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.

Minnesota vs. Penn State: Poor defenses could lead to shootout

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Minnesota vs. Penn State: Poor defenses could lead to shootout

Penn State (2-2, 0-1) vs. Minnesota (3-0, 0-0)
Beaver Stadium, State College
Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

Scouting Penn State
The Nittany Lions were flattened by Michigan last week, 49-10. PSU was outgained 515-191, and continues to struggle with the health of its defense, especially as it pertains to its linebacker corps. The expectation is that injured ‘backers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell will again sit out this week, and that freshman Cam Brown will make his first collegiate start at an outside ‘backer spot, alongside former reserves Brandon Smith and Manny Bowen. Another freshman, Connor McGovern, is likely to make his first start at right guard, replacing Derek Dowrey along the struggling offensive front. Penn State is last in the Big Ten in rushing offense, total offense, rushing defense and scoring defense, and next-to-last in sacks allowed and turnover margin.

Scouting Minnesota
Rodney Smith rushed 17 times for 99 yards and two touchdowns as the Gophers beat Colorado State 31-24. Shannon Brooks, in his first game back from a foot injury, ran 13 times for 85 yards and a score, as Minnesota piled up 249 yards on the ground in all. Kobe McCrary had just four carries last week, but a week earlier he ran 17 times for 176 yards against Indiana State. The Gophers average 228.3 yards a game on the ground, fifth in the conference. They are also 14-for-14 in red-zone opportunities, with 13 touchdowns, and have converted 55.8 percent of their third-down opportunities, second-best in the Big Ten and fifth-best among FBS teams. The offensive triggerman is Mitch Leidner, who is fourth in the conference in passing yardage (237.3) and seventh in total offense (244.7).

History
Penn State owns an 8-5 lead, but the Gophers won the most recent meeting, 24-10, in 2013.

Storyline to watch
Besides the defensive issues, the Lions have had trouble unleashing running back Saquon Barkley, their most potent offensive weapon. Part of that is the offensive line’s continuing struggles, but Barkley also admitted that he has tried to make every run a big play, rather than putting his head down and taking what the defense gives him.

What’s at stake
While coach James Franklin would not admit it Tuesday, these next two weeks – home games against the Gophers and Maryland – would appear to be critical, should the Lions hope to become bowl-eligible.

Prediction
While the weather forecast is not the best, this has the look of a shootout, as neither defense appears to be dominant. The Lions are looking to bounce back from an embarrassing loss, and are playing at home, so give them a 30-24 nod.

Penn at Dartmouth: Quakers begin Ivy play on national TV

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Penn at Dartmouth: Quakers begin Ivy play on national TV

Penn (0-2, 0-0) at Dartmouth (2-0, 0-0)
Memorial Field, Hanover, N.H.
Friday, 7 p.m., NBC Sports Network

Penn certainly isn’t happy with how its first two non-conference games of the season went, but things get more serious now as the Quakers open Ivy League play on national TV. Here’s a look at what’s on tap.

Scouting Penn
Despite coming into the season with high expectations, the Quakers have gotten off to a slow start. After struggling defensively in a 49-28 loss to Lehigh in its season opener, the Quakers committed three turnovers in a 31-17 setback to Fordham last week. One bright spot vs. Fordham was the play of running back Tre Solomon, who led the way in both rushing (93 yards) and receiving (52 yards). But through two games, Penn has given up 494 yards per game, which ranks 110th out of 122 FCS teams.

Scouting Dartmouth
After sharing last year’s Ivy League title with Harvard and Penn last season, the Big Green enter conference play as one of the favorites again. Picked to finish third in the preseason (behind Harvard and Penn), Dartmouth opened the year by upsetting nationally ranked New Hampshire for the first time in 40 years and trouncing Holy Cross. Junior quarterback Jack Heneghan, a first-year starter who currently ranks second in the Ivies in total offense, led the way in last week’s win by completing 18 of 29 passes for 240 yards, a touchdown and zero interceptions. Ten different receivers caught passes for the Big Green, who are also employing a running back-by-committee approach with the team averaging over 200 rushing yards per game. Defensively, Dartmouth ranks 15th in the FCS in yards allowed per contest (311.5).

Series history
After winning 15 out of 16 games vs. Dartmouth heading into 2014, Penn has dropped its last two to the Big Green, including a home loss in last year’s Ivy League opener. Overall, the Quakers lead the series 47-34-2, and have won seven of their last nine games in Hanover. 

Storyline to watch
Penn’s dynamic duo of quarterback Alek Torgersen and receiver Justin Watson were on fire in the first half of Penn’s first game. But since then, they’ve struggled to keep their connection purring as Fordham, doubling Watson throughout the day, held Torgersen without a touchdown and limited Watson to just three catches for 33 yards. The two players have since looked at a lot of tape and have tried to figure out new schemes, so it will be interesting to see if they can bounce back at Dartmouth, especially if Watson again faces double-teams. 

What’s at stake?
This is a huge Ivy League opener under the lights with the winner getting an early leg up in the chase for the conference title. The loser can also still end up winning the crown (as Penn proved last season) but it will make it very difficult not to share it.

Prediction
Even though the Quakers are 0-2 and the Big Green are 2-0, Penn probably has the more experienced team. And even though it’s a tough trip to New Hampshire, the Quakers will be out for vengeance after last season’s loss.

Penn 31, Dartmouth 28