Stories of the Year, No. 10: An imperfect Union in Philly

Stories of the Year: Peter Nowak

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As the Best of 2012 series continues on MLSsoccer.com, we're counting down the 12 most important stories of the year in Major League Soccer. We'll take a look at one story per day from Dec. 19 until Dec. 30, when we unveil what our panel of 20 editors, writers, videographers and statistics specialists voted as the Story of the Year in MLS in 2012.

Next up, one of the biggest storylines from the spring, when Peter Nowak toyed with the lineup in Philadelphia and traded away three stars before he was unceremoniously fired from his post. Philadelphia Union beat writer Dave Zeitlin looks back at a bitter breakup in the City of Brotherly Love.

During the first official week of the 2012 preseason, then-Philadelphia Union defender Danny Califf walked over to a group of reporters, shook his head and gave a forced, painful smile.

A YEAR IN THE LIFE
OF PETER NOWAK

July 29, 2011 – In a dramatic and bizarre postgame press conference, Nowak announces striker Carlos Ruiz would be leaving the club, indicating that the “pre-bias” that fans toward him played a role in the decision.

Aug. 12, 2011 – It’s a happy reunion at PPL Park with the Union introducing ex-wunderkind Freddy Adu as the team’s prized transfer window acquisition.

Oct. 30, 2011 – In their first playoff game, Nowak makes a highly questionable tactical decision by employing a five-man backline that includes aging midfielder Stefani Miglioranzi as a sweeper. The Union end up getting swept out of the playoffs by Houston.

Jan. 31, 2012 – In the span of two days, the Union part ways with the only two all-stars in franchise history – Sebastien Le Toux and Faryd Mondragón. When asked what it was like to trade such a popular player like Le Toux, Nowak famously states, “Feelings are not part of my job description.”

May 17, 2012 –After a week of rumors and posturing, defender Danny Califf is traded to Chivas USA for Michael Lahoud.  The veteran defender says he never wanted to leave Philly.

June 6, 2012 – Nowak says goodbye to yet another Union original when he ships Mwanga to Portland for Jorge Perlaza. It would be his last personnel move as manager of the club.

June 13, 2012 – Nowak is informed by Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz that the club is moving in a different direction. He leaves with a 21-30-24 record during his two-plus seasons in charge of the Union.

-Compiled by Dave Zeitlin

It was all he could do in the days and hours after Philly’s captain, Faryd Mondragón, and leading scorer, Sébastien Le Toux, were shipped out unexpectedly and controversially, leaving Califf as one of the last remaining veteran players on a suddenly young and inexperienced squad.

Was it weird for him starting a new season under those circumstances?

“Weird,” Califf said at the time, “would be an understatement.”

Then, of course, things got even weirder as Peter Nowak, the first manager in franchise history, continued to inexplicably disassemble the team that had stormed to a playoff berth just months earlier.

Califf himself was the next to go, traded to Chivas USA in mid-May. And just three weeks after that, Danny Mwanga – the franchise’s first-ever draft pick and second leading scorer behind Le Toux – was dealt to Portland for Jorge Perlaza, who was later released.

Essentially, Nowak had gotten rid of the team’s first two captains, first two all-stars and top two strikers in a five-month span, gutting the Union of the talent that had propelled them to the franchise’s first playoff berth and the heart that had endeared them to Philadelphia fans.

In the end, it cost the Union untold points as they sputtered to a 2-7-2 start, which they could never recover from in their quest to make it back to the postseason. And it also cost Nowak his job as the manager was dismissed from his post in mid-June because of what Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz called “philosophical differences.”

Sakiewicz never specified what all of those differences were but Nowak’s handling of the Le Toux and Califf trades surely played a role in the firing. The two players were the rocks of the Union since the franchise’s inception and both expressed a desire to stay in Philadelphia for the remainder of their careers. But both ended up feeling betrayed by Nowak, who they claimed was misleading and deceitful in the days leading up to the trades.

The whole saga took another bizarre turn when Nowak – who summed up the backlash from the Le Toux deal by infamously stating, “Feelings are not part of my job description” – sued the Union for wrongful termination, a case that was sent to an arbitrator in September.

Meanwhile, on the field, the Union have tried their best to forget the Polish manager ever existed with new head man John Hackworth dumping many of the players Nowak brought in and reacquiring Le Toux, who said he’d rather retire than play for Nowak again.

Now that Nowak is long gone, though, the club’s all-time leading scorer is more than happy to be back in Philadelphia, saying at a recent press conference, “I hope to stay here forever.”

Funny how quickly some things can change.

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.