By Mike Wise
Monday, October 30, 2006
In the short run, Christian Gomez bailed out a badly outplayed D.C. United last night. But on a grand scale, Gomez bailed out his coach.
He calmly knocked in a goal in the 86th minute of a playoff match against the New York Red Bulls that potentially saved third-year coach Peter Nowak from two straight first-round exits at home.
For the most decorated MLS franchise in the 10-year-old league's history, those are grounds for termination. You can't explain away two first-round-and-outs to a club that has won four titles, including the 2004 MLS championship team coached by Nowak, back when United showed up in seminal games.
Freddy Adu called United's 1-1 draw with New York at RFK Stadium the worst performance by his team since before the 17-year-old got his driver's license. Whether that qualifies as shoot-from-the-lip teen talk or not, Freddy and his teammates played so sloppily in advancing past Bruce Arena's new team that Nowak actually referred to his team as the underdog next week against New England. United, it should be mentioned, had the best record in the league this season and will host the game.
When Arena was told of Nowak's underdog logic, he respectfully smirked. "Well, he should take all his money and bet on New England then," he said.
It's interesting the United States will choose a new coach for its national team sometime next month, and Nowak has been mentioned as a long-shot candidate to replace the recently dumped Arena. He may not even be United's coach next season.
It's not Nowak's Polish heritage that will disqualify him from consideration. It's not even that the outgoing U.S. national team coach had his club much better prepared in a win-or-go-home match at RFK Stadium before a flag-waving United mob that packed the lower bowl.
What kills Nowak's chances are the same character traits that will eventually lead to his departure in Washington: his inflexibility and inability to change strategies and preparation. His intolerance for fatigue. He refused to give Jaime Moreno and other worn-down United players a needed rest earlier this season. By the time some of his beat-up and beleaguered players got some time off, they were already physically shot.
Nowak's contract expires in December, and management has not exactly been knocking down his door to begin extension talks. He feels he has accomplished too much with this club to grovel for more money, and a case could actually be made to that end.
From May 6 to July 29, United did not lose a game and had a 14-game unbeaten streak going. Nowak coached the MLS all-stars to a victory over Chelsea of the English Premier League and coached United to a breathtaking 1-1 draw against Real Madrid in Seattle, a riveting match that really brought out everything Nowak's no-guts-no-glory approach has been about with United.
But his players, who all like and respect him, don't get up for big games like they once did for Nowak. Dating back to last year, they have gotten blown out or outplayed in some key matches, none worse than their 4-0 playoff loss to Chicago at RFK.
He hasn't lost the locker room or so infuriated the franchise that they can't keep him around. In fact, United may very well re-sign Nowak if he doesn't find a better-paying European job in the offseason. His consistency and steadfastness have always been his hallmarks, but those qualities are now leading to predictability. He's like any taskmaster who comes in and rights the ship; eventually, the message gets old and the players don't listen as well.
I was one of those in Nowak's corner for much of his first two years. He had that Eastern European, I-must-break-you mentality. His old ways flew in the face of a growing sentiment regarding Adu -- that the then-14-year-old phenom should play based on marketing reasons alone. They wanted to turn the kid into a freak show before he developed as a player, and Nowak was having none of it.
What a concept, I thought, a guy who actually stood up to rush-the-kid-along American commercialism for the good of his team, the league and the game.
But that was before the worst team in the MLS playoffs -- New York was 9-12-12 coming in -- made United look pedestrian in its efforts to get to the next round. That was before Nowak's club came up woefully short in a match they badly needed at home. That was before Nowak was incredibly fortunate to have Gomez's sure right foot send his limping-to-the-backstretch club to the next round.
The force of Nowak's gruff personality has pried everything he can possibly wring from United in three years. If his players find a way to pull another championship out of their physically shot legs, he will have accomplished a minor miracle. Either way, it is time to go another direction next season.