Nowak's absence felt in Philadelphia

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Nowak's absence felt in Philadelphia

The Fires opponent in a Sunday road match has had a rocky season, and the focal point of it was a Chicago legend. Peter Nowak is no longer the coach of the Philadelphia Union, but hes a factor in what has transpired in the clubs third season.
Last season the Union was a playoff team, the Fire was not. Now the Fire is closing in on a playoff berth while Philadelphia is struggling, and the circumstances surrounding Nowak are a big reason why.
Nowak was the first Fire captain. A former captain of the Poland national team, Nowak led the Fire to a shocking sweep of the Major League Soccer and Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cups in the clubs inaugural 1998 season. He retired as a player after four more campaigns with the Fire, then went into coaching.
He was as successful as a coach as he was a player. Nowak guided D.C. United to the MLS Cup in 2004, making him the only person to win that trophy as both a player and a coach. He then worked as an assistant to first Fire coach Bob Bradley with the U.S. national team and coached the 2008 U.S. Olympic squad before the Union made him its first coach.
The Union entered MLS in 2010 with Nowak as the manager (head coach) and executive vice president. The club was 8-15-7 in its first season and then made the playoffs after going 11-8-15 in 2011.
So far, so good for Nowak still a popular guy in Chicago soccer circles.
This season, though, has been something else. Despite last seasons successes Nowak opted to rebuild the Union. That led to the trades of striker Sebastien Le Toux to Vancouver, captain Danny Califf to Chivas USA and forward Danny Mwanga to Portland. All three were popular players in Philadelphia, and Nowaks own popularity there declined after the Union started 2-7-2, scoring only eight goals in those 11 games.
Not only did the fans become disenchanted with Nowak, but Philadelphia chief executive officer Nick Sakiewicz had issues as well. They escalated when European media reports had Nowak applying for the vacant head coaching job with Scottish Cup winner Heart of Midlothian.
Though Nowak denied those reports Sakiewicz, tired of the controversies that had hampered his team all season, fired him on June 13. Sakiewicz only cited "philosophical differences" for the firing, but Nowak sued the Union for wrongful termination and unpaid severance money. Subsequent legal documents accused Nowak of hazing and other questionable practices. He was also dropped as coach of the MLS All-Stars for the mid-season match against Englands Chelsea.
With Nowak out, Sakiewicz put assistant coach John Hackworth in charge of the Union on an interim basis. The club has done better under him, going 5-4-0, but Philadelphia is still ninth of the 10 teams in the Eastern Conference. Only Toronto FC, the Fires 2-1 victim in its last game on Saturday, is behind the Union.
Theres a couple of other interesting ties between the Philadelphia saga and the Fire. The Unions last match was a 2-0 loss to the expansion Montreal Impact last Saturday on the road. The Impact is coached by Jesse Marsch, who played with Nowak in the Fires midfield and coached with him in the U.S. national team program.
Marsch has become a coach-of-the-year contender after guiding the new team to a 9-13-3 record and sixth place in the East (the Fire is fifth, five points head of the Impact and holding the final playoff position). Fire coach Frank Klopas, of course, played with both Nowak and Marsch on the first Fire team.
The current Union roster includes Bakary Soumare, who left the Fire under strange circumstances after being a finalist for MLS Defender-of-the-Year in 2008 and an MLS All-Star in 2009. Soumare, played in 63 matches for the Fire from 2007-09 and was part of the Fires last playoff team. His departure reportedly came after a fight with then-head coach Denis Hamlett during the halftime of a game. Hamletts contract wasnt renewed after the 2009 season.
Soumare, who spent the last three seasons primarily with French side Boulogne, has not played for the Union since Philadelphia acquired him on June 26. He had been nursing a right knee injury, but the Union listed him as probable for Sundays match.
Nowak wasnt with the Union when it visited the Fire on March 24 for the Toyota Park opener. The Fire won 1-0 on a Dominic Oduro goal while Nowak remained in Philadelphia with reported flu-like symptoms. Nowak remains fourth on the Fires all-time goal-scoring list with 26, trailing Ante Razov, Chris Rolfe and Josh Wolff. Marco Pappa pulled even with Nowak when he scored his 26th in the win over Toronto FC.
The Fire (10-7-5) goes to Philadelphia with a 3-5-3 record in MLS road games this season. Next home match is Aug. 18 against New England. There are 12 matches remaining before the playoffs begin on Oct. 31. The top five teams in each conference qualify for postseason play with the MLS Cup final is Dec. 1.

Jon Lester vs. Clayton Kershaw doesn’t live up to expectations as Dodgers sweep Cubs

Jon Lester vs. Clayton Kershaw doesn’t live up to expectations as Dodgers sweep Cubs

LOS ANGELES – In a Cubs season that has already gone off script – or at least not followed the dynasty-in-waiting narrative – it made perfect sense that a Jon Lester vs. Clayton Kershaw matchup at Dodger Stadium would devolve into a slugfest and a bullpen battle.

Randy Newman’s voice – “I Love L.A.” – blasted from the sound system late Sunday afternoon as the Dodgers put the finishing touches on a three-game sweep of the defending World Series champs. The Cubs led for one half-inning during this entire weekend and will wake up in San Diego on Memorial Day as a 25-24 team.

This 9-4 blowout again showed that the Dodgers should be a force in October. Forget about the way forward-thinking manager Dave Roberts basically tried to MacGyver his way through last year’s National League Championship Series with three pitchers – Kershaw, lefty curveball specialist Rich Hill and star closer Kenley Jansen.

“That’s the big separator between what I saw last year and right now – how they’re pitching,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.

It didn’t matter that Kershaw got knocked out in the middle of the fifth inning after Willson Contreras, Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo launched home runs and the Cubs generated 11 hits off the three-time Cy Young Award winner.

Kershaw still outlasted Lester, who dropped his head, stared at the grass and walked off the mound with one out and two runners on in the fourth inning. The Cubs had earlier fallen into a 6-1 deficit after Lester gave up two three-run homers to Cody Bellinger and Kike Hernandez.

In back-to-back shutouts, the Dodgers (31-20) had already beaten a Cy Young Award winner dealing with questions about his velocity and looming free agency (Jake Arrieta) and a three-time World Series champion who’s 38 years old and now has a 5.18 ERA (John Lackey).

“It’s always tougher the second time, because everybody’s gunning for you,” said Ben Zobrist, who should be back in the lineup on Monday after missing two games with a sore left wrist. “Your expectations are even higher than they were before.

“But this team is definitely equal to the task. That’s not the problem as much as we just got to get back to the fundamentals and execution of the little details in the game. And everything else kind of takes care of itself.”

Joe Maddon has no choice but to ignore noise and put his faith in young Cubs lineup

Joe Maddon has no choice but to ignore noise and put his faith in young Cubs lineup

LOS ANGELES – Right around the time Theo Epstein was asked when the Cubs might consider sending Kyle Schwarber down to Triple-A Iowa, Ian Happ became the new shiny object for fans and the Chicago media.

In less than 200 at-bats, Schwarber went from World Series legend to dropping from the leadoff spot to being a platoon player to getting shipped away in a fantasy-baseball trade for pitching. 

Unless the Cubs moved Javier Baez, because Gold Glove-caliber middle infielders on a 25-homer, 90-RBI pace just fall from trees. Not to mention someone already proven on the biggest stages as a National League Championship Series co-MVP and World Baseball Classic star.

Even Happ is coming back down to earth as the league adjusts to him. Still, Cubs manager Joe Maddon has no choice but to block out the noise, trust all this young talent and believe in the players who delivered last October.    

“The best I can do is talk to the player himself, which I’ve done with ‘Schwarbs,’” Maddon said before Sunday’s game at Dodger Stadium, staying upbeat and in character after back-to-back shutouts. “That’s just the nature of the industry. That’s a part of it that makes it so much fun, too, for the fan, the fact that they can interact and throw out their conjecture like that. 

“Internally, it has nothing to do with how we react to anything. And you have to talk to the player, because he’s always feeling these outside sources pressing down on him. He really shouldn’t, but they’re human beings. 

“How do you prevent that from really infiltrating? It’s just conversation with the guys themselves. That’s about it. You ask the player to really not pay attention and listen to that. 

“But, again, with all the tablets and the different sources available to follow what’s going on, it’s almost inevitable they’re going to hear or read something. So you got to stay positive with them. And we have to have that conversation with them to maintain their confidence.”

The Sunday lineup constructed to face Clayton Kershaw featured eight position players between the ages of 22 and 27: Baez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Happ, Jason Heyward, Willson Contreras, Addison Russell and Albert Almora Jr.

A team built around offensive firepower woke up that morning ranked eighth and ninth in the NL in runs scored (231) and OPS (.736). A .222 batting average with runners in scoring position placed the Cubs 15th out of the NL’s 15 teams. “The best explanation I can offer is that we’re hitting young,” Maddon said. “You look at the end of last season and how well a lot of the guys that are struggling right now performed under those circumstances. I believe we’re going to come back and do that.

“In the meantime, they need our support. They need our conversations, so nobody’s left in the dark or wondering what everybody’s thinking about around here. They need openness. And if you get that, they’ll come back.” 

[MORE: The learning curve for Ian Happ]

The Cubs have bigger problems, like an inconsistent rotation that has kept this team hovering around .500 and prevented any real sense of momentum. This is still largely the same group of hitters that beat Johnny Cueto, outlasted Madison Bumgarner, eliminated Kershaw and wore down Corey Kluber during last year’s World Series run.

“They’ll get it together,” Maddon said. “We haven’t even come close to hitting that real offensive ‘go’ moment. We haven’t been there and we’re still paddling pretty well. That moment’s coming. 

“Whether it’s Happ making adjustments, Contreras making adjustments, Addison making adjustments, these guys were pretty good at the end of last season in some really difficult moments, so they’ll be back.”