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

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Meet the Media: Curtin and Stewart's end of year press conference

Earnie Stewart's word cloud, if you're into that kind of thing.
Transcript in full. Earnie Stewart first, then Jim Curtin.

Opening statement: 
Obviously starting the 2017 season, one of the main points was building our roster and making that foundation stronger as we have started in 2016. For the most part, I can say that the building of the foundation was more from the bottom and from the side, (Tranquillo) Barnetta leaving and bringing Haris Medunjanin in, and not being of the possibility to sprinkle in from the top yet. From that part I think the roster that we had for 2017 was a roster that was better than it was in 2016. Obviously when we look at the season and the start of the season, I think that kind of determines how people look upon a team, as the Philadelphia Union, going into those first eight games of the season and not coming out with a win is a difficult period for each and every one of us in the organization, but I truly believe that that part is something that was – when you talk about progress and where we were last year in 2016 when we got off to a great start, where everything was new and when toward the end of the season it became a little bit more difficult to handle the stress situations that were there – the beginning of this year was totally different in that regard because we were in a stress situation right away and if I see how the technical staff and the team responded after that, after those first eight games, everyone counted us dead and out at that moment. There was asking for change; In my view, it was the worst thing that could happen at that moment, I believe I made a couple of statements about that, that I don’t believe in that. And I think the system-based approach that we have and that we had put in place in 2016 actually shows how important that is in this 2017 season. We came back from being down and out. A lot of words went on in our locker room area. I think the group responded, the technical staff responded to what we set out to do and stress situations are never easy. It comes down to having players do the things that we feel is important and once we knew that, you can see that we can get results at the same time. Obviously still disappointing because in everything you want to win, you want to become MLS champions and that is more maybe ambitions than a realistic goal, but I do feel that you have to set the bar as high as possible because if you just set it as making playoff or anything like that, sometimes you see you make playoffs and you go out. I do believe in setting the bar high and will do that for the 2018 season, just as well because I believe that’s very important in getting the best out of everybody.

The end of the season I would say when you look back and everything, the same amount of points from 2015 where we had a goal differential of minus-13 to 2016 when we had a goal differential of minus-3 to 2017 where we had a plus-goal differential of three. So when we talk about progress and what we’re trying to do in a system-based approach that we have and making sure people get chances and can show themselves, I think that part has shown throughout this year. I don’t think there were too many games that we were in where we were blown out at any moment. I can pretty much say that three or four games, five minutes before time we weren’t in a position to get anything from the game. But other than that, our coaching staff has done an excellent job in making sure that we were in a position to get results. Obviously disappointing from the fact that in the end, 1) we did not make playoffs, and 2) that we did not, even though we were in the position, we never really capitalized, especially in the away games to make sure that we could make the next step and take those points because that’s where the difference lies and that’s where we have to make sure that we’re a lot better towards the 2018 season. When I look at our home games for the most part, you can be very satisfied with the amount of points that we got there. Beginning of the season I think we played a couple of games where I think maybe we should’ve gotten more and maybe there were games towards the end or in the middle there where maybe it should’ve been less, but it is what it is. That’s real simple. That’s the way we look at things. That’s the way we view things and we’ve got to get better, especially on the road and that’s something that we’re going to do in the offseason, make sure we evaluate the offseason as much as possible and what we haven’t done because evaluation doesn’t only start here but it starts a little bit earlier but where we’ve done that and made sure in those away games we can get those points to make the playoffs in the next season.

Having said that, building to the 2018 roster, obviously one important part of that is the head coach, so I’m very pleased and proud to announce that Jim Curtin will be the head coach in 2018 and we’ll make sure that we keep going in the same direction that we have been going in. I think he’s a big part of this foundation that we’ve laid down. Once again, when we talk about progress, I think the system-based approach and the stability of good organization, continuity is very, very important and I think that has shown in this season and in a time where everybody thought we were down and out, we were at one point we were in a position once again to get back into the playoffs, and that is a great credit to Jim and his coaching staff, so very pleased with that, very pleased that he will be back.

Those sound real simple, but when you look back at the progress we have made and the players, there will probably best questions about that, what is the progress of a player? But I also look at my head coach the same way, and I think he has progressed in a great manner, and once again I’m very pleased that he’ll be part of this 2018 season and that we can build on the continuity that we have and look forward to the 2018 season.

On possibly underestimating the pace of improvement in the Eastern Conference?

We are who we are and we do what we do. And we can look at the other sides in our Eastern Conference and see what others do, but that doesn’t mean that we can do that. I don’t think it’s a question of underestimating anything, but you look at yourself and how you can better yourselves, and that’s the most important thing. To look at the neighbor where the grass is greener at times I don’t think is the way to go. You look at what we’re able to do as a professional organization, and I think it’s been great in 2016, 2017, what we’ve set out to do and obviously disappointing not to make the playoffs, but yes I do agree with you when you see how fast the Eastern Conference has gone and seen in this season what the teams, what they’ve put out on the field, that says something. But I don’t think that has anything to do with underestimating because that would say that if we would’ve overestimated or anything like that, we would’ve done things different. I don’t think that’s the case.

On Roland Alberg and CSKA Sofia? 
In the offseason, because I remember we talked about Andre Blake, and I can still and will say there were no offers for Andre Blake. That doesn’t mean that there was no interest for him, but not that we were aware of. There were two players on our club that there was interest for: Oguchi Onyewu and Roland Alberg with CSKA Sofia. In the conversations I did have with the agent, it never really materialized that there was going to be a substantial transfer fee, so we would’ve maybe looked at that option. It wasn’t something that was there.

On changes to the coaching staff?
For the most part, everybody is going to be staying but Oka Nikolov will be leaving us at the end of the season.

On rumors of Mike Sorber's departure?
I’m not aware of that, so up till now, we’re talking to Jim and we were talking about his coaching staff, so we see how we’ll fill that out. But Mike hasn’t come to us to say that he’s going, so up to today, the rest of the coaching staff will stay. But soccer is soccer.

On the No. 10 position in 2017 and moving forward? 
First and foremost you look in your backyard, and if you can’t find it in your backyard, you find it somewhere else. That’s the way we do business here, so without saying where we’re going to search or whatever that is, or if it’s going to be that position because I don’t believe it’s only one position. It’s as simple as that. I don’t believe one person is going to make all the difference in the world. Will it be better? Yeah, for sure, but at the same time, when we look at the No. 10 role and what we expect, we see from Tranquillo Barnetta, who was a great signing that they’ve done in the past and who had a great work rate when we had the ball and when we don’t have the ball, which all of a sudden comes to a lot of touches on the ball, is a very important part. You see that throughout MLS when you see Sacha Kljestan and the amount of touches he has on the ball, and once you have your creative person on the ball as much as possible, I think that’s fantastic. When it comes to that position, that’s something that we search for. On the other hand, I can say that Ilsinho has shown for the most part in this season for certain periods of time – not always perfect – but that he’s progressing in that direction. So having said that, first look in the backyard and then we’ll see what we can do in that regard.

On Ilsinho coming back?
I think there are more players on our roster, obviously you guys have seen the decisions that we’ve made – when I say ‘recent week,’ that’s kind of stupid because that’s not when we started thinking about it; that’s been a lot longer that we think about things – but at the same time, you’ve seen the roster moves that we’ve made, and there are certain players on that roster that we have not picked up an option that we are still interested in, and I dare say that Ilsinho is one of those players.

On Chris Pontius' status?
We made a decision on that, that Chris Pontius will not be coming back. Chris Pontius will be a free agent.

On the two Dutch players whose options were declined, Roland Alberg and Giliano Wijnaldum?
I think Roland has had a very good role within the Philadelphia Union. When you look at Roland Alberg and his biggest quality, anything that gets close to the 18-yard-box, everything gets on target. Even though he’s a midfielder, I want to say he’s one of the best scorers that we have out there. I’d say his role was very good. When we talk about possession and we talk about touches on the ball and having that, that’s something that we knew we did want to add that special part of Roland to the group, but now that we’re transitioning and trying to go a little further in, we came to the conclusion that the (salary) number that he was at, it wasn’t the right fit or the option number that was there. Then it becomes a game of, who has the opportunity, and he has the opportunity now to go to CSKA Sofia and that he kind of had in the summer that we weren’t willing to think of. And now he’s going to be making that step. I think his role has been good in the last two years.

Giliano, especially for the money that he was on on our roster, he got to a level that he took the job over from Fabinho and lost it again. That’s something that’s always been in Giliano’s career path, I almost want to say. He’s a very talented kid, he’s very athletic, he pretty much has everything, but to stay consistent is something that he needs to do. That’s the part that we did not see in this season, that consistency that was there. Some discussions that Jim and I had with him in the beginning of the season, ‘that’s what we want to see from you day in and day out,’ not only because I realize that for a lot of players, it’s all about output in games, but for us as a technical staff, it goes way further than that. It’s day in, day out on the training field, too, and yes in the weekend, you guys get to see a certain player and you guys come more frequently than others so you see that constantly, and that’s what we look for, consistency in players. And that part, I have to say, for the number that we had in his contract, for the option year, it was not enough, so. I’d say Roland was a very good fit for the time that he was here for what we expected of him, and Giliano for a short period of time was here, but in the end he also had some, I almost want to say family issues, missing his kids and so it was a good time to part ways.

On Fabinho's future?
Before I say every single name, Fabi is … left backs and left-center backs are like dinosaurs; you don’t see too many of them. And I don’t reference to his age – we already spoke of that. To have a good left back and I still consider Fabi as a left back in the league that we have this rating system of ours where he still rates very high. I think that answers the question.

On Fabinho’s off-field future? 
I think Fabi is part of this family, apart from what we can do because everything has its constraints in what we can do. To make those promises now is a little bit too early, I think it’s too early in his career to do that. But at the same time I do think that when it comes to a person that belongs to that club, he’s one of those players.

On Fabian Herbers' future?
Yeah. We still believe in Fabian Herbers. It’s always a difficult discussion to have with players where you decline the options, and for those here, he had a GA status the last two years and once we had taken the option, the GA status was gone so he had to come on to our roster. So it had more to do with the roster itself and the number, but we are still high on Fabian Herbers. We’re looking forward to him being part of the 2018 team.

On Keegan Rosenberry's season and development at large?
Development, especially for young kids, development goes like this (up and down) and once you get to the age of Haris and Alejandro Bedoya, you get this more linear, you get continuity, you get players that can weather storms by themselves. And for young players, that goes up and down. I dare say that every player developed this season, except the output wasn’t always the same on Saturday or Sunday. That’s something totally different. It’s like riding a bike: You ride your bike every single day; after you’ve done that a couple of weeks, you’re not going to fall anymore. Development never stops, and our players are out there every single day and sometimes twice a day, so they do develop themselves, except the output at times can be totally different, and that all has to do with where are you as a team? And how does that go? And I believe that at the beginning of the season in those eight games, it showed that we were a young team. And young teams need help, and the help that we tried to give them is consistency, consistency of what we ask of them. Not to tell CJ to go out and score three goals a game, but to tell him what we do when we don’t have the ball, where does he go to, and when we do have the ball, where does he show for it, and making sure that everybody does that. Except soccer in the end is about decision-making, and decision-making you do under stress. Once we start making the right decisions, because stress makes you do sometimes stupid things, sometimes things that you can’t place and trying to get them back to what we want, that consistency, is something great.

We just got off this, we had a guy who does a lot of mental training in stress situations, and he actually showed a clip of Victor Valdes where, and it’s the best example of everything. Victor Valdes is playing in front of 100.000 people away against Real Madrid, the first ball he gets back, as Barcelona does, they try to build out of the back and he makes a huge mistake, and Real Madrid scores within a couple of minutes. The second ball that he gets played back after three/four minutes, he does the exact same thing. And that is class. That is the difference between top players and very young players that are not there yet and trying to reach that because Victor Valdes time after time did the exact same thing, and it went right every time so they ended up winning the game. But it starts there, and I think that’s one of those examples of what the difference is between the top players and players that are still young and still trying to do the same thing, or not doing the same thing constantly. Decision-making under stress becomes different, and then the reaction of players at that moment kind of says everything at that time and in the beginning of the season, we had problems with that. You could see that we were very young and guys did not have the consistency. They were scared at times, which is normal, which is totally normal, and that’s why I think it’s a great credit, because we haven’t mentioned him yet and I will mention him, Jack Elliott is one of those young players when you talk about here he came from and what he’s done, but what I like a lot in Jack and not only Jack is that he’s very consistent in what he does, and hopefully he can continue that but also Jack is still young. He’s going to also get into some moments and Jim experienced that in the one game before the end where he didn’t have his best game, but he bounced back from that against Orlando, just like that, within a week. When we talk about development, I truly believe that every player has developed himself, some in different ways than others, but when you’re on the practice field every single day, you keep developing, only sometimes that output is a little different.

On Stewarth's trust in the foundation?
You evaluate your players every single day. You evaluate your coaching staff every single day. And once you have young players, you know that development, you don’t un-develop. You keep developing except that the development stops somewhere, and that’s what you try to get to every single day. Are there parts in the development of these players that you look at and you think, ‘oh we’ve really got to do something about that,’ and does that have a different roof? Yeah, that happens every single day. I’d say for the most part, a lot of clubs – and I think Toronto is maybe a good example – where they first brought in all kids of DPs and built a foundation around that. That’s a way to do that. We try to do it the other way around. We try to make sure there’s a foundation and we try to sprinkle some other players in to make sure that we would become better every single day and evaluation is every single year. And once they reach certain heights that we think they can’t go any further than that or it’s not enough for us, we’ll make those decisions. But up to now, I’d have to say – and I think the best way to put it is actually when you look at the Bethlehem Steel and what they have accomplished this season, and that has a lot to do with those players, when we talk about the bottom half of our roster and trying to go double deep everywhere, and having these players play on the weekend. Last year we had difficulties winning games with the Bethlehem Steel, did not make the playoffs (not that that’s holy)/ But at the same time, it’s important because you want to win games. This season I’d say was very good, so those young players that come through the Academy but also those players, the Marcus Epps of this world, the Jack Elliotts of this world, the Jake McGuires of this world, the Auston Trustys, that play those games there and play valuable minutes, show that if you keep constantly pushing the needle every single day in practice that they can get better, and that has relay, really shown with the Bethlehem Steel. That part of the roster is strong; that’s the foundation and that’s what you’ve got to keep building on, those young players in practice every single day getting better and better and making the choices for our head coach more difficult every time. That’s what development is about and that’s what pushing the needle is about.

On the Union's offseason spending power?
There’s set total of what we can work with, so that has nothing to do with any of the rumors of what’s going around in MLS about what’s going to happen with TAM or anything like that and in the end, it’s the best way to spend money. That’s the way that (owner) Jay (Sugarman) looks at it, that’s the way that we look at it. What mechanism we can use at what moment, we’ll have to take a look at that when it becomes available to us, or not. We look at the mechanisms and what is the best way to improve ourselves. That is still an ongoing process as we speak right now, but that process is going well.

On how many funds will be available to be spent?

We have those conversations, and I have to say that our ownership group with Jay leading that has been good, but we’ve also chosen a path that we have as a club, that we started at least since I’ve been here two years ago. That’s our pathway. That’s who we are, that’s who we want to be, and the most important part is we’ve got to come to grips with that. It’s who we are, and I think a lot of times, this is, can you spend like the Torontos? No, we can’t. It’s as simple as that. So we have to do it in a different, way, and I think we’ve found that way. Those discussions are going on and Jay’s been good in that. When you look around at what we have at the club and the facilities we have, and we’re still building because a lot of times it’s only seen in players spending, but this is such a young club that there’s so much that needs to be built, so apart form only looking at … you can bring in the best player you want. If you don’t have the infrastructure, it’s not going to work. I’m pretty sure about that, and time has proven that as well. So making sure we’re good in all aspects, and players is a part of that. So that’s the case, but when you look at least the last two years and what was spent and the job Jim has done, I think it’s been great. It’s been an amazing job. And now we’re looking forward to doing more than we’ve done in the past and that’s very exciting for us. And not going overboard, because we are who we are, and we’ll go forward from here with the same attitude and the same ideology as we have in the past.

On Eric Ayuk?

It’s real easy when our players are here and you can have a conversation. We haven’t had a conversation with him since the season ended, so I’d like to do that first.

On left center backs?

That is true. When you look in the market in the world how many left center backs are right-footed, it’s amazing so see. There’s even right-footed left backs these days where it used to be that it was always a left-footed center back and a left-footed left back. But when we look at Auston Trusty and the way that he’s developed himself with the Bethlehem Steel and playing those valuable minutes with them, he’s been excellent. Except defending is also – as Jim sits here and he knows that a lot better than I do – defending and goalkeeping is like fine wine; it takes time to get there and get those experiences under your belt, and obviously we hope that that goes very quickly for Auston. But at the same time, we want to make sure that there’s a competition going on. One, we will look in the backyard and we have something in our backyard and we’re very pleased with that because we have, as I started with, we have kind of like a dinosaur, who’s left-footed, who’s tall, who can jump planes out of the air and who is developing himself and is doing really well. But we do want to get competition because competition makes sure and that’s what we set out to do at the Philadelphia Union is make sure at every position that we’re two-deep and they’re competing against each other and making sure everybody gets better at that time. That is something that we will be on the lookout for in this offseason.


Reaction to continuing as the manager for another year?
I’m grateful obviously but at the same time, I think back to the support that I got in the hardest time. I think that’s when you learn the most about people, and Earnie backed me in the hardest time of my young coaching career. That was the beginning of this season when we lost games. There’s very few people that you can trust, and Earnie is a guy that I trust, that I believe in. It’s advice from my parents when I was young: Love many, trust few. Again, that showed a real believe in me and what I was about, saw more than just results, saw a team that stuck together and continued to fight, so I’m very grateful for the opportunity obviously. The focus now is on 2018. Both Earnie and I want to win more than anybody. We understand that there can be frustration from the fans and there can be noise from the outside, but I will be loyal to him forever because he showed belief in my in a tough time and I believe that’s when you learn the most about people, and Earnie’s a real leader in that regard. Again I’m grateful and I’m still very confident in the roster that we have, the players that we have, the flexibility that now we have that Earnie and Chris (Albright) have done a great job in presenting, and now the work starts on a new year. Things can change fast in MLS. There can be highs and lows, even week-to-week – you look at these playoffs; there’s no better example than that. We know that we can achieve big things here. Again, I’m not going to do any promising or talk out of turn, but I believe in the group that we have and that starts first and foremost with being grateful for Earnie’s backing.

On Keegan Rosenberry's season and future?

A very good young player that we strongly believe in. Every player goes through highs and lows, peaks and valleys in their development. Again, if you think to when he was selected, obviously the Homegrown issue comes up, but at the same time, we were maybe crazy for doing so from the public perception, and then he went on to a very quick rise: All-Star in his first year, playoff team, U.S. national team player. So a really high high. This year there was the feeling of a low low for him. So again, we have full confidence that he can bounce back quickly. If he as great as the guaranteed, penciled-in, right back starting national team player? Maybe not. But he’s also not defined by just how this year went. So again a developing young player that is a very, very strong right back, an important position because we like to attack with our outside backs. But when you talk about development, there’s on-the-field development, there’s off-the-field development, there’s handling success, there’s handling the down times. These are all part of growth, and to now write him off and say that his development has stopped is silly, because now if he bounces back and we’re a playoff team next year and he’s starting again and is an All-Star, did we all of a sudden redevelop him? I don’t think that’s the case either. We can talk about different things, and who develops players and who gets the most credit. I’m still a believer that mom and dad develop kids first and foremost, and he’s a good kid who I still think learned a lot this year. We believe in him. He has all the tools, all the assets on the field to be a good player, and we’ll pull that out of him. I know he’s going to attack this offseason with a chip on his shoulder, come back ready to go. We have great competition there with Ray Gaddis.

On development of young guys?

If you went through every individual guy, it would take a while. But I could go through with Derrick (Jones): Again people will look negatively on his season, and that’s not the case. The kid first of all played in the U-20 World Cup where he wasn’t a starter, worked his way into the starting lineup in the competition and dominated some of the games in that competition and had a pretty successful World Cup. He then came with us and wound up starting at the beginning of the year and was one of the better players on the field for us. We see Derrick every day in training; he’s getting better and better. It’s not his fault, and I can take a poll of the audience here, that he doesn’t start quite yet over Alejandro Bedoya, who plays for the United States, and Haris Medunjanin, who plays for Bosnia. That’s not on Derrick. We still see the positives day in and day out. Auston Trusty, same thing. People will say, ‘oh he didn’t play enough this year for the first team.’ His trajectory right now is going perfectly. We love the 34 games he got in USL, showing that he can be a dominant center back, a left-footed dominant center back. Will he now look at the roster moves and see, yeah maybe a little bit now has been cleared for a Trusty, for a Derrick just by evaluating our current roster. There’s young players that are going to be coming and going to be pushing. We believe strongly in the job that has been done at our academy. It’s a real positive.

Josh (Yaro) specifically, people will point to a red card or a mistake or a technical mistake or a penalty kick or an own goal or a missed trap and see just that moment. The kid was injured this year. Again, no one wants to talk about the fact that he missed the first four and a half months of the season. Injury is a hard time to develop. It’s a lonely time to develop, and you’re by yourself. We can do our best as a staff and try to make everyone feel involved, but when you’re hurt, it is brutal. You’re alone, you’re isolated and dealing with the mental side of that is something that he had to do this year. He got opportunities to get back in. He played some very good games, but had key moments where there was a technical mistake. Can those be fixed? Absolutely. Josh is a kid who’s hard on himself. We talk a lot with him about having, as a defender, a shorter-term memory and forgetting the last play and getting on with it. A hard year for him, but a year where he still learned and again a kid that we’re not going to write off because of a couple of bad moments and again no one looks at the injury part of the year that was lost. Herbers was hurt a lot, too. Again, these are young guys. We recognize that the season was not perfect and didn’t go that way, but look up the spine of the team, the experience that we have and with Andre, with Bedoya and Haris, with Sapong, that’s a strong, exciting group that with a couple of pieces sprinkled in, we can rise quickly, and we believe that. And it will be the young guys that drive the roster, as well.

On Oguchi Onyewu:
A guy that we brought in for his experience to pass on messages to our younger guys, a player that came into a new environment, had been off for several years and stepped in and gave us everything. It’s a hard conversation at the end of the year, but he did everything that Earnie and I could’ve asked of him. He gave good minutes, was a big part of a lot of our wins this year. Again, it’s a difficult decision in sports, but one where we gave him an opportunity, he did a good job for us. At the end of the year, we had a hard decision that we had to make, and for the club with the depth that we have at that position, but we decided to move on from him. It’s hard, but at the same time, we wish him success going forward, and we thank him for his contributions to our team.

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December 25, 2017 at 11:36 PM 

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