Relationships are tough. The wide range of emotions that flood one’s psyche can cloud the senses and make things seem better (or worse) than they really are. Remorse, nostalgia, jealousy, betrayal, lust – well on a soccer blog, that last one may be a little misplaced – but you get the picture.
So it was no surprise to see Philadelphia Union President and CEO Nick Sakiewicz get sentimental as he announced that Peter Nowak would no longer be the Team Manager. There are certainly many ways in which these guys will have felt like they were in the foxhole together, from scouring through scouting reports leading up to the Expansion Draft, to trying to decide how best to handle journeyman-cum-talisman Sebastien Le Toux when he wanted to talk about a raise. Nowak and Sakiewicz have been around American soccer a long time, and so saying, “Goodbye,” would never be easy when you’re talking the only manager the team has ever known.
Yet Sakiewicz made a bold-yet-sometimes-trite gesture in his press conference, beating the crest on his jacket. Sakiewicz said, “It’s been a tough day because Peter is a friend. I respect him highly for his coaching abilities and his instincts, but in the best interest of this club, this badge will always come first.” (to read his full remarks, follow this link to Chris Vito’s transcript).
It’s clear that Nowak is a demanding fellow, and I would imagine he expects the utmost respect from those who put on the blue and gold. In general, players will follow that creed and typically stand behind the one that makes all the big decisions.
Yet if there is one thing that begets respect, it’s that you show respect first. It’s no secret that Major League Soccer’s salary structure is tough for players trying to make a name for themselves. Many reserve and youth players throughout the league end up on salaries that pale in comparison to the Big 4 sports in this country.
So when a guy like Le Toux – a guy who went from reserve player in Seattle to leading scorer in Philly – doesn’t get his payday, how does that affect both the player and those around him? Le Toux was a castoff from Europe, plying his trade in Seattle in their USL days. Unprotected by Seattle a year after the team jumped to MLS, the Union drafted him. He seized upon his opportunity, scored the first hat-trick in club history, and found his name on many a jersey filling the PPL Park seats.
The Union did try to take care of Le Toux, getting him a trial at then-English Premier League side Bolton Wanderers. Yet like many of us, Le Toux decided he would rather be, “the big fish in the small pond,” as my grandmother used to say. So Le Toux returned to the US, but it was clear that the Frenchman was not a part of the Union’s plans. In fact, in Le Toux’s interview with the aforementioned Chris Vito after the trade, he clearly stated he would never play for Nowak again. Not the Union, but rather Nowak.
In the business, tough decisions are to be made. There’s a chance we will never know if the Le Toux trade was orchestrated by Nowak or ordered from above, but that doesn’t preclude him from respecting players – especially when you remain the coach of his teammates. Yes, we hear of Sir Alex Ferguson providing the “hairdryer treatment” to players who have failed to impress by the intermission, but I would imagine at Manchester United that respect is paid in pounds.
Even after this ugly breakup occurred, the Union stood by their manager. Then as the season started, Nowak began to sit Danny Califf for what he called a nagging knee injury, a complication of a surgery Califf had undergone. Yet Califf was not on the injury report. It was this kind of chicanery that drove fans bonkers, especially as Philadelphia struggled out of the gate. Eventually, Califf was traded to Chivas USA for Michael Lahoud – again under odd circumstances. Califf didn’t give the ugly exit interview Le Toux supplied, but it was clear the situation was mishandled.
Even with the way that Le Toux and Califf left in such an unsettled fashion, it’s interesting that Nowak’s handling of these gentlemen wasn’t enough to earn him a trip out the door. He was still given time enough to orchestrate a trade to send Danny Mwanga, the Union’s first SuperDraft pick, to his hometown Portland Timbers.
The timing of Nowak’s dismissal was interesting, in that it had been nearly two weeks since a competitive match. The most meaningful event leading up to the departure -aside from the Mwanga trade – was a rumor that Nowak tossed his name in the hat for the vacant Heart of Midlothian job (according to the Scotsman - h/t to Philly Soccer Page for spying this over the weekend). If true, it may very well have been that final act of disrespect – towards his employers – that cost Nowak his job.
And so Nowak is gone. As Sakiewicz beat the badge on his chest, he clearly stated that the Union symbol stands for more than that. As many Union fans would suggest, if ownership had only put their collective foot down before the integral parts of the 2011 playoff team were traded…