” Velasquez said. “I’m disappointed in that. I need to be better in that situation.”

Joyce’s blast came on pitch after Starling Marte doubled on an 0-2 pitch. That, too, annoyed Velasquez.

“That's just a matter of finishing at-bats,” Velasquez said. “You've got to lock in on 0-2 counts when you're ahead. You've got to finish the at-bat. Knowing that that was my last inning, that's where you have to bear down and give it all you've got.”

Ramos then gave up the game-winning homer to Frazier an inning later, the first long ball given up by the 23-year-old right-hander in 14 career outings. The Phillies wound up losing two of three games in the series and are 3-7 since the All-Star break to drop to 10 games under .500 at 45-55 through 100 games.

“It’s a game we should have won but I put us in position to lose it,” Velasquez said.

Dallas Cowboys bus involved in fatal crash in Arizona

Dallas Cowboys bus involved in fatal crash in Arizona

KINGMAN, Ariz. -- Four people were killed Sunday when bus carrying Dallas Cowboys staffers but no players collided with a van on a northwestern Arizona highway.

The fatalities were passengers in the van, Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Quentin Mehr said. But the bus occupants emerged uninjured.

"All on the bus came through OK with some bumps and bruises," Cowboys spokesman Rich Dalrymple (DAHL'-rimp-ul) said in an email.

Dalrymple said the bus was only carrying members of the franchise's staff but would not say how many. There were no players on board.

The two vehicles collided in the afternoon on U.S. 93, about 30 miles north of the city of Kingman, according to DPS.

The crash shut down at least one lane of the highway that serves as the main route between Phoenix and Las Vegas.

The bus was on its way to a Dallas Cowboys fan event in Las Vegas. Charles Cooper, manager of GameWorks entertainment center in Vegas, said the session with 50 to 75 fans was scheduled for 3 p.m. PDT. People were already waiting when the president of a Las Vegas Cowboys fan club called to relay news of the accident. The event was subsequently canceled. Cooper says the team mascot was supposed to appear.

After the Las Vegas stop, the bus was scheduled to go on to Oxnard, California for the team's training camp. Members of the organization typically take a bus two weeks before the camp starts and make stops along the way.

Report: Phillies preparing for possible Jeremy Hellickson trade to Marlins

Report: Phillies preparing for possible Jeremy Hellickson trade to Marlins

Jeremy Hellickson may be staying in the NL East past the trade deadline. 

Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported that the Phillies are scouting the Marlins' minor league teams in advance of a possible Hellickson deal. 

This comes on the heels of a report from a radio host in Miami that Marlins starter Wei-Yin Chen may need Tommy John surgery. Chen left with an elbow sprain during Wednesday's loss to the Phillies and was placed on the disabled list. Ironically, Chen was starting against Hellickson, who will face Jarred Cosart in place of Chen on Monday.

Hellickson's value rebounded significantly this season after struggling in Arizona and Tampa Bay the last few seasons. After dealing with a shoulder injury, Hellickson pitched to ERAs above 4.50 in each season from 2013-15, leading to the Diamondbacks trading him to the Phillies for limited value. 

However, in 20 starts, Hellickson, who will be a free agent after the year, has anchored the Phillies' rotation, bringing a 3.84 ERA over 119 ⅔ innings into Monday's scheduled start. He also has a nearly career-best strikeout rate and has regained his signature command that made him a strong performer with the Rays.

The Phillies are aided this trade deadline by a lack of starting pitching options available on the market. With many teams in contention looking for an additional starter, Hellickson is an attractive piece who could help a team in a pennant race.