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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Wrapping up 2016: 30 good minutes with Earnie Stewart

Jim Curtin, left, and Earnie Stewart wrapped up the Union season
with a lengthy press conference Wednesday.
For over an hour Wednesday, members of the Philadelphia Union worked either on the field or in the weight room, a coda on a long campaign and a gateway to the offseason. Then coach Jim Curtin and sporting direction Earnie Stewart fielded questions for 30-some minutes, wrapping up a playoff season that was and previewing an offseason of tinkering rather than rebuilding.

Those two, particularly Stewart, discussed a wide range of topics. Some takeaways:

- First, big picture. The Union announced options declined on six players: Loanees Anderson and Matt Jones, plus Cole Missimo, Taylor Washington, Walter Restrepo and Kevin Kratz (more on that later). It’s still mulling decisions on Charlie Davies and Leo Fernandes. Everyone else is back. That is a level of decisiveness and transparency that past squads have lacked.

- Breakup days of seasons past have been helter-skelter affairs – exit interviews, players slinking back to their personal lives, some informal workouts organized. This year, the Union are in Chester for two weeks after the season, working with the staff to prep for the offseason. Captain Brian Carroll indicated that that was a stark departure from the past, emblematic of the changes Stewart has instituted.

- Plenty of fans have opined about Curtin’s future as the coach of the Union. Stewart was unequivocal in assessing his performance:
“Really good, and I say that with a lot of confidence too. The way we set out the start of this season, I was curious in the United States how we go about practicing and do we go out with purpose, and Jim has exceeded those expectations in going out every single day. When we talked about roles and responsibilities as the players, you can go out and play games, or you can put a purpose behind everything that you do in the exercises that we have and in trying to create those moments of, the angled passes that we always talk about, playing forward that we always talk about. You can say it, or you can go out and practice it. I have to say Jim and his technical staff have been excellent in that in what I’ve seen, the level of training. And that’s my form of recognition to seeing how things go. If you see the progress in the beginning of the seasons in our keepaway and if you see the process now of where we are in our keepaway games, that’s a major, major difference and a lot has to do with the coaching staff in that.
“I think the beginning of the season showed that confidence level that we have, the way we can play. Do things happen during the season that we can’t reach that totally? Yeah. Do I feel that there’s open discussions about trying to tweak it left and right within our formation, within our style, within our system in getting better and getting those results? Yeah, they’ve been there. We’ve had open, honest discussions with each other which I think is fantastic and a very good way of working. That evaluation has been really good.”
- The Union adapted to a new training load, with two-a-days and other new tactics. Stewart was adamant that the increased burden didn’t precipitate the late-season swoon. “No, I don’t think so,” he said. “I do know how it works from a player perspective. That’s my own experience. When you win games, you’re never tired, and when you lose games, you’re very tired. And that’s just it. A human body can do way more than we think, so I don’t believe in that. That’s not an excuse.” Curtin added that per team data, he didn’t see players late in the season failing to reach the physical outputs they did early on. “To put in on fatigue, I don’t buy it,” Curtin said.

- The reasons for the late struggles remained elusive. Some of it was a young roster in the heat of a playoff chase for the first time. Some was untimely injuries. Part of it was the schedule getting tougher, leading to crises in player confidence. Some of it, as Stewart pointed out, is simple perception. Said Curtin: “We are examining and trying to pinpoint exactly what it is, too, and the harder we search and the more we look at the data, the analytics, the games, it comes back that it’s a variety of things.”

- Stewart has said that the club hasn’t received concrete offers for Andre Blake. The goalkeeper, who graduated Generation Adidas Monday, will count on the Union’s salary budget for the first time in his career in 2017. Stewart concurred that Blake has earned that and he would listen to offers for the Jamaican goalie, but they haven’t yet materialized. Stewart:
“The stance on that is once people call, you can actually react to it. Soccer is really simple and I know a lot of people don’t like to hear it, but once an offer comes, you think about it and you think about it in certain regards. Andre’s had a great year. Would it surprise me if somebody would call and want to buy him? No, it wouldn’t surprise me. It hasn’t happened up ’til now. And if it does happen at some point, you have to look at it from a perspective of what does it do short-term and what does it do long-term for the club? There’s always a price. It works as simple as that. Do we want to keep our best players here? Yes for sure. But if we can go forward and selling somebody and becoming better towards the future, you have to look at that, too.”
- Curtin is hopeful that Maurice Edu can recover from his latest injury. Though Stewart didn’t put a timeline on the leg fracture, Curtin said, “We’re hoping to have him with us going right into Clearwater so 2016 is in the past and he has a clear head going into it.” Stewart said they will evaluate how Edu’s injury rehab was handled but reiterated the fluky nature of what occurred.

- Time for the Kevin Kratz saga: Stewart said that Kratz, who was signed before the Sept. 15 roster freeze and never so much as made the bench for the Union, would return to expansion club Atlanta United, from which he was on loan. An Atlanta spokesman later clarified that the Union had agreed to a binding trade agreement with Atlanta that will be made official when the roster-move window reopens Dec. 11. Either way, Kratz won’t be with the Union in 2017.

- Stewart offered interesting comments about tactics. There was some call, during the Union’s struggles, to adjust formation. But with a young squad already acclimating to the rigors of meaningful games, Stewart praised Curtin for not tinkering excessively. Stewart:
“No, I don’t believe in that, in that regard. Like I said, there are certain moments in a season … where things don’t go your way and you have to fall back on something. And the more you change and the more you make it difficult, especially for young players in different formations and different tactical ways of setting up, it’s going to hurt you. And what we tried to concentrate on toward the end of the season was trying to take stress away and trying to go back to those responsibilities and do your job. … We made this choice in the beginning of the season to do it this way – not saying that the last 10 minutes, and Jim has done that during the season – that you throw an extra center forward up. But you go back to your basics and back to the normal part because that’s what everybody gets their confidence from. Once you let it go and you change a lot, people don’t know what to expect any more and what their task is. Obviously the more players get seasoned, get experienced, you can do a little bit more of that.”
- Despite being out of the playoffs, Curtin is still tuning in, for reasons personal and professional. “You continue to watch, you learn from different things that maybe even other coaches do and you take ideas,” he said. “I would encourage our players. Myself I do watch all the games still. I don’t just turn it off and go golf or anything like that. I hate golf.”

- Some odds and ends: Fabinho is one of the players whose fate for next year is sealed. He triggered a vesting option for 2017 via games played this season. … Roland Alberg’s girlfriend is expecting a baby this December, for which he’ll be returning to Holland for some time during the offseason. … Chris Pontius on being a finalist for the Comeback Player of the Year award: “Nice gesture. Hope I’m never up for the award again. I don’t want to be known as a comeback player. I don’t want to be known as injured anymore. I want to be healthy.”

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