30 October 2006

Not so fast: Why Mike Wise is Premature to Write Nowak's Obit

Mike Wise, as has been noted here and elsewhere, basically wrote an article saying that Nowak's days should be numbered with DC United. I think he's jumping the gun, and perhaps wrong on multiple points. First, if I can summarize this fairly, Wise has essentially two arguments:

  1. United is not getting up for big games.
  2. Nowak is too rigid and inflexible to manage the team successfullly.

Let's take the first point. Wise writes:

[Gomez] potentially saved third-year coach Peter Nowak from two straight first-round exits at home. For the most decorated MLS franchise in the 10-year-old league's history, those are grounds for termination. You can't explain away two first-round-and-outs to a club that has won four titles, including the 2004 MLS championship team coached by Nowak, back when United showed up in seminal games.
There may be some truth to that... but there haven't been two consecutive out in the first round matches. To some degree, Nowak may still be living off of lowered expectations from the Rongren/Hudson years of playoff futility, but DC isn't out of it yet. They won, and their first game in New Jersey was a game where I personally felt that DC was up for the significance of the occasion. The problem is that they rested once they felt secure. Going into the Conference Final's one-and-done scenario, that won't be a problem unless United somehow goes up two-nil.

Wise continues:

...his players, who all like and respect him, don't get up for big games like they once did for Nowak. Dating back to last year, they have gotten blown out or outplayed in some key matches, none worse than their 4-0 playoff loss to Chicago at RFK.
Correct, but one paragraph before, Wise admitted
Nowak coached the MLS all-stars to a victory over Chelsea of the English Premier League and coached United to a breathtaking 1-1 draw against Real Madrid in Seattle, a riveting match that really brought out everything Nowak's no-guts-no-glory approach has been about with United.

If we can summarize, here are the games that have had some large meaning that Nowak has coached since he came here:

  1. 2004 Eastern Conference Semifinal (4-nil over NYRB).
  2. 2004 Eastern Conference Final (3-3 PK victory over the Revs).
  3. 2004 MLS Cup (3-2 over Kansas City).
  4. 2005 Friendly against Chelsea (2-1 defeat)
  5. 2005 Conference Semifinal against Chicago (4-0 defeat)
  6. 2006 Friendlies against Real Madrid and Celtic (a draw and a win).
  7. 2006 All Star Game (win over Chelsea 1-0).
  8. 2006 Eastern Conference Semifinal (2-1 win).
When we throw out the first three results as Wise requests, it does make 2005 look bad. But 2006, even with a cheap win against the Red Bulls, is not over yet. The biggest game of the year is still to come against New England. Of the "big games" (in terms of prestige) we've had since 2004, and I count international friendlies since Wise mentions them, DC is 2-2-1. That's not entirely a record of utter futility. Throw in 2004 and he's 5-2-1.

Still, it seems not to be Wise's major argument, the familiar chestnut that Nowak is too old-world, too rigid, and too stubborn to carry his team onward:

What kills Nowak's chances are the same character traits that will eventually lead to his departure in Washington: his inflexibility and inability to change strategies and preparation. His intolerance for fatigue. He refused to give Jaime Moreno and other worn-down United players a needed rest earlier this season. By the time some of his beat-up and beleaguered players got some time off, they were already physically shot.

As you know, I have some sympathy with this argument while still saying "I don't think the full record is written yet." I think Nowak, as time has gone on, has shown more and more flexibility. But you know my feelings on that. The one issue that I think Wise nails is Nowak's intolerance of fatigue. The idea that any problem can be solved by fitness sessions and running the team ragged. I think while Nowak has learned positional flexibility and adaptability, he still struggles with player management and fatigue related issues. That's a legitimate criticsm, and with international play looming next year, it will be a bigger issue. Still, Wise assumes that Nowak will just never learn to manage such things. I feel like he might. And I'd be willing to give him the chance.

Wise writes "Nowak's contract expires in December, and management has not exactly been knocking down his door to begin extension talks." However, Washington Post-mate Steve Goff already explained this to my satisfaction:

Contract talks have been delayed, Payne explained, because the club's operating rights are in the process of being sold by Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz to a local investment group, believed to be led by former Duke basketball player Brian Davis.

That strikes me as a very legitimate thing to say, and something that Washington Nationals fans no doubt will find familiar. You don't saddle new ownership with people they aren't comfortable with. As for Nowak choosing to go somewhere else, that is his prerogative, but Wise summarized his feelings neatly:

The force of Nowak's gruff personality has pried everything he can possibly wring from United in three years. If his players find a way to pull another championship out of their physically shot legs, he will have accomplished a minor miracle. Either way, it is time to go another direction next season.

Only if you believe that Nowak won't have new ideas for next season, and if you want to treat soccer coaches like hockey coaches. I remain unconvinced that Nowak is another Ron Wilson for DC. But Wise, a man who covered hockey for many years, no doubt views this sport through a similar filter. And if somehow DC does get its act together next Sunday, then perhaps Wise should rethink.


At 30 October, 2006 13:22, Anonymous BigKris said...

Well done, and I agree with you, but if you're going to make an argument based on enumerating and quantifying Nowak's success rate in "big games", I think you have to count the international competitions from last year (e.g. Pumas and U Catolica) - especially if you are going to count the friendlies.

At 30 October, 2006 13:44, Blogger D said...

that's true... but then you should also add in the win over Harbour View. I know, but that makes sense me.

the Getafe match still wouldn't matter, in my book, so let's add on a 1-2-0 to make it 3-4-1. Still not awful, but not great, and I still don't think the "he hasn't won big games" point is validated.

At 30 October, 2006 14:08, Anonymous GUTuna said...

Agree with Big Chris. You have to add the Pumas and Catolica losses as well as the loss last year to Dallas and this year to Chicago in the Open Cup. Especially this year as we got waxed.

I'd also include Harbor View but cut out the friendlies. In that case Nowak's record in elimination matches looks like this:

2004 U.S Open Cup 4th Round
United 1 - 2 Richmond LOSS

2004 Eastern Conference Semifinal (two-leg)
United 4 - 0 Metrostars WIN

2004 Eastern Conference Final
United 3 - 3 New England
United wins in PKs WIN

2004 MLS Cup
United 3 - 2 Kansas City WIN

2005 CONCACAF Champions Cup Quarterfinal (two-leg)
United 4 - 2 Harbor View WIN

2005 CONCACAF Champions Cup Semifinal (two-leg)
United 1 - 6 Pumas LOSS

2005 Copa Sudamericana Round of 16
United 3 - 4 Univ. de Catolica LOSS

2005 US Open Cup 4th Round
United 3 - 1 Richmond WIN

2005 US Open Cup Quarterfinal
United 1 - 1 Dallas
United loses in PKs LOSS

2005 Eastern Conference Semifinal
United 0 - 4 Chicago LOSS

2006 US Open Cup 4th Round
United 2 - 1 Columbus aet WIN

2006 US Open Cup Quarterfinal
United 3 - 1 New York WIN

2006 US Open Cup Quarterfinal
United 0 - 3 Chicago LOSS

2006 Eastern Conference Semifinal
United 2 - 1 New York WIN

So in elimination matches where there is a real cup on the line (and the other team is trying!) Nowak's record is 8 wins and 6 losses.

The criticism of Nowak that Wise is tapping into is that of those 8 wins, 6 were against inferior teams (New York x 3, Columbus, Harbor View, Richmond). The other two wins were in the 2004 run to the crown.

On the other hand 5 of the losses have been to teams at our level or above (Chicago x 2, Dallas, Pumas, Catolica). All of these losses came in spectacular fashion as well, either blowout (Chicago, Pumas) or late-game collapse (Dallas, Catolica).

So there's real reason for frustration. We have tended to fold in the last two years when faced with real opposition in knockouts. All this tells me is that Nowak is a better "league" coach (sustained results) than a "cup" coach (getting up for one-off big games). I want to keep Nowak around because of the sustained atmosphere of excellence he's created. But we're conditioned to focus on the "playoff" type cup matches, and Nowak hasn't proven as strong a coach for those. In that sense Wise's critcism is very valid.

At 30 October, 2006 14:27, Blogger D said...

Tuna: That's a fair way of looking at it (although my own personal bias decided to discount the MLS Cup). I think the point on how the team lost the games they lost is very well made. Still, in my mind, the only games where I really fault Nowak are the Sudamericana Catolica match (where we didn't salt away a win) and the Chicago playoff loss last year. And even the Sudamericana match gets a bit of a pass since I didn't even think we'd be competitive in that match.

At 30 October, 2006 17:04, Anonymous Nick said...

Gutuna hit it right on the head...in big games, we tend to win against inferior opponents and lose against comparable or better opponents. Novak's teams have shown that over and over again. In fact, I think we were extremely fortunate to play a weak KC team in the final in 2004, to get that fourth championship. I agree with Mike Wise 100%, and I definitely don't think Novak is the man that's gonna lead this team to international success next year.
D, you noted the chicago and catolica games, but perhaps the worst coaching game was the PUMAS game, where Novak took the boys down to Mexico City and decided to leave Adu and Guppy on the bench, and give Nick Van Sicklen the start. Of course, Nick Van Sicklen had NEVER played a professional game in his life, and Novak puts baptizes him in Mexico City! That decision at the time in my mind told me that: A) Novak is clueless about playing in Mexico and does not understand the importance of this cup--winning could have earned us MILLIONS in the World club championship: or B) Novak is so arrogant and so stupid that he actually thought he didn't have to put the best players on the field to get a result in Mexico City against the Mexican champions. (Van Sicklen almost never even got on the field in MLS play, and we predictably got blasted 5-0) Either way, he lost all of my confidence at that point, and i haven't seen much of anything since that has changed my mind. In fact, I'd go so far as to say he has totally stunted Freddy's development and turned him into an almost average, predictable player, instead of the playmaking, carefree stud that he should be at this point. Is there any doubt Freddy would be a much better player at this point if Bruce was his mentor? These things, plus those mentioned in the article and the posts have shown me more than enough to know that United needs to move in a different direction this offseason. Mike Wise sees the same things, and I give him credit for pointing it out...

At 30 October, 2006 17:12, Anonymous Nick said...

...oh yea, i almost forgot to mention that, according to Goff, Novak blocked the club's initial attempts of acquisition of Gomez, "preferring younger players", and was later persuaded (read: forced by KP and Dave Kasper) to take him on when his young guys weren't looking like championship material. We all know how Gomez turned out...championship, MVP, etc...

At 31 October, 2006 01:59, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nowak has one MLS Cup and one Supporters Shield in the bank. Now we're facing a TBA MLS Cup with a second CONCACAF tournament to be played in the Spring . . . . and some of you are honestly contemplating getting rid of Nowak? Has our recent success caused some retrograde amnesia? Do you even remember Wrongman Rongen or Ray Hudson who not only couldn't win the big game, they couldn't win any games.

It's not Peter's fault the squad lacks the depth of an EPL team, he's hamstrung by the cap. Plus, we've still got Kevin Payne to thank for everything---clearly the best GM in MLS.

At 01 November, 2006 07:24, Blogger DCNats said...

in my novice opinion we've all been over-analyzing the problem with this team... Erpen has turned the back line into a total mess, Eskandarian isn't close to 100%, Moreno is running on fumes, and Adu is inconsistent (which is to be expected of a player his age).

These problems can be addressed in the offseason failry easily... let Esky heal, let Freddy progress, adjust Jamie's role to fit his stamina/age, and either fix Erpen or replace him with someone more stable.

As for right now, this is the team we have and let's hope that Gomez can carry us the rest of the way... it's not the coach.

of course, I'm an idiot so take everything I say with a giant grain of salt.

At 01 November, 2006 10:48, Anonymous SE Podcast said...

Lost in all this (unless my comprehension is down due to the mass quantities of Tylenol Sinus in my system right now) is the fact that we wouldn't be discussing how United under Nowak has performed in big games had there not been so many of them in his three years.

Nick, you're right on the Van Sicklen in Mexico thing. But it should also be remembered that Van Sicklen did have a good training camp, and Guppy never could have handled the altitude in Mexico City.

As for Gomez, can you blame a coach for not wanting a player he had never seen play and was scouted by someone as inept as Hudson? Also, you blame Nowak for stunting Adu's development, but would that be as much the result of having Gomez "forced" upon Nowak, and into Adu's preferred central midfield position?

It should also be remembered that Nowak got rid of Dema so that Freddy could be in the starting XI.

Anybody thinking that a team with the best record in the league should replace the coach should read this cautionary tale:


At 01 November, 2006 13:33, Anonymous Nick said...

SE Podcast,
Excellent point about Gomez taking Freddy's natural position...but i'd say Messi had a very similar situation with Ronaldinho, and look how he's developed. This is not to say that Freddy is as talented as Messi, ony that having a stud at your natural position ahead of you on the depth chart should not necessarily stunt your growth as a player. I credit Novak for putting them both on the field at the same time, but burying Freddy on the outside left hasn't done the job. I personally would like to see Freddy and Gomez play wherever they want in the midfield and just let Josh gross man the whole left flank as left back/midfielder...


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