Sakiewicz: Nowak was first, right choice to guide Union

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CHESTER, Pa. – When people ask Philadelphia Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz about the process that led to hiring Peter Nowak as the club’s first manager, the answer is usually very short.

“Embarrassingly, I didn’t have a plan,” Sakiewicz told MLSsoccer.com. “Because Peter was my first, second and third choice.”

There’s really nothing to be embarrassed about. Two-and-a-half years after Nowak first came to Philly, the manager has led the Union into the MLS Cup playoffs, where they open against Houston on Sunday at PPL Park (5 pm ET, ESPN2/ESPN Deportes, live chat on MLSsoccer.com).

Making the postseason is an impressive accomplishment for any second-year franchise, but the man who hired him has known all along that Nowak was the perfect man to guide the Union there.

“He fits the market, he fits the organization and we feel very fortunate to have Peter, John [Hackworth], Rob [Vartughian] and the whole staff here,” Sakiewicz said. “I love the locker room and I love the leadership. I’ve never had such a cohesive group of players.”

Sakiewicz knew he was getting a winner in Nowak, who won MLS Cups as a player (with Chicago in 1998) and as a manager (with D.C. United in 2004). But one thing that particularly drew him to the Polish manager was how he consistently keeps the right balance between being demanding and being friendly.

“He knows he’s got to push like every good leader and set the bar high,” Sakiewicz said. “But he also isn’t afraid to loosen things up and not take himself or the situation too seriously so the fun goes out of it.”

Nowak has certainly needed that kind of balance when dealing with the bevy of young players on this year’s squad.

Sometimes, though, the best kind of mentorship is none at all. When asked if he’ll draw from his own experiences to tell the youngsters what the playoffs are like, the Union manager gave an interesting response.

“You don’t talk to them at all,” Nowak said. “The more you talk to them, it’s a negative effect in whatever they’re trying to do. This is nothing new. We cannot overwhelm these guys with information. We’ve got to play the game we’ve already played for 34 weeks.”

And if the Union do play their game, Nowak could be hoisting his third MLS Cup next month. He’s also likely in the running for another trophy – the MLS Coach of the Year award.

“He’d get my vote,” Sakiewicz said with a laugh. “But I can’t vote.”

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