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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Column: A Union script that is sounding tired

John Hackworth isn’t exactly a betting man. He’s not the type of manager who tries to play the role of master puppeteer with a group of players, not a coach who changes formations and lineups just because the club crest on his blazer tells him he can.

But Hackworth is making a gamble over the last month of the MLS season. He’s wagering that the team that has brought the second-year coach to the brink of playoff qualification but has lately looked less than playoff-worthy can finish the job. And lately, it’s looked like the chips have been stacked against him in the pursuit.

Maybe it’s that Hackworth has an idea of what cards are left in the deck – what the real value of potentially idealized bench options like Michael Farfan or Kleberson or Roger Torres are when the cards are laid out on the green stuff the next five weeks. Maybe it’s that Hackworth is a devotee of disseminating a steady message, has unwillingness to burden his players with their proximity to the panic button or simply respects them enough to know that they must know stakes at this point.

Hackworth didn’t sound Wednesday like a manager whose team has scored just once in five matches and picked up five points in the standings since the end of July.

Part of it, from the cynical perspective, reeks of complacency. “If you guys would’ve asked me that in February, that we would be in the thick of it” goes the popular Hackworth refrain, “I would take it, for sure, especially with five games to play.” Implicit in that statement is an acknowledgement that the Union team that spent the majority of the summer within striking distance of the Eastern Conference summit punched well above its weight and is returning to earth, quickly and with a thud.
While Hackworth’s preseason assessment is fine for him, the reality is that if you asked the Union (10-10-9, 39 points) in July if this position was acceptable, the answer is clearly no.

Therein lie the built-in excuses. Somehow, in the long view, stealing a point from Real Salt Lake in July excuses dropping three at home to Houston in September? Grabbing a surprise three points from Colorado in March means that you can limp out of the gates and feebly attack against 10-man San Jose six months later? If it’s just the results balancing out, then what is a coach to do?

And for Hackworth, the bets are already hedged.

“I would make the point to all of you that this is the first time the entire season that we’ve lost two games in a row,” was Hackworth’s answer Wednesday, incidentally to a question about Kleberson’s playing time down the stretch. “And saying that, probably shouldn’t have lost two games in a row. We’re a team that has bounced back and we’ve been a team that has for the most part, when we’ve had a bad performance, we’ve come back and had a good one. And that’s consistency. I don’t know how you measure that. But the way I’m looking at it, we’ve been pretty good in those situations. Now it’s a tough challenge. It’s been two games that we haven’t gotten results, and we need to bounce back from it.”

He’s even trying to save his team from the desperation days, portraying Friday’s trip to Sporting Kansas City as less than a must-win. That determination means that the same lack of panic is likely to prevail again next week, even if the distance to the playoffs has increased.

“I think you can get into a little bit of a tough situation if players think that every week, it’s got to happen this week,” Hackworth said. “The reality is if you look at the last five games, and you’ve got Kansas City twice in that last five, going away to Kansas City certainly is going to be a huge, difficult game for us. But I don’t think it’s one that people are going to say, ‘Philly’s got to win this one to put themselves back in the race.’”

The Union’s ability to bounce back this year is certainly admirable and informs why they’re in the playoff hunt. But should the Union fly back from Kansas City with its first three-game losing streak of the season, what good is that explanation?

No crutch, though, is as well-worn as the disallowed goals. Yes, the Union have had goals against New England and Houston wrongfully taken off the board. And yes they drastically altered the course of both games. But does that excuse a five-goal capitulation to the Revs? And in a game like Houston where, once the Dynamo scored, it would’ve taken two goals to win anyway, is that an excuse for not getting another?

The fine line that Hackworth is walking is this: When does an explanation become an excuse? When does building the confidence of his team cross into shutting out the search for alternatives? When does faith go blind? When does knowing that the competition for playing time that Hackworth has prided his team on this season is just an illusion stop pushing a team forward?

Time will tell if Hackworth approach is right. The early returns, though, entitle a fair amount of skepticism.

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