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New club, but same old Nowak in DC return

Tough love still part of the process for former United boss

WASHINGTON – In the wake of a disappointing 2-0 loss to D.C. United last Sunday afternoon, Peter Nowak addressed his Philadelphia Union squad behind closed doors in their locker room at RFK Stadium, expressing his dissatisfaction at length before finally emerging to field questions from the waiting media.

It seemed like the same intense, uncompromising Nowak who led United to two trophies and a 42-27-25 record from 2004 to 2006. He rarely failed to keep his side at or near the top of the MLS Eastern Conference standings during his days with United, but bruising egos and driving his players hard was all just part of the process.

“The way we played today was not even a shred of evidence that we can play the way we play,” he said of his expansion side. “That’s the reality of our league. We have to concentrate and focus during the games, be physical and play the way we always do.”

Time and experience have mellowed the Polish-born coach to good effect as he grapples with the tall task of building a successful franchise from scratch. Measured, amiable and straightforward, on Sunday he reflected on his return to the building where he began his managerial career, at a club which has fallen on hard times six years after Nowak guided it to a fourth MLS Cup championship.

“It’s a lot of good memories,” he said of his DC days, which gave way to an assistant’s role with the US National Team. “I had a great time being here, winning with the team together, and losing.

“I hope the people remember me for the good side, even though I was sometimes not polite or sometimes I didn’t do stuff that everybody expected me to do,” he added. “But I enjoyed every single minute being here, being with this team. They treated me very well, together with the fans, and those kind of moments you never forget.”

Given his success at United, it might have felt strange for the Union manager to walk onto the RFK Stadium turf for a battle between the league’s bottom teams. But Nowak seems to have embraced the challenge of crafting a long-term strategy in Philly and is bullish about molding his team’s corps of young talent, growing pains and all.

A similar, yet significantly more daunting process faces United coach Ben Olsen. The interim boss played a pivotal role in Nowak’s most successful DC teams, and despite the steep learning curve in his new job, Olsen’s onetime mentor predicted that his success was only a matter of time.

“It’s good for him,” Nowak said of Olsen. “I know he’s a sophisticated guy who played the game, who has ideas about what needs to be done, not only on the field but around the whole organization. That’s his future – if he decides to do it, let him run and we will see what will happen.

“He worked with me very well, he was my general on the field in many cases,” he added. “It’s not an easy spot, of course, to take over a team in the middle of a season that didn’t play well and had results like before. It’s not an easy spot for him but I think if he believes that he can make it then it’s up to him.”

When asked for his thoughts on United’s current struggles, Nowak demurred, but left no doubt that he’s paid attention to the setbacks which have bedeviled his former employers.

“We have enough of our own problems, to do the job in Philadelphia,” he said. “Everyone has issues and it’s not only the game you play on the field, but the whole environment.

“When I was here, I was always trying to give them a piece of myself and give them the environment where everyone’s going to be happy and know what we expect from them, not only with big words and playing for the shirt and all this stuff. It’s just giving them a chance to succeed.

“Maybe over the years, this stuff goes through phases.”