By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2006
D.C. United President Kevin Payne said yesterday he still would have traded Freddy Adu this month even if he had known that then-head coach Peter Nowak, who had a strained relationship with the teenage star, would be leaving the MLS club to join the U.S. national team.
Payne said United's new coach, former assistant Tom Soehn, had been involved in some of the team's biggest personnel moves before Nowak's departure, including the decision to trade Adu to Real Salt Lake on Dec. 11.
"Tommy was still part of every single discussion we had as far as how we were going to plan our offseason and the changes we were going to make," Payne said. "Tommy was certainly very much part of the conversations about the decision that led us to move Freddy. It would not have changed the decision at all."
Speaking at a news conference at which Soehn was formally introduced as Nowak's successor, Payne said Nowak informed the team last Friday that he would be leaving after three successful but sometimes stormy seasons to become an assistant coach with the U.S. national team.
Payne said he had anticipated this moment for two years, knowing the well-traveled Nowak's interest in exploring other opportunities, and had groomed Soehn to take over the team.
But there was a problem: Soehn was on the verge of being offered the head coaching position with California-based Chivas USA and, after being a runner-up for several other MLS jobs, seemed poised to take it.
Payne called technical director Dave Kasper, who was on vacation in the Dominican Republic, to discuss the matter. Two days later, with an airline ticket to Los Angeles in hand, Soehn received United's offer. On Tuesday, he accepted, and yesterday was introduced as the fifth head coach in club history.
"For me, it was always important that Tom stay," said Payne, who had lost highly regarded assistants in 1998 (Bob Bradley) and 2001 (Frank Yallop) to head coaching jobs elsewhere. "I was nervous when other teams were courting Tom, and we were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths . . . to convince Tom to stay here."
Contract terms were not revealed, but it's believed to be a two-year deal with options and a $200,000 salary.
Meantime, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced yesterday that Nowak will be an assistant under Bradley, who will coach the 2008 Olympic team and guide the national team on an interim basis.
Nowak, who led United to the 2004 MLS title and the best regular season record in the league this year, declined interview requests, but said in a prepared statement that "this is the next step in my coaching career, and a new chapter in my life."
In an interview, Nowak's agent, Ron Waxman, said: "Bob and Peter are very good friends and want to do something special together. That's what it came down to."
Nowak was Bradley's star midfielder with the Chicago Fire from 1998 to 2002, and they had remained close as coaching rivals in MLS.
Nowak's contract with United was to expire this month, and he and Payne had discussed an extension. "It wasn't about the money," said a source close to both the team and coach.
Nowak was never enamored of Washington, though. He lives in Naples, Fla., with his wife and young child and, even in the middle of the season, would return there whenever possible. With the national team program, he will be able to live at home and join Bradley when needed.
Payne said he was initially surprised that Nowak decided to leave, "but as I think about it and understand some of the issues for him, particularly having to do with his family and the time he is away from them, I understand his decision, and accept his decision and respect his decision."
Soehn, 40, joined Nowak's staff in 2004 and quickly emerged as one of MLS's most respected assistants. He had interviewed for head coaching jobs with Real Salt Lake, Colorado, Toronto, Dallas and Chivas USA.
Soehn does not plan drastic changes in the way the team plays, saying: "You are still going to see the same style. One of the things we're so proud of is the way we possess the ball and we make the game beautiful. That's going to continue."
However, he does see himself as a different coach than Nowak, whose uncompromising approach turned off some players.
"Peter's and my style are very different, and that's why I think we complemented each other so much," he said. "We used to get into it as players and get into it as coaches, but ultimately we knew what the final goal is; we needed to do what was best for the team and we supported each other in that way."
United midfielder Ben Olsen supported the decision to hire Soehn, saying, "It was a no-brainer who should fill that role." Asked to contrast the Polish-born Nowak and the Chicago-bred Soehn, he added: "Their personalities are different, but most of all, Tommy's an American soccer player and he might understand the American player a little more."
MLS Notes: Mark Simpson, on Nowak's staff since 2004, will become Soehn's top assistant. . . . Kasper rated Argentine midfielder Matias Donnet's chances of re-signing with the team at "50-50." . . .
New Kansas City coach Curt Onalfo has hired George Mason University assistants Kris Kelderman and David Tenney for his staff.