You know how some say we all have a so-called body double ... a kindred spirit, if you will ... somewhere in the world? I think I know who Philadelphia Union manager Peter Nowak's might be. Alan Pardew is the manager of Newcastle, the underdog side currently sitting in fourth place in the English Premier League. In many ways (both good and bad) Pardew conducts his soccer affairs just like Nowak does.
On the negative side of the dossier, they both have that Andy Reid-esque "I know more about this sport than you do" side to them. They're also both very unconventional, relying on motivational gobbledy-gook (Pardew) and odd training tactics such as tying a rope to all 11 men to sort out spacing (Nowak). But, on the plus column of the ledger, both men shine and seem to leave collegues eating their dust.
And it's that willingness by both men to step outside the proverbial confines of soccer coaching that serves their team so well. More on Pardew in a minute, but no one can argue with Nowak's body of work with the Union in two short years. After Saturday's 1-1 tie with Toronto FC in front of a record crowd of 19,178 at PPL Park in Chester, Pa., the Union is hitting on all cylinders ... and that's certainly down to Nowak.
Oh, sure, the blazing-hot form of striker Sebastien Le Toux (10 goals in his last 11 games) has a lot to do with it. And, there aren't many better central-defensive pairings plying their trade in Major League Soccer right now than the Union's Carlos Valdes and Danny Califf. But the main reason the Union has clinched a playoff berth and could still win the Eastern Conference has to do with Nowak's unique skill set.
Here's a manager who isn't afraid to try new things, and that flexibility buoyed the Union late in the season at a time when the wheels could have come off the whole project. What other MLS coach would have started 16-year-old Zach Pfeffer in midfield in a crucial home match a few weeks back? Is there another manager who would have admitted the error of his ways and gone with a fan favorite like Roger Torres?
In this way, Nowak has played his cards much like Pardew did with West Ham in England a few years back. "Pards," as he's known, always preached the importance of playing well and peaking in what he called the "business end" of a soccer season. In other words, your team would do well to just hang around for three-quarters of the fixture list then turn it on over those last 10 games or so. The Union certainly have followed that blueprint.
They're unbeaten in their last eight games (3-0-5), taking 14 points out of a possible 24. While that's not as many as the team would like, it's still enough to have the Union (now 11-7-15 and sitting at 48 points) tied with Sporting Kansas City atop the Eastern Conference with one round of games left. It's also a significant improvement on the Union's 8-15-7 record in their first year of MLS existence in 2010.
And there's no doubt a hot team ... with an equally hot striker such as Le Toux ... is what every other MLS side wants to avoid in the playoffs. Pardew rode a similar horse home to the finish when he took West Ham from the Championship to the Premier League in the mid-2000s. He also had the luxury of a pair of strikers finding their form in Bobby Zamora and Marlon Harewood, but Le Toux alone should do it for the Union.
I'll get to see for myself when the team travels to Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. this coming Thursday night for an ESPN2 matchup against the New York Red Bulls. Press of Atlantic City sports editor Mark Melhorn will be accompanying me, as will my 14-year-old twin sons Alex and Ben. The atmosphere will be intense, and the circumstances will probably see the Red Bulls needing a win to clinch the league's 10th and final playoff spot.
But you know Nowak will want nothing more than to rain on the Red Bulls' potential parade. When Bob Bradley was fired as the U.S. men's national team coach earlier this year, Nowak responded to a reporter's question about his qualifications for that job with an acerbic, "Why don't you ask Backe?" Hans Backe is the Red Bulls' manager, and at that time he was chosen to coach the MLS All-Stars against Manchester United.
The sheer vitriol with which Nowak answered the query showed he felt hard done by when it came to MLS' mid-summer showpiece game. But it's that never-far-from-the-edge Polish grit that makes the Union manager such a hard foe to come up against. I saw the same qualities in Pardew the two times I saw him manage (in person) in England. I attended a Reading vs. Charlton match at the Madejski stadium, and a West Ham vs. Bolton tilt in the Premier League at Upton Park.
Much to the chagrin of my friend Neil Holloway (the Englishman who serves as the general manager of the Ocean City Nor'easters and played in the Reading youth systems when Pardew was there), I always liked the way "Pards" conducted himself ... there was that precious mix of total control with self-belief bordering on arrogance. You see the same thing in Nowak. You don't have to like these guys, but they sure get the job done.