- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2006

According to conventional wisdom, the best players usually do not make the best coaches. In fact, they often make pretty bad ones. The argument is they lack the understanding, patience and communication skills to deal with lesser athletes, that what is instinctive to them cannot be taught.

D.C. United coach Peter Nowak, however, tends to reject the conventional.

Coaches, much less coaches who never worked as an assistant or coached anywhere else, are not supposed to win a league championship in their first season. Nowak did it. Then again, coaches also are not supposed to make their players — soccer players — run in the snow.

Nowak did that, too, during the offseason when D.C. United was training in Segovia, Spain.

“It was horrible,” midfielder Freddy Adu said. “I got really sick. I ain’t never done anything like that before. It was crazy, but I fought through it. Everybody fought through it, and look at us now. He has his reasons for this stuff.”

Indeed, look at them now. It seems the only way D.C. United can lose is by a freak occurrence, which is what happened Saturday when Real Salt Lake scored on two penalty kicks in the final minutes for a 2-1 win. The loss ended a 14-game unbeaten streak.

But at 13-2-6, D.C. United still has the best record in the league by far. In his third season, Nowak is steering his club toward potentially the best regular-season record in the 11-year history of Major League Soccer.

“I expect a lot from myself,” Nowak said. “But I also expect a lot from my players, and they know that.”

Nowak, a former star on the world stage and with the Chicago Fire, is intense, emotional and driven to succeed. But he is more than just a tough guy. He works with a motivational consultant, Jim Fannin, and is a big proponent of visualization. He said he told his players from the very first day “that the game is played before the kickoff. The game is played through your minds. You close your eyes for five or 10 minutes, and you go through different scenarios. That’s why we can adjust to every situation.”

Said D.C. United president and CEO Kevin Payne: “He is a very thoughtful guy, which is somewhat unusual for a player who was very talented himself.”

Although he last suited up in a game four years ago, Nowak acknowledged it still isn’t easy to separate from his old, playing self. He still has trouble, standing on the sideline, understanding why the pass from point A to point B didn’t happen. He sometimes wishes he could just jump out there and do it himself.

“But I’ve never compared myself to anyone, and I never expected they’re gonna play like me,” he said. “It’s not like I’m arrogant. I’m just saying the game is never perfect, and I accept that.”

Nowak, who grew up in communist-dominated Poland, signed his first professional contract at 15 and played a total of 23 years. He joined the expansion Fire in 1998 after a distinguished career in Poland, Germany and other foreign locales, was installed as captain and helped win an MLS Cup. After he was traded to New England in 2003, Nowak decided to retire to a front office job with the Fire. He was a three-time league All-Star and three-time team MVP. Last year, he was named to the all-time MLS top 11.

Still compactly built at 42, Nowak scratches his competitive itch by frequently practicing with his squad, flashing some of the old skills and showing the whippersnappers and even the veterans how it’s done.

“I feel like I am one of the players on the team,” he said. “But with more power and authority.”

Nowak laughed at that, belying his reputation as a hard-headed, short-fused taskmaster. He has tempered his temper and loosened up. He can be witty and engaging in one-on-one interviews. More important, his players have responded to a more relaxed demeanor.

“His jokes have definitely gotten funnier,” forward Alecko Eskandarian said. “He’s learned. Obviously this was his first coaching job, and I’m sure he wasn’t a master of coaching his first year even though we won the championship. But he’s learned to read the players a little better.”

Said midfielder Brian Carroll: “He knows more of when to push us and when to not push us. When to be serious and yell at us and be fiery and when to pat us on the back and say, ‘You’re doing a good job.’ The more experience he’s had, the more he’s realized when he can relax and joke around and be a player’s coach and when he needs to be serious and fire up the boys to keep their minds on the game.”

“I can laugh with them. I can joke with them. I can party with them,” Nowak said. “But when it’s business, it’s business. I’m very serious about them.”

Nowak’s players sound like those in any sport talking about a successful coach. He’s honest, they say. He lets you know your role. He will not tolerate mistakes. Conditioning is a huge factor. While the team was practicing in Spain during the offseason, a freak storm left about a foot of snow on the ground. Nowak made them run sprints in it.

“Peter has a style,” D.C. United technical director Dave Kaspar said. “He’s very direct. He’s driven. He’s a winner. And that, day in and day out, rubs off on people.”

Sometimes he rubs the wrong way. After a preseason game in February, coaches for Real Salt Lake accused Nowak of saying one of their players should “go back to Africa.” Nowak, whose Polish accent sometimes makes him hard to understand, vehemently denied the charge. He said his words were that the player should be “sent back to hospital.” Oh. After a month-long investigation, the league could not prove the allegations but still fined Nowak for “improper remarks.”

After the loss to, coincidentally, Real Salt Lake last week, Nowak told reporters, “If you’re going to beat us, beat us the fair way. But this, especially with the two [penalty kicks], isn’t supposed to happen in our league. But maybe this is how our league works.”

“The thing is with him, you don’t have to like him, you don’t have to love him, you don’t have to agree with everything he says,” said Eskandarian, the 2004 MLS Cup MVP who missed most of last season with a concussion but is now D.C. United’s second-leading scorer. “But what he says and what he’s done works. For me, personally, it’s been great. He was a breath of fresh air.”

To the rest of the team, Nowak was more like a hurricane gust when he replaced Ray Hudson after the 2003 season. He had zero-tolerance for lateness, for slacking, for anything he believed to be counterproductive to winning. He even made the players clean the mud off their cleats before they entered the locker room.

“He came in with a fiery mentality,” Carroll said. “He knew what he wanted to get done.”

“The team wasn’t prepared mentally to compete on a consistent level,” Nowak said of his first season. “The consistency was like my heart monitor. We were frustrated. When we met we talked for a couple of hours, and at that point they knew this was for real.”

And they won it all. Last year was different, however, marred by a running battle between Nowak and the prodigy, Freddy Adu. The year before, Adu had come to D.C. United as a 14-year-old phenom, already being touted and marketed as a superstar. He played in every game, but Nowak used him judiciously.

Adu said he was ready for more playing time last season, but Nowak still held him back.

“That’s when I really erupted,” Adu said. “It became a war of words, and it got really ugly.”

Nowak, who drew on his own experience of turning pro as a teenager, said the expectations of Adu were unrealistic.

“It was asking a lot of this kid to do,” Nowak said. “I think Freddy was putting too much pressure on himself at a time he wasn’t ready to adjust so fast.”

The disruption and distraction caused by the rift was a probable cause of a first-round playoff loss. Enough was enough. Adu and Nowak had a long meeting after the season and finally ironed things out. Adu has been a big part of the team’s success this season.

“At the end of the day it came down to miscommunication,” Adu said. “I was thinking he didn’t like me. I took it personally, whereas he was trying to help me. We resolved that. And this season, we have the best relationship. I go to him for a lot of advice.”

Said Nowak: “There aren’t gonna be any stars on this team. Not me, not the players. The stars are gonna be this team. That’s how we work. I treat all these guys equally because they play the game. I can push them to the limit, I can make them better, I can show them what the game is all about, but they will play the game. The 27 guys on this team are the stars of this organization.”

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