LouCity’s Head Coach John Hackworth meeting – and exceeding – expectations
By Kevin Kernen
Photos courtesy Louisville City FC
When James O’Connor, the only coach to have ever managed Louisville City FC, left for Major League Soccer’s (MLS) Orlando City on June 28, a sizable gap was left in his wake. O’Connor was not only the head coach for the club but also was the de facto general manager. He had led the team in 125 matches, assembled the squad from the ground up and built a winning tradition that produced a 2017 United Soccer League (USL) Championship.
In his absence, the club appointed a trio of players in an interim capacity: George Davis IV, Paolo del Piccolo and Luke Spencer. The Triumvirate, as they became known, was tasked with steadying a ship that had been set adrift in the waning days of the previous regime.
Then, on Aug. 2, Louisville City FC announced the signing of new head coach John Hackworth, who picked up right where The Triumvirate left off, winning eight of the last 13 games of the regular season, guiding the squad to a fourth straight top-two finish in the regular season and the franchise’s second straight USL Cup.
But there is so much more to this hiring than the flashy passing and winning soccer.
Yes, Hackworth brings a wealth of experience, at the youth, club and senior international level. Sure, he has innumerable connections – from Roger Bennett of the popular “Men in Blazers” podcast and TV show to his former colleague and U.S. Men’s National Team manager Bob Bradley – but the real impact that the 48-year-old brings cannot be quantified in wins or championships. It is not the laundry list of talent that he has had a hand in producing. Instead, it is his unyielding pursuit of both success and development.
A player himself at the collegiate and professional level, Hackworth started building his coaching experience while he was still in the midst of his playing career. A defender by trade, he characterized his own play as fearless and energetic, developing sizably in his college days at Wake Forest, where he played under American soccer legend Walt Chyzowych. The Ukrainian-born Chyzowych was an accomplished player in his time but is most remembered as a preeminent coaching luminary in the sport of soccer in America. He touched innumerable lives, including Hackworth’s during his time at Wake Forest.
By the end of Hackworth’s schooling in 1992, the flashy, popular North American Soccer League was nearly seven years defunct, and the professional prospects in the country were not as lucrative as they once were. Hackworth graduated from Wake Forest with his eye on its Bowman Gray Medical School, while also furthering his playing career professionally at local side Carolina Crunch. After seeing Hackworth coach children in soccer camps and lead the Demon Deacons in the locker room, Chyzowych implored him to start coaching. Hackworth quickly took on a coaching role with the newly-formed Wake Forest women’s team a year before they started formally playing, with the goal of joining the NCAA ranks the following season.
Chyzowych died suddenly from a heart attack on Sept. 2, 1994, which sent ripples throughout the soccer world. Many people’s lives – Hackworth’s included – were touched by the titan of the sport. Before Chyzowych’s death, coaching had been a side job for the young leader. After, it became Hackworth’s sole focus, and he dedicated his life to coaching the sport.
Wake Forest’s assistant-now-turned-head coach Jay Vidovich needed help managing the team in his new capacity. Hackworth became an assistant coach for the men’s program, and over the ensuing three seasons started to build his reputation as a developmentally-minded coach. He also started a family with his wife, Tricia.
In 1998, at just 28 years old, Hackworth became the youngest coach in the NCAA when he was hired by the University of South Florida, a move that returned him to his native Tampa Bay locale. During his time at USF, Hack also started to earn his coaching licenses and took on the role of coaching the Olympic Development Program team for the region, further cementing his place in the youth scene. Thanks to the fact that Hackworth was in charge of the regional youth team and through different coaching schools, he built a relationship with John Ellinger, the man tasked with creating a residency program for American youth soccer. Hackworth would regularly make the hour-long trip from his home in Tampa to the Youth Academy in Bradenton, Florida, to lend a hand, pitch in or simply watch Ellinger coach.
That relationship became a professional one when Hackworth left his more lucrative job at USF to become a full-time assistant for Ellinger’s Under-17 (U-17) team after the youth residency program was created by U.S. Soccer.
Hackworth was an integral part of the coaching staff of the youth team that made the knockout stages of the 2003 U-17 World Cup. He took over the U-17 program in 2004 when Ellinger was hired to coach MLS’s Real Salt Lake. Hackworth continued the team’s success in the 2005 and 2007 iteration of the tournament, making the last 16 both times. After much success within the youth ranks, Hack was handed an assistant position at the senior level for the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT), which was led by Bob Bradley, in 2007.
The MLS call came for Hackworth soon enough, too.
On the eve of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Hackworth, along with fellow USMNT assistant Piotr Nowak, took on the task of managing the latest MLS expansion team, Philadelphia Union. Hackworth was the assistant coach to Nowak, while also being tasked with establishing the MLS mandated youth academy for the club. An underperforming pair of seasons resulted in Nowak’s dismissal. Hackworth was appointed interim manager, eventually earning the full-time position in August 2012. He managed a 20-23-14 record in his time in MLS but was dismissed in 2014.
A return to the U.S. youth setup saw him get back to the U-17 side, where he took a program that had 40 young men among the ranks to nearly 100 by the time he left. With 10 full-time staff, Hackworth led a cadre of coaches that have shaped today’s young internationals.
It was the combination of youth experience, the tactical acumen and the ability to grow with this team that made him such an attractive prospect for the Louisville City FC task force assembled to hire their next head coach. Hackworth’s resume speaks for itself, and he has come into this team without missing a beat, setting a club record for most wins in a row and leading the team to a successful playoff run. He’s quickly earned the respect of the locker room and has everyone buying in.
Just about everyone – from contacts at the USL and U.S. Soccer to University of Louisville men’s soccer head coach Ken Lolla – has given warm reviews of Hackworth. Expectations that he would come in and win immediately were met, and for the future, Hackworth’s vision is one of continuing a team populated by quality individuals and turning Louisville City FC into both a stalwart of the American soccer landscape, one that is feared and uncontainable.
Down the road, Hackworth’s background means he will figure into the formation of a youth academy for LouCity, but for now, his auspicious start is supplemented by what promises to be a productive playoff run.