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After another loss, still no good answers for Union's struggles

Union has one win in its first nine games, but manager John Hackworth seems to be absolved of blame so far.

The Impact's Jack McInerney leaps over the Union's Aaron Wheeler. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press/AP)
The Impact's Jack McInerney leaps over the Union's Aaron Wheeler. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press/AP)Read more

HAD FORMER New York Giants legend Bill Parcells coached a soccer team, he never would have made his famous quote about wanting to "shop for some of the groceries."

The guy leading a soccer team is called a "team manager" and not a head coach because he is generally responsible for all on-the-pitch matters, including player acquisition.

Of course, the owner is always the final arbitrator, but rarely does one drastically intervene once a manager is hired.

So in soccer, when a manager gets sacked, there is no big debate about the reasons. There is little doubt about who was responsible for the makeup of the roster and the results it produced.

Say what you want about Philadelphia Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz, but he has basically been a hands-off owner in his 5-year stewardship of the franchise. His philosophy has been to trust the guy he hired to manage the team - first Peter Nowak and now John Hackworth - as he sees fit.

Sakiewicz allowed Nowak to disassemble a roster that had made the playoffs after its second season before canning him after a franchise-worst 2-7-2 start in 2012.

After Saturday's 1-0 loss at the Montreal Impact, the Union has played nine matches in 2014. Its record is 1-3-5.

The eight points it has managed to scratch out is the same total Nowak's team had when he was shown the door.

Now, evidently, there were some serious backroom issues with Nowak that apparently do not exist with Hackworth, but as far as on-field performance, the results are almost identical.

And there is no debate that Hackworth, who replaced Nowak in 2012, has ownership of it.

"It's frustrating, because we only gave them a couple of opportunities in that first half, and they capitalized on one of them," Hackworth said after Saturday's loss. "And then we do a lot of good things, but don't capitalize in the most important moments of the game."

Hackworth has said some version of that after nearly every match.

Eight points and an eighth-place spot in the Eastern Conference are not good enough for a squad that spent a good deal in an effort to avoid missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season.

On paper, and even a lot of times on the field, Hackworth's preseason moves to acquire Maurice Edu, Cristian Maidana, Vincent Nogueira and Austin Berry looks like the exact opposite of what Nowak did, but ultimately, the results are the same.

Once again, Philadelphia is suffering from its historic inability to score big goals at big moments.

None of the offseason moves brought in a proven, top-flight goal scorer.

The Union tried to address that by trading striker Jack McInerney to Montreal for striker Andrew Wenger 3 weeks ago. But considering Hackworth has been on the Union staff for all of McInerney's four previous seasons, it screams out the question of, how did he not know "Jack Mack" was no longer a fit for his system?

Of greater concern, the fact that none of the Union's nine games has been decided by more than one goal says it all when you have won only a single match. Close matches are the best indicator of a team's ability or inability to mentally withstand pressure.

Hackworth has said several times that the Union's issues have little to do with the technical or tactical aspects of a match. Mental mistakes, such as not understanding situations or being out of position, are just that - mental.

Well, if results are still suffering because of mental mistakes in Game 9, that is a reflection on the job the technical staff is doing.

You can't straddle the fence. If you say it's not about the talent of the players, then it becomes about the ability of the coaching staff.

For now, though, Hackworth does not appear to be in any jeopardy.

"The team, in only its fifth season of existence, has made a lot of positive progress, particularly over the last 22 months under John Hackworth's stewardship," Sakiewicz said in an email from a business trip to Europe. "During this time, he has cleaned up a poorly managed salary-cap situation created under previous management, signed some very good, quality midfielders this season, put together a talented group of young coaches that are driven to win every day and built a clubhouse culture focused on playing an attractive style of soccer that our fans want to see.

"Although the ball is not bouncing our way at the moment, most everyone can see that we are playing good soccer and deserve more points than we have.

"I'm not much of a stats guy because there is only one stat that really counts in soccer, which is the final score. However, when you look at the relevant stats after most every game we've played so far, it is very clear we have outplayed our opponents. We are creating more scoring opportunities than our opponents in anytime of our short history.

"We are very confident in our players and staff that, under John's leadership, this core group will continue the good work they started just 22 months ago and get the ball bouncing our way, which means putting the ball in the opposing team's goal more often. Now is a time to get behind our players more than ever, add one or two more quality players to help them and support our staff so they can continue their good work."

That's about as strong a vote of confidence that a manager can get. Still, if the bottom-line results don't get better quickly, you have to wonder whether Hackworth could become a casualty of the one soccer-related issue he does not control.