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May 12, 2017

Notes and quotes from the Philadelphia Union's closed-door town hall meeting

Soccer Union
51217_bedoya gaj Daniel Gajdamowicz/Philly Soccer Page

Jim Curtin, Alejandro Bedoya, and Earnie Stewart all took part in a town hall meeting for Union season ticket holders on Thursday night.

The Philadelphia Union held a closed-door town hall meeting for season ticket holders on Thursday night.

Media was barred from the event, but PhillyVoice obtained audio of the meeting, which lasted a little more than two hours.

Taking part was Sporting Director Earnie Stewart, head coach Jim Curtin, Chief Business Officer Tim McDermott, and Union captain Alejandro Bedoya.

There's a lot of material to go through, so here are a few notes to begin with:

• According to those in the room, there were "about 100" fans in attendance.

 Each participant opened with a presentation. McDermott and Bedoya spoke briefly, while Curtin and Stewart spent more time in this area.

• Stewart reiterated that the Union's plan is not necessarily "his" vision, but it's about gathering thoughts and making it "The Union" vision. The hard part, he says, is "sticking to your vision when you lose games."
• Stewart read a passage regarding the Union's "vision." He touched on playing with freedom, working hard, supporting teammates, and utilizing a high tempo. "We are not a team of star players," was one part that stood out and matches comments made in public.
• Stewart pointed out that Bedoya is willing to make mistakes, but also demands the ball and works hard in a two-way manner. Bedoya, according to Stewart, "embodies" everything the Union are looking for in a player.
• He doubled-down on the idea of avoiding change for the sake of change. They need to be able to "fall back" on the system.
• Stewart also mentioned the idea that the team would shift mentally when giving up a goal or having something negative happen during the course of the game. "They're not robots," he said of the players.
• He pointed to Andre Blake's save on Bradley Wright-Phillips as the key play in winning last week's game.
• Stewart spoke of a $45 million budget at Alkmaar, but a debt of $25 million that needed to be made up while he served as the Dutch club's Sporting Director. He mentioned that people asked him to sell Jozy Altidore at a similar town hall meeting after the American striker's first season in the Netherlands. He was eventually flipped for $10 million a few years later.
• McDermott talked about the difficulty in attracting media coverage and noted that he's had meetings with the editors of local newspapers and websites.
• McDermott also mentioned that they are speaking with SEPTA to discuss better ways to get fans to Talen Energy Stadium via mass transit.

Curtin's statement began with a reiteration of choosing a style and system and committing to it. He referenced Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots as building "inside to out" and looking for players that specifically fit the mold of that team.

He also talked about the club goal of developing players to represent the United States national team.

Curtin then went over a chart with a five-year plan and a short-term plan, then said this about C.J. Sapong, who is the MLS co-leader with seven goals.

"C.J. Sapong is a number nine, we'd all agree, and he's in good form right now. C.J., yes, has had criticism in the past that he can't carry the load, but I will still stand up and say that he's a guy who can get it done. I'm getting a little defensive about it, with C.J. and some of the criticism he gets. You guys have seen him. People in the room know that he's a guy who gives everything for the badge. Is he perfect? Absolutely not. But at the same time, he's going to leave it out there on the field for you guys. That consistency is key."

Curtin mentioned that Stewart attends every academy and Steel game and all Union training sessions. He also highlighted distance covered in training and games as an important metric for players.

They showed a chart of "points per dollar spent," in which the Union were in the top five. Dallas was at the top of the list. He suggested that transfer fees and other cash amounts are not taken into account when the MLS Player's Union releases numbers twice a year.

Bedoya's statement was brief, but he spoke of his fellow players not showing much respect to the Union over the years. He explained that changing that perception was a challenge and part of the reason why he signed here.

Here are some relevant quotes from the question and answer session:

On the commitment to the 4-2-3-1:

Stewart: "Jim, he could have told me anything. He could have told me 4-4-2, he could have said 3-5-2, or 4-3-3. It's not about the system, it's what you do in your system. Everything after that becomes so much easier, to provide our players with roles and responsibilities. If that changes every single week, and it does not go well, then what do they fall back on? It's the system. We chose the 4-2-3-1 system. Now it goes to scouting. When we go out and try to get players, we try to get players for that 4-2-3-1 system. For our academy, we develop them in a 4-2-3-1 system. Bethlehem Steel play in a 4-2-3-1 system. 

"If there's one thing I believe, it's that the player makes the difference. Actually, the 4-2-3-1 is only about the defensive organization that you have, which is important. Call it 4-3-3, 4-4-2, whatever it is, if Jim would have said that in the beginning of last season, we would have played that system. It's not about that. But the way Alejandro (Bedoya) plays the eight, he can make a difference. The way Alberg plays as a ten, he can make a difference when he scores goals like the way he did against Montreal. So does Keegan Rosenberry or Ray Gaddis at right back because they can bring that extra something at some moment. 

"Even within our system, and that's the great part of a 4-2-3-1 system, if Jim would choose to play with C.J. high and Jay (Simpson) behind him, or Fabian Herbers, or whoever, all of a sudden it looks a little different because the personnel is different. But his defensive responsibilities that he has will never change."

On Andre Blake's future with the team:

Stewart: "I've heard all these rumblings and rumors for ... I was criticized because I didn't (say) that there was a (European club with interest) or that there wasn't. There was no interest. There was no call. Do we think Andre is a good goalie? Yes, we do. He's a good goalie. Like I said, that foundation (of young players), Andre is also part of that."

Question about the Union's place in the Philly sports community:

McDermott: "The growth we've had, from a season ticket standpoint, was really tremendous. We actually renewed at 87 percent. That's the highest renewal rate we've ever had in franchise history. That's about eight percent higher than we were the year before." (McDermott goes on to talk about a plan for having every seat to every game sold within five years)

On the team's scouting network:

Stewart: "We are definitely in a building process when it comes to scouting and analytics. Right now you're looking at one of the scouting staff (Stewart), along with Chris Albright, Terence McFadden, and Kyle McCarthy, all based from here. Obviously, I want my coaches to go out every single day and practice our methods and system, so they don't have time to (scout). That is a part that we're developing right now. It's very network driven, whether it's my network in Europe or Chris's network here in the United States. Where we can, we travel. We travel a lot more than we have in the past, so it's all about making better and educated decisions. Just saying, 'let's go get a DP,' we need to be ready for that. We really need to be ready for that. In some regards we are, and that is a very, very simple choice, because, (referencing Bedoya) we all know him, he's played for the national team, we've seen what he's about, we know what he's about. He speaks English, he's a leader. That was actually a very easy one. I take pride in getting those undervalued players. That's what I like, and that is the part we are building at the moment. Anything we can use to identify, we will do that. That is still a work in progress."

On the status of Charlie Davies and Maurice Edu:

Stewart: "Well, Charlie is training every day but he hasn't made the 18 yet, so that's something more for Jim. I know for a coaching staff you have to make decisions of how many forwards on the bench, how many midfielders, and how many defenders. He hasn't made that cut. Mo is a different case, very difficult to speak (on), and I don't want to do that because it's medical. But he's following his rehab and he's out on the field and doing more and more every single day. A projection we do not dare say at all right now."

Question about not feeling as valued as a fan, players not doing as many events as they used to:

McDermott: "In terms of being as fan-friendly as we can, we created a fan council because we want to reach out. We want to hear from people. We meet eight to 10 times per year. We meet with the Sons of Ben leadership frequently, to ask, 'what can we do to help you guys?' As part of that they said, 'how about more capo stands?'. Great, we put up more capo stands. How about more tifo? Great, we put up more tifo. I don't think there's anything we've been asked from them that we've said no to. Our job is to create as much of a fan-friendly environment as possible. Everything that our marketing people do is all geared towards that.

"After every game, we have players up in the club that sign autographs. I think we have two players up here every game. I'm pretty sure no other team does that. If there are areas or gaps that we need to improve on, I invite you to come up and talk to me afterward, I'd be happy to do so. Our entire mission is to make sure that everybody has the greatest fan experience possible. I believe we have the best live experience in Philadelphia, bar none. I'm happy to talk more about it and we'll go from there."

(This question appears to be about consistency in the lineup and changing things up. It also mentioned empty seats and a lack of success over the years, which resulted in a passionate, 20-minute response from Stewart. I had to shorten for length, but left the best parts intact.)

Stewart: "I appreciate the question and honesty. I'm known to be quite honest in some moments. It's not always good for me, but I appreciate that. I always ask, 'what's the other side?' I've done this eighteen years now as a professional and this is my 14th year as a Sporting Director, so I'd say I'm qualified to talk about it. I've been through these things. I've been through coaches where we relegated with NAC Breda. It was the worst year of my life. One, we didn't win, and, two, we had a coach that changed every single week. I'm telling you, it's not good. It's not good at all. I don't believe in it. Now, changing names, that's something the coach does and I believe that has happened. This is me talking, but would it be good to say, 'these 11 lost, so let's put the next 11 in?' I don't think so. I don't think it's going to help. Do you tweak things left and right? I know they do that. I want to make sure that I stand up for my coaching staff on that. One thing that's not going to lead to success is just, change. If there's something that I think this club has been through, too much, in the short history and culture that it has, it's change.

"I'd like to see, and I know this hard, I get where you're coming from. I hate losing. I don't like losing at all. But I do need to keep the big picture of where we need to go. This is me speaking, and the experience that I have: we're going to get there. I can't promise that it's going to be next Saturday. But we're going to get there. I can't concentrate on that empty seat tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. What I can concentrate on, and I go over this with Tim, and I know this sounds corny, and I don't want to sound like the 76ers and "the Process" and all of this stuff, but I do concentrate that in three years from now, that you guys do recognize everything we're saying here. I'm not going to sit here and promise you wins. If I promise you wins I have to defend losses all the time. I'm not going to do that. What I am going to do is say, that guy over there (points to Bedoya), that's the type of player we're working towards at every single position. I know for a fact that if all of our players have his mentality and passion, we're going to be in a very good place and fill up those seats. Tim and I have been here about 14 or 15 months, but there's a history before us. It didn't really hit me. I come here full of passion and energy and try to wrap all of these thoughts together and bring a vision, bring a plan, and let's work towards that. But there's also been six years before me. 

"That's something that didn't really hit me until (Doug Vosik, VP of Marketing) told me that. I do have to take that into account. We understand we're on a shorter leash, or whatever you want to call it, because there is a history. If you haven't won things, yea, it's no fun. I get that part. But I've seen it happen with AZ Alkmaar. I appreciate people who present difficult questions and I think that's the way it should be. But I've seen it done at AZ. They had a vision, they had a plan, and it was a difficult one, more difficult than this one because of the money they had to pay back – $25 million. It was even more difficult, that process. And – this is most important – they were champions of Holland twice. Can you imagine all of that pressure? And they wanted to (qualify) for European soccer every year. That's a difficult process. In the five years I was there we managed four times to get European soccer and evolve. What made me proudest of all was that I turned on the TV, I'm watching my old team, and they're playing at FC Twente. They started the game with five players that came out of the academy. The three substitutions that came in were academy players who came in for players that they bought. That's eight academy players on the field and they won the game in the last minute. It doesn't say much, but all of the crap that I took for having a plan and having a vision, but that game, and I'm not there anymore, those eight kids were out there. They're really good. One is up for the Dutch national team. Another has gotten sold for millions. The others are competing for European soccer. That part makes me very proud.

"That's why I sit here and can say to you, and I don't want to sound corny or sound like the 76ers, but I have a passion and a burning desire and we're going to get there. Hopefully, soon those seats will be full. And people who come for winning and losing? If they're only coming for that, I'm not going to promise it. If you come to see us win every single game, don't do it. You're going to get disappointed. But if you come to watch our players roll up their sleeves, go out every day, play within our vision, play in our system, and compete, we give those players chances. Everybody talks about DPs. Playing Derrick Jones and Josh Yaro, they are DPs for me. They don't make DP money at all. They're not even close. But they are gonna be DPs for us."

(Stewart continues on about attracting young players and not going the Seattle and Toronto DP route. These themes are consistent with everything the organization has said over the last several years.)

"It really bugs me that my coach gets booed. You know what? I'm here every single day, and I watch every single practice. There's nobody there. There's nobody watching what he does with his coaching staff every single day. Not one person. Still, I come here on Saturday, and they boo him. That pisses me off. It really pisses me off. Is soccer about winning and losing? Yes, it is. It is about winning and losing. That part I get. That part Jim gets. We all get that. And that part sucks, that there always comes a moment where you have to have conversations with each other. But I see what they do every single day, what I ask them to do every single day – to train our system, to train our players, make sure they go from 6,000 meters to 8,000 meters, 10,000 meters to 14,000 meters. 

"And still, Monday through Friday, I don't see anybody out there. Still, they come and they criticize."