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.

The future of the Eagles, Cowboys and NFC East is right now

The future of the Eagles, Cowboys and NFC East is right now

How do you take what is already one of the most bitter rivalries in professional sports in Eagles-Cowboys and ratchet up the disdain and intensity? Just let them battle for division supremacy for the next decade or so.

That's where things appear to be headed, because it's safe to say that Sunday night's first ever meeting between quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott won't be the last. And seeing as they're already vying for first place as rookies, it's not unreasonable to think this might be only the beginning of a years-long tug-of-war over the NFC East.

This is the future of the division, and it's not some distant forecast. It's happening right now.

Sure, Wentz and Prescott have started just six games each in the NFL, so anointing the Eagles and Cowboys as the perennial favorites to come out of the East for years to come is probably a tad premature. As special as their young signal-callers look, half of a season does not a career make. Even the natural ebbs and flows of the NFL — free agency and injuries — could dictate the rest of their rosters will not be good enough to compete in any given season.

Yet if we were to presume that what we've seen so far from these 23-year-old players is any indication of what lies ahead, the Eagles and Cowboys are positioned to be contenders for a long time. New York and Washington, purely based on the quarterback situations, not so much.

The Giants are still in the mix as long as Eli Manning is in the fold, but how much longer is he going to be around? He's 35 now, with a contract that runs through 2019, taking him through his 38th birthday. Even if Manning reaches the conclusion of the deal and continues play at a high level, Wentz and Prescott will be entering their primes and likely have signed extensions by then.

Washington's quarterback situation is somehow less certain with Kirk Cousins currently on a one-year deal. Cousins has played well enough that the franchise can conceivably extend him long-term after this season. He's not exactly been stellar though, is already 28 and at his best, not as dynamic an athlete or transcendent a talent as Wentz or Prescott.

Neither team has a clear plan of succession at quarterback either for when Manning retires or should Cousins fail. Depending on how the respective front offices navigate these dicey waters, the potential exists for both teams to bottom out at some point in the near future.

Meanwhile in Philadelphia and Dallas, say what you want about drawing conclusions about a player too soon, but there is little reason to believe there's any end in sight to what Wentz and Prescott are doing as rookies.

Wentz has struggled a bit more in recent weeks, but bumps in the road are natural. The fact is the Eagles have a lot invested in this player, so barring a complete breakdown, he's going to be here awhile.

The Cowboys didn't trade an arm and a leg to get Prescott, so it would be easier to move on if it suddenly wasn't working out there. Then again, he hasn't really hit that rookie slump or had a bad game yet, and should he keeps Tony Romo on the bench when the four-time Pro Bowler returns from injury, that would speak volumes about the organization's commitment.

Both Wentz and Prescott are intelligent, poised and tough, with the arm and mobility to play at this level. There are many chapters to be written before they are considered great NFL quarterbacks.

Regardless, it's obvious that they'll be sticking around for awhile, giving the Eagles and Cowboys a leg up on their division foes.

No matter which side of the rivalry you're on, Wentz vs. Prescott figures to produce plenty of excitement for years to come. How the two wind up splitting all those NFC East championships — and maybe a few Lombardi Trophies too — will probably go a long way toward determining who's having the most fun.

Flyers-Coyotes 5 things: Decent chance for first winning streak

Flyers-Coyotes 5 things: Decent chance for first winning streak

Flyers vs. Coyotes
7 p.m. on CSN
Pregame Live at 6:30

The Flyers (3-3-1) on Thursday night have an optimal opportunity to win back-to-back games for the first time this season when they host the nosediving Coyotes (1-5-0) at the Wells Fargo Center.

Let’s get you ready for the game with five things to know.

1. Nothin' but a G thang
For any of those worried about Claude Giroux, don’t be.

For one, Giroux may be the only player that would receive more flack for not having scored a goal yet than be applauded for leading the NHL in assists (eight).

Secondly, you may recall 2013-14 when the Flyers’ captain started the season goalless through 15 games, with just seven assists and a minus-11 rating. Giroux finished that season with a career-high-tying 28 goals and the league’s third-most points at 86.

More so than the puck being put in the net, the Flyers needed greater playmaking after last season. Giroux is providing that — as is Jakub Voracek — and, as a result, the goals are coming for the Flyers, at both even strength and on the power play. 

2. Stick with the switches?
Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol made a few changes before the team’s 4-3, come-from-behind win over the Sabres on Tuesday.

Veteran defenseman Nick Schultz was healthy-scratched to make room for blueliner Radko Gudas, returning from a six-game suspension to the start the season. Gudas finished with seven shot attempts and three hits in 18:27.

“Overall, what you want to see is go out and play an efficient game,” Hakstol said. “For the most part, I thought [Gudas] went out and did that.”

Defenseman Andrew MacDonald, who has had bad moments, stayed in the lineup for his versatility.

“He is just a guy that is reliable, who moves the puck well,” Hakstol said, “and we feel he can play in any situation whether it is OT or regulation.”

A greater change came to the team’s top line. Flyers leading goal scorer Matt Read leapfrogged to the first line from the third as Brayden Schenn dropped to Read’s previous spot. Without a point in his first three games, Schenn recorded a goal and an assist as he finds his rhythm returning from a three-game ban.

“The timing and pace of his game [are starting] to get back to where it needs to be,” Hakstol said. 

3. Oh, 'Yotes
Once they beat the visiting Flyers, 4-3, in overtime in their season opener, the Coyotes hit the road for what has turned out to be a nightmarish six-game trip.

Since the victory over the orange and black, Arizona has lost five straight by a combined score of 23-13, a losing skid that started with the team’s No. 1 goalie Mike Smith being knocked out with a lower-body injury. As a result, the Coyotes are permitting an NHL-most 4.33 markers per game and own the league’s worst goal differential at minus-9.

Backup netminder Louis Domingue, who will start against the Flyers, has struggled mightily in place of Smith, going 0-4-0 in four games with a 5.03 goals-against average and .851 save percentage.

Through seven games, the Flyers have just one goal in the first period. They should jump on Arizona, which has yielded eight tallies in the opening stanza, tied for most in hockey.

4. Keep an eye on ...
Flyers: Center Sean Couturier has been a bit quiet over his last four games with just one assist for one point after scoring three goals in his first three games. He’ll get going again playing alongside Travis Konecny and Voracek, a duo that has combined for 14 points.

Coyotes: Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is coming off a two-goal output last time out to give him four goals on the season. He plays a ton (26:17 TOI, tied for fourth highest in the NHL) and is a career plus-7 against the Flyers with four goals and an assist.

5. This and that
• Flyers goalie Steve Mason is 5-9-1 with a 2.96 GAA and .899 save percentage in 15 career games against the Coyotes.

• Arizona goalie Domingue has faced the Flyers just once, allowing four goals on 33 shots in a loss last season.

• Konecny has six points (one goal, five assists), tied for third among NHL rookies.

• The Flyers own the league’s fifth-best power play at 26.9 percent.

• The Flyers will welcome back 14 members of their Hall of Fame — along with family of six other members — for Flyers Heritage Night, featuring a pregame ceremony.