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November 03, 2016

Reading between the lines at the Philadelphia Union's season-ending press conference

Soccer Union
11316_curtin earl Earl Gardner/Philly Soccer Page

Sporting Director Earnie Stewart threw his support behind head coach Jim Curtin at the Union's season-ending press conference.

Listening to Earnie Stewart and Jim Curtin on Wednesday afternoon, I got the sense that internal expectations were not high for 2016.

The Union finished 13th out of 20 Major League Soccer teams and snuck into the playoffs despite not winning a single game in September and October.

The tone, however, seemed rather casual, despite the fact that Philly plummeted down the table after a fantastic start to the campaign.

Here are some of the more interesting passages from the press conference, with my interpretations below.

PhillyVoice: Looking back, why do you think the team went through this slump in September and October?

Earnie Stewart: "I’d say expectations changed during the season. And, if you could go back in time, you know, it’s weird how the brain works, we could’ve had the exact same season and then not done well in the beginning and finished very strong and then everybody would’ve been very positive about it. But it works the other way around. I’m happy with the way we started, it showed that we have a team that can function well with each other. And, I guess, toward the end of the season, you know, it has shown that we are a team that we need to play well to score easy goals. And once that does not happen, the stress on the backline becomes a little bit larger. In the beginning of the season, we scored a lot of goals, during the season we sure did. We kept playing the same way, which I thought was a compliment to the technical staff and the players themselves. And I’d say towards the end the stress level actually got there too. We had a young group, and we spoke about this weeks before the end of the season, where you never know how people are going to react, it’s the first time that a lot of players actually came into a playoff stretch, a playoff run to get there, and, you know, the stress level hits and you never know how people react to that. The good part is that everybody’s been through it now so we can only gain from that experience as a young group, and with the foundation that we have right now, to be better in the future."

MY TAKE: I do agree with Stewart that expectations changed. I don't think it was realistic to expect a deep playoff run from a team that we originally thought had a ceiling of 5th or 6th place in the East. I think you have to draw hard lines, at finite points in time, for which you then reference points of progress. This is the same as Eagles fans thinking that we're going to the Super Bowl after two wins from a rookie quarterback.

My disagreement is with the first part of that answer. Yes, the win total is the same whether you finish strong or start strong, but the difference is improving down the stretch versus collapsing down the stretch. They won the bulk of their games at the beginning of the year when other clubs were still adjusting and figuring themselves out. Those teams adapted and achieved while the Union did not.

Jim Curtin: "To add, you know, we look and are examining trying to pinpoint what exactly it is, too, and the harder we search, and the more that we look at the data, the analytics, the games, it comes back to a variety of things. Is it losing a player? That is one thing that comes up. A drop in confidence? The fact that the schedule gets a little harder; you know, six out of the last 15 were against Toronto and Red Bull. Does that factor in? Those are good teams, you know? So, all these little variables do come in. Again, like Earnie said, they’ve now gone through it, they’ve gone through the highs of being in a first place team and what that’s like and also now the lows where there was a dip at the end of the year. And there were still moments even at the end of the year where we were playing well, it just wasn’t over the course of 90 minutes. We maybe got a little, this is more from the technical side, we maybe got a little too direct and weren’t as confident and comfortable on the ball, and that led to maybe creating a little less chances, (rather than) being a little more brave and going forward and getting goals. It was a combination of things, a lot of different variables that we continue to look at, to find ways to strengthen the team and have it be a situation where we’re even better and stronger next year."

MY TAKE: All of that makes sense. The schedule was tougher, including that brutal road trip.

Again, they didn't really change much when other teams were adjusting and adapting. More on that later.

Philadelphia Inquirer: The team looked tired at the end of the year. There were two training sessions on some days. Did fatigue play a role down the stretch?

Earnie Stewart: "No, I don’t think so. I do know how it works from a player perspective, and 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. Will we examine what we’ve done, and have we done that during the season already? Yes, because we have people in place, (sports science director) Garrison Draper, that looks after that. And data showed, well, you’ve been a part of a lot of trainings here at the same time, and I’d want to say two to three weeks before the Toronto playoff game, that training had been excellent, it was really at a high level. And that’s the part, that’s very important for Jim and the technical staff to look at. Once you see that during practice, that the level drops off and you can’t reach those peaks that we’ve had all season then, yes, I could agree with that. But, right now, no, I can’t agree with that because, once again, I think the human body can do, and adapts to, way more than people think is possible. But, first and foremost, the aggressiveness at practice, and the way we practice throughout the season was at a high-intensity level. But, once again, the brain works in a certain way too. Once you lose games, yeah, you feel everything. Once you win games, nobody’s injured, everybody’s ready to go, and everybody feels good."

Jim Curtin: "I would just add also, you know, we were a team that reached every level in the ground covered in games; early on, it was even less, and it grew, even at the end of the year when we were having tough results. So, the output that the players were putting in never really dipped so we won’t use that one as a crutch or an excuse, the fatigue one. Also, the big teller in that is also injuries, and we were a fairly healthy team. If you look at the injuries we sustained, they were fluke, you know, concussions here or there but it wasn’t really ever muscle pulls or big injuries in that regard. So, the (Maurice Edu) break fluke, breaking his leg again, they were little strange plays that wouldn’t point or raise an eyebrow to over training. So, again, we will look at what was done in each training session, that’s also a factor, and how we can approach different things tactically, defensively, attacking — we will examine that, for sure, but to put it on fatigue? I don’t buy it, and, if you even went to the players, some of them are as strong as ever. I just watched them train today and even with no motivation they still trained with the same intensity. So, still going strong."

MY TAKE: The team didn't look tired at the end of the year. I think the sports science staff did a hell of a job this season, especially managing guys like Chris Pontius and Brian Carroll. They're too modest to take any credit for it.

That said, guys like Keegan Rosenberry probably could have used at least a mental break, and the lack of rotation in the squad just made things a bit predictable. Even during that road trip to Orlando, then directly to Colorado, Curtin played almost the same exact formation for three games in eight days. It got to a point where they relied on sports science perfection to prepare the same eleven or twelve players for every game, rather than just giving somebody else a shot.

Philly Soccer News: How much of a factor was the departure of Vincent Nogueira?

Earnie Stewart: "I mean, yeah, once start with a group and you have a certain player that has certain qualities, and Vincent’s qualities were very much on the ball and he’s very calm on the ball, yeah, do you miss that somewhat? Yeah, of course, because he was part of that group, an important part of that group. But, once again, it’s like you say, it’s next man up. And, I don’t mean that in a bad way, we can talk about that all day. Vincent was in a personal state where it wasn’t possible for him to stay, so you have to make that choice. Was it a shame at that moment? Yes. But for Vincent it was the best (for him) and you have to move forward."

Jim Curtin: "First and foremost, Vincent’s a great player, no question about it. I would add he played eight games for us this year. We played a 35-game season this year with the playoff game. And, we had a good record when he was here, we were 3-2-3. But it also needs to be said when Vincent was here and just unable to play because of an injury or something like that, we were 3-1-2 when he was here too, so we were a good team; that needs to be said, it’s not just one guy that makes it go. Again, when you have the dip in form like we did at the end of the year, we’re all looking for the reason, and want the thing that’s exactly it. Again, Vincent was a great player. Exactly what Earnie said, he gave us a calming presence in the midfield that could slow the game down and calm us down when we had leads, in particular. But we were a good team even while he was here and was unable to perform. So, there’s a little bit there, for sure. Any time you lose a player it’s unique to the locker room, yeah, it’s a factor. But, at the same time, not the only reason."

MY TAKE: Curtin is mostly correct here. I wrote extensively about the Vincent Nogueira situation on Monday.

PhillyVoice: Earnie, you alluded to the consistency in tactics and formation throughout the year, and that was a positive for you. Was there any point in the season where it would have made sense to switch up the shape, maybe try a 4-4-2, or show something different, especially when the slump started?

Earnie Stewart: No, I don’t believe in that in that regard and, like I said, there are certain moments in a season, and I think we’ve touched on this a couple of times, but there are certain moments in a season where things don’t go your way and you need to fall back on something. And the more you change, and the more you make it difficult, especially for young players in different formations or different tactical ways of setting up, it’s going to hurt you. And what we tried to concentrate on towards the end of the season was actually trying to take stress away and go back to those roles and responsibilities and do your job. It’s easier said than done because when you’re out there on the field and there’s 18,000 people looking at you and we’re expecting the same thing and the first pass hasn’t gone right, or we lost the last game, it becomes cloudy, and we have to make it clearer. Do I believe that with some teams, the Chelseas of this world and the Manchester Uniteds that you can just change it up? Yes, because they’re all seasoned veterans, they’re all seasoned pros, and it’s easy. We made this choice in the beginning of the season to do it this way. Not saying that a last ten minutes and Jim has done that during the season, that you throw an extra center forward up, I mean, that’s… But you go back to your basics, and back to the normal part, because that’s what everybody gets their confidence from. And once you let it go and you change a lot, people don’t know what to expect anymore and what their task is. And obviously, the more that players get seasoned, get experience, you can do a little bit more of that.

Jim Curtin (following up): Good answer, that’s exactly what I’d tell you.

MY TAKE: I hate this answer, but I understand where they're coming from.

There's something to be said for creating a tactical identity and committing to it. They want to be a high-pressing, active, 4-2-3-1 team that creates numerical advantages and keeps a good defensive shape. It's a popular formation, it's a "safe" formation, and it complemented the roster well. The Union didn't have much forward depth behind C.J. Sapong, so it probably made sense to keep with a center forward and deploy five midfielders, which was the roster strength.

My issue is that there was no adjustment at all in 2016. When the team began to struggle, and when Nogueira left, we saw the same 4-2-3-1, with different players trying to fill the number eight spot and little change in personnel otherwise. During a time when Toronto was trying a 3-5-2 and NYC was trying a little bit of everything, the Union kept putting out the same thing.

I understand that Philly doesn't have the talent of Toronto and NYC, but these players aren't dumb. Keegan Rosenberry and Fabian Herbers can handle a 4-4-2. Chris Pontius and Tranquillo Barnetta know what they're doing. Some of the changes and subs were so predictable, like the straight swap of Fabian Herbers or moving Sapong to the wing instead of the bench.

This team has played the same formation for 35 straight games, which actually extends to something like 80 if you include 2015 and the U.S. Open Cup. Again, the commitment to identity is admirable, but you have to also show some flex if things aren't going your way.

PhillyVoice: As far as contracts, two guys were here on loan, can you talk about Matt Jones and Anderson?

Earnie Stewart: Yes, for those two the options will not be picked up for next year.

MY TAKE: The staff seemed to rate John McCarthy more than Matt Jones, and I'm not sure why. Jones wasn't some scrub, he's got a great resume.

Philadelphia Inquirer: Is there any thought of playing Maurice Edu at center back when he returns?

Jim Curtin: "No. And, again, the biggest thing since Earnie’s been here is we do things, from recruitment to decision making, from the inside to the out, not the outside to the in, and we’re not just going to move guys around a ton and throw them in the back. We’ve talked about Mo as being that number six for us. That was our plan. It didn’t happen this year, (but) that is still the plan we have for Mo when he does get back to full fitness."

MY TAKE: Edu is still the best center back on this team.

Delco Times: Earnie, how do you evaluate Jim Curtin’s year?

Earnie Stewart: "Good, no - really good. And I say that with a lot of confidence, too, at the same time. The way we set out at the start of the season, I was curious, you know, 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, yeah, you can go out and you can play games, or you can put a purpose behind everything that you do in the exercises that we have in trying to create those moments of — the angle 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. And I have to say that 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 season in our keep-away, and you see where we are right now in our keep-away game, 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 had, 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. I feel Jim has done an excellent job."

MY TAKE: The comments about training sessions and keep-away games seem misplaced here. The level of training means nothing compared to the results on the field.

Anyway, I receive criticism for not being harsh enough on Jim Curtin, and there might be some truth there.

There's no avoiding the collapse this team suffered at the end of the year. That's just as much on him as it is the players. I've already talked about the lack of tactical flexibility. I also think he was hesitant to change up the personnel, and didn't find a way to get more minutes for Roland Alberg, who didn't play a lick of defense but knew how to score. He stuck with Ken Tribbett for a spell when Josh Yaro was clearly the better choice at RCB.

Curtin also lost his best player (Nogueira) in the middle of the year. His captain didn't even play. This incomplete roster was built with one target forward and not much else up top. I do think they were punching above their weight at the beginning of the season, and he should get credit for maximizing the output of a club that really didn't have a game-changer or a difference maker.

That said, this isn't Curtin's first season, even though everybody in Chester seems to be treating it that way. Next year is his third full year at the helm, and despite the arrival of Stewart and the new direction of the club, Curtin's body of work does not begin with 2016, it encompasses the tail-end of 2014 and entirety of 2015.

He has to show more next year, and I'm sure he would agree with that sentiment.