09 November 2006

Judging the Case Against Piotr Nowak

As we've noted, the blame for the DC late season has coalesced around Piotr Nowak. In this post, we'll take a look at the history of the case against Piotr Nowak, attempt to summarize its key points, weigh their validity, and then render my person feelings on the matter. If you're worried about the length of this post, skip to the last sentence.

The Backstory

Let's take a look at the history of the "Piotr Out" school of thought, which I have monitored and responded to for about the past month. On 18 October, Bill Urban gave voice to a rough outline of the case against Nowak. Urban wrote that Piotr's "stubborn refusal to change the system" had "morphed the conference semifinal...into a sort of referendum on the reign of Peter." Unfortunately, the results of that semi-final were ambiguous as a referendum on Piotr Nowak. United advanced despite being outplayed for much of the second leg by the Red Bulls.

After advancing past the Red Bulls, the Washington Post's Mike Wise brought the case against Nowak to our hometown newspaper on 30 October. The case is similar to the one Urban first described, Wise cites "[Nowak's] inflexibility and inability to change strategies and preparation. His intolerance for fatigue." Wise then becomes the first to say definitively what was only theoretically posited in the media previously: "it is time to go another direction next season."

After DC United's exit against the New England Revolution, it seemed that the "Nowak Out" movement passed from the status of "provacative school of thought" to "media conventional wisdom." On 6 November, Ives Galarcep savaged Nowak at ESPN. Galarcep, to some degree, moved the script to a broader indictment of Nowak as a coach:

"the winner was determined as much by the men working the sidelines as the players on the field...D.C. did not do enough to add depth to an attack that always was thin once you got past the likes of Jaime Moreno and Christian Gomez....There was a confidence to the way the Revs moved the ball around, never a sense that the team needed to get the ball to certain players. D.C. did not boast this same fluidity."

At his blog, Galarcep wrote, "I think D.C. is in for some serious changes next year. Peter Nowak is gone, I just have a feeling." Galarcep clarified: "the point of the column wasn't to say that Peter Nowak should not be retained as DC head coach, it was simply to state that he did a bad job on Sunday." Galarcep may have passed no judgement on whether DC should retain Nowak or not, but he certainly made his feelings on Nowak's in-game tactical ability clear. In his ESPN column, Galarcep wasn't simply writing about Nowak in one game, but he had broadened his scope to the entire season: "The mistakes that doomed D.C. to failure weren't limited to Sunday. Some were made when you would have least expected it, months ago when D.C. looked unbeatable." In short, Nowak (and to some extent the Front Office) had botched the season. This is not an indictment of one game, but a criticism of job performance over an entire year.

The synthesis of the main charges really appeared the next day. Andrea Canales synthesized the Urban/Wise and Galarcep cases for a DC collapse into a handy numbered list with a few twists of its own which I paraphrase thusly: DC was tired, They didn't add attacking options, they were in denial about their losing streak, Piotr Nowak is too much a hard-ass, and the fans didn't demand accountability. On 8 November, Steve Davis at ESPN recapped everything nicely:

"Nowak's failure to loosen his tight grip exacerbated the team's issues...Nowak's inflexible ways contributed to the good ship United running aground. But the absence of a firebrand forward...was also a prime factor. Nowak seemed to be swimming in denial...What was effective in a loose locker room, one in need of some professionalism, may not work as the roster rounds into a more polished and learned bunch."

However, Davis stops short of calling for Nowak's ouster, and instead finishes with "Nowak has done so many positive things at D.C. -- including a league title in his first year in charge -- that he deserves another year to get it right."

Evaluating the Main Charges

If we can look at all of this, plus the various chatter, reasoned arguments, and random invectives we see on the message boards, it comes down to complaints about the following:

  1. Nowak is too stubborn and inflexible.
  2. Nowak wore out his players.
  3. DC needed to add attacking options.
  4. Nowak was outclassed against Steve Nicol.
Now, these charges have varying degrees of merit and importance, but let's look at each of them.

Nowak is Stubborn and Inflexible: There is truth that Nowak is one stubborn SOB. He believes in a systematic approach to soccer, and you have to have quite a record for being able to improvise for Nowak to feel comfortable with free play on the field. That being said, Nowak is not completley rigid. He does allow for Gomez, Moreno, and even Erpen to take some liberties in the play. Nowak stresses a system, but over the past three years he's allowed more room for individual judgement within that system. If this argument is to be completley damning, you must believe that the Nowak of 2004 is the Nowak of 2005 is the Nowak of 2006 and will be the Nowak of 2007. My sense is that Nowak does learn, does adjust, and does modify. Perhaps not as radically as some wish, or as much as might be effective, but he does do it.

Nowak wore out the team: BlackDogRed has a great line using Josh Gros as the standard of Nowak's desired work ethic: "By the standards of how Nowak seems to rate his players, if grit and determination and indefatigable hustle rank highest, it's easy to understand why Nowak loves Gros." Yet not every player can be Josh Gros, or should be. To be honest, I think this is the most damaging part of Nowak's coaching style -- the Fitness Above All Else theory of coaching. He barely gave lip service to Moreno getting rest weeks after it was clear Moreno was running down (and after the same thing happened in 2005). His players may joke about it (and they do) but Nowak is more than happy to send his players on punishing fitness sessions in the high DC summer heat. It ran his team down, and looms as a major problem next season when DC will be facing CONCACAF Champions Cup competitions, the new MLS/Mexican Champions League, the US Open Cup, and the MLS Season fixture congestion. There needs to be more rotation among the players and more willingness to give a break, and this is the area where Nowak has been the most inflexible, and the most in need of change.

DC Needed Attacking Options: True, and as Moreno gets older this gets more true every day. Yes, Nowak has input with the Front Office on this. At the same time, if decent attacking options were lying around for the right price, why didn't Columbus pick one up? Donnet (from the midfield) and Ssejjemba (from up-top) were both attempts to remedy the situation, but neither proved effective in 2006. So be it. Finding quality strikers for an MLS team is a difficult matter, and there are no sure things in the transfer market or the SuperDraft. Hell, Houston could use another attacking option, but they're in the MLS Cup. Ditto with Colorado, Chivas, RSL, Chicago, and other teams not named "New England". DC's need was no greater than any of these teams, and did not call for an overpriced, panicked signing.

Nowak was outclassed by Steve Nicol: The Donnett for Freddy substitution was a problem that grew worse with Gomez and Eskandarian going down. That it was the first substitution made Nowak's mistake apparent. Admittedly, he had his reasons for countering Khano Smith, but it is clear that later events proved him wrong. That being said, Nicol hardly outcoached DC. It is clear that DC was ready to play New England, and played them well. They created scoring chances. They broke down the New England backline and moved well through the midfield. They limited New England to, by my count, only three risky moments in front of Perkins. I can't support the idea that Nicol had Nowak beat tactically, since the run of play in both halves argues against that notion.

Final Thoughts

I can agree with many of the criticisms: Nowak and his system need to tweak and change. The difference between me and others is that I believe that Nowak has demonstrated some ability to adapt in the past, and I believe will continue to do so in the future. That may just be a judgement call, but it is mine to make.

The reason I've held off on this post is that my first reaction when the season ended was to support Nowak unequivocally. That may just be because I despise much of the soccer group-think once it develops (and one of the reasons I started this blog in the first place). So in examining Coach Nowak, I wanted to be sure that I was doing this as rationally and coldly as possible. There are two reasons to change coaches (by either firing or "not agreeing to terms" with them.) First, you can fire the coach for being inept and unable to create success, or if the coach has lost the team's respect or attention. In this situation, what is needed is a change, and almost any change will do. But as I wrote before, this season is a success. Perhaps not a thundering one, as complete as we might have desired, but positive nonetheless. While people may say that the team doesn't respond to Nowak as much as they did in 2004, they still, in my view, respond to him and he has not lost them. You can not look to change Nowak on those grounds.

You might also change coaches if you think you can get better results with someone else. Economists might refer to this as the marginal cost of keeping a coach, and examples abound in sports (the most recent I can think of was Tony Dungy's ouster from the Tampa Bay Bucs for Gruden). If using this standard, we have to consider the likely coaching option. The general consensus, which I agree with, is that Tommy Soehn would move into the head coaching duties. So the question I ask myself "Is Soehn likely to achieve better results in 2007 than Nowak?" The answer is that I have no reason to think Soehn's methods (and the team's response to those methods) in his first year would differ significantly from Nowak. There is no marginal gain.

Finally, some commenters (Ives again comes to mind) say that Nowak should want to move on, that there is nothing left for him in DC. I can understand Nowak moving to a European option if the right one comes up, but given the unique challenges of next year (a shot to redeem the Pumas loss, and a performance in the first ever Champions League) I think there's plenty to keep Nowak interested and challenged. Not to mention proving the critics wrong. A childish reason, sure, but everyone says Nowak is a comeptitor, so why not tuck a grudge away and prove them wrong?

The short message? I hope Kevin Payne will retain Piotr Nowak as coach for 2007.


At 09 November, 2006 12:18, Anonymous Dave Lifton said...

Smart man.

At 09 November, 2006 13:27, Blogger Brian said...

I agree. Nowak should be brought back for 2007. How long a contract? A safe bet would be for another 3 year deal, see how the first year goes, and move from there.

I do hope that he has learned from the fitness and fatigue issues from this season though. I also want a pure striker up top.

At 09 November, 2006 15:16, Anonymous Matt said...

Good post D...now we know why it took a few days...lots of writing.

I agree with all of it....

In the end, I'm quite confident that Payne will do the right thing.

Nowak should return to DC instead of overseas. He still has lots to learn and will have way more chance to progress as a coach in the US versus Europe where they fire coaches for sport.

At 09 November, 2006 18:30, Anonymous SamEE said...

Well written, but I couldn't disagree more. There was a saying that our president botched awhile ago "Fool me once shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me."

In the 2005 campaign we saw a fine DC quad crash out of tournament after tournament and limp into the playoffs- obviously out of gas. In 2006 the very same thing happened (granted we got one game further down the line)!

What I don't understand is how, having lived and suffered through these sputtering endings, we can sit hope that this season Novak will finally learn his lesson?

The answer is: He won't, because it is not in his skill set. Managers like that don't change and they can be found in professional leagues all over the world. The difference is that the successful versions of Novak play in lower leagues or clubs that don't play in as many competitions.

It is not his soccer know-how, it is his ability to lead a club, manage its assets to meet its end of year goals, and inspire his players to rise to the occasion that I question. History doesn't support a claim that he will change, why should we?

As for the replacement coach- I refuse to believe that Tony is our only cadidate. There are a number of talented young coaches in Europe that might jump across the pond for a chance to coach a club like DCU. If Novak goes to Europe that number will jump considerable as these coaches will see the MLS as a viable stepping stone on their way to bigger European clubs.

At 10 November, 2006 10:38, Anonymous BigKris said...

I agree with the case - Peter is solid and we're lucky to have him. To judge against him because he fell short of MLS cup is silly - he's won hardware in 2 of his 3 seasons with the team.

That said, I think all of us are looking for continued development of Nowak as a Coach. He's only been doing this for three years so it's reasonable to expect that he's still learning and growing in this new profession. The question is, will he? The bet by those of us who support him is "yes".

At 10 November, 2006 11:20, Anonymous BigKris said...

More grist for the mill: During the 3-year tenure of Piotr Nowak, DC has been the best team in MLS. Aggregating the results of all franchises from 2004-2006, DC United leads MLS in points, goals, and goal differential and is third in goals allowed.

Also, DC has won as many trophies as any team in MLS. Each year, DC (like all MLS teams) enters into three major domestic competitions: the MLS cup, Supporters' Shield, and US Open Cup. Over the past three years, only two franchises have won more than one of the nine trophies handed out in those competitions: DC United with the 2004 MLS cup and 2006 Supporters' shield, and LA which won both the USOC and MLS cups in 2005. (The Houston/San Jose franchise can join this group should they win MLS cup 2006 on Sunday, having also won the 2005 Supporters Shield.)

At 10 November, 2006 12:44, Anonymous Nick said...

Well reasoned and argued. A huge criticism you left out was the Freddy situation. Novak botched it horribly, and it was agony from a fan's perspective watching this man put the shackles on the greatest asset this league has ever had in 04 and 05. Just as troubling has been Freddy's lack of development under Novak. When you see Freddy's skills, his potential is undeniable, and when you combine that with his attitude and work rate, he is a star. And yet, Novak has basically ground him down and taken off the majority of Freddy's star luster. I credit Novak for developing Gros and Carroll--two "system" guys, for sure, they have certainly benefitted from Novak's tutelage. Boswell has also seemingly benefitted. But Freddy was the big time, and I think we would all agree that Novak plain and simply did not get the job done.
As far as marginal utility, I think John Harkes or Raul Diaz Arce are available and would be significant upgrades. I know I cannot prove that, but that's just my opinion...


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