More Sports:

May 04, 2017

Union sporting director Earnie Stewart on foundations, ownership and why he doesn't really believe in change

Soccer Union
050417_earnie_psp Daniel Gajdamowicz/Philly Soccer Page

Earnie Stewart (right) was introduced as the Union's first sporting director in December of 2015.

Earnie Stewart spent 20 minutes with reporters on Wednesday afternoon, four days after the Union's scoreless draw in Los Angeles.

In most cases, a West Coast draw is a great result, but this is a squad that hasn't won a game since last August, so the circumstances are obviously different right now.

With fan tension trending a bit towards apathy at this point, the Union's sporting director took questions about the poor start, the commitment to a specific set of tactics, and whether or not he has the resources to compete.

Here's the full transcript:

Philadelphia Inquirer: Can you give us your thoughts on the beginning of the season? Obviously, it's not the way you wanted the team to start. Why has it started out this slowly?

Earnie Stewart: "First and foremost, there are a couple of new guys that always have to fit in. No excuse, or anything like that; that's just the way soccer is. You have to make sure you're ready for the beginning of the season, except I've seen some different things in what we've done, where I thought we started off the season fairly well apart from not winning games or anything like that. The Vancouver game we played was defensively very solid. I didn't think we were in a position to win at that moment, but defensively it was solid and we didn't give anything away. I thought the Toronto game, especially in the first half, was that good, and it was kind of weird that we went into halftime at 1-1. We go to Orlando, and in the first 45 minutes we did not play well at all, but towards the end of the game we were in it, hit the post, and could have tied over there.

It's always 'if this' and 'if that,' but what you see with the team then is that it lacks a bit of confidence in killing off games. You can take the Toronto game as one, where we miss a penalty to go up 2-0. Orlando, we don't get the result. You see the moments, and the gap widening, of when things happen in games where all of a sudden the energy level becomes a little bit different and the confidence goes down. On the other hand, I've seen a recovery in that in the last couple of weeks. That means that people involved in this and working on that are helping the players find their – I don't know if it's confidence – but finding what we need to do. It's the same as last year. I still, at this moment, do not feel that the differences are that great, apart from the results, than last season. In regard to what we ask of them and what we need to do, it's not that we blew opponents away last year. It's not that we won three or four to zero. Orlando, for example, we win that in the last minute on a Tranquillo Barnetta free kick. That's 2 to 1, and now we lose 2 to 1 in the last minute, or they score the tying goal in the last minute. That does something. From a positivity standpoint, last year, when you win those games, if you win four or five in a row, the chances that you're going to win number six and seven are (reasonable), because everybody feels good about it. But it also works the other way around. That's the situation we're in right now. The key is to get out of that as quickly as possible."

Philadelphia Inquirer: It's not deep analysis, but it seems like some guys from last year just aren't playing as well this year.

"Yeah, which in some cases I think is totally normal. We had, and still have, a young group, where the expectations are different from last season. Let's take Keegan (Rosenberry) as an example. Keegan comes in as a rookie, plays every single minute, does really well, becomes an all-star and is invited to national team camp, and expectations are different. I think it's normal for young players that they have a dip in their career, really normal. Unfortunately, we have a couple of dips all (happening) together. That's never the situation you want to be in. The key is to get out of that as quickly as possible." In terms of players that are new this year, what are your thoughts on Jay Simpson and Haris Medunjanin?

"I don't like commenting on players individually. I'd rather focus on the team. But the players that just came in, I will do that, in this case. Haris has been good. He was the number six that we wanted. We believe in having the ball, and once you have the ball you have more control over the game. That part of the game comes very natural to him. He finds the right people and usually passes to the right color, so that part is very good. Are there aspects that we can get better at as a team, to make sure that in defensive mode we help each other in that regard? Everybody has their qualities and deficiencies. That's who we are. Jay has been pretty much unlucky, in the sense of actually starting off pretty well, especially in the game against Toronto, scoring the goal then having to leave (injured). That hurts. And that hurts him. It's about getting back into that rhythm and it's easier said than done, I'll put it that way."

PhillyVoice: You haven't been here that long, but fans watched a lot of losing soccer in the years prior. What's the message to fans who might be ready to jump off at this point? It's probably a shorter leash since they've suffered through some bad seasons.

"It's a difficult one, especially in my position, because I've been here a year and half now and we're building and we're building. We spoke about the foundation last year and we're still building on that foundation. All of the cliches – 'Rome wasn't built in a day' – all of that is fine and dandy because it doesn't really mean that much. I realize that there has been a history before I was here. Fair or not fair, I have to take that into account. Still, last year we were a team that blew everybody out of the sky and now we're on the opposite end of the spectrum. There's not that big of a difference. Yes, the results, for sure – and we're responsible for that and there's not a problem with that. We need to change that around as quickly as possible. The idea that we have is still exactly the same. The messaging is still the same. I still believe in, and I'll always believe – I've done this for years and years now – in what we're trying to do. We're still building that foundation and putting people in place that understand what they need to do, that everything becomes second nature and they can make sure that their creative mind can, at one point, can take the overhand. But getting there is easier said than done, and making sure that players all understand what they're on the field for. And then we have a human aspect. It's real simple. Everyone looks at these players as professionals and that they should weather every single storm. When they step onto these fields or in the annex, they're human beings. That's something you always have to take into consideration and you see that now. They're human beings and they need help in certain situations to make sure that they can succeed. Help, in those situations, is giving them a clear guideline as to what we expect them to do."

Delco Times (the wind made it difficult to transcribe the question, which was about the negativity surrounding the club and what it would take to make changes):

"I've been in situations where changes were made for change's sake. However you want to view it, you can say some were successful and some were not successful. It's not something I believe in. I'm not saying that nothing will never change. That's not the case. You see names change, but the philosophy and thought we have, that doesn't change because we lose a couple of games. Likewise, it wouldn't change me if we won a couple of games. It has to be the same because that's going to be our guidance to future success. For the fans, I hope that's this Saturday, that success. Once again, we have to deal with a bunch of human beings that are on the field and are susceptible to all of the influences from outside. We try to keep that away from them so that they focus on their task at hand. Once they focus on that, I'm pretty sure we can get those results, just like we did last year."

Philadelphia Inquirer: You've been a staunch supporter of Jim Curtin. You came out of that ESPN interview, and other interviews, and (backed) him when all of the noise was coming out. Did you feel that was important, to get that message out there?

"Well, the question was asked. If you guys ask questions, and anybody asks questions, I try to answer them to the (best of my ability). Yes, I understand that when you're in a situation where you're losing games, that those questions are asked a little bit more. You can pretty much know if you have a good coach or bad coach in the beginning. After one or two weeks, you know that. I see what our coaching staff does. (Opinions) are only based on Jim, and I don't think that's fair. But I see what our staff does every day and you guys are here as well. They don't go out and throw the ball in the middle and play games. We try to train with our system and style of play. They do that every single day. That part I'm pleased with. When it comes to results and everything, yeah, that's part of our business. But I'm sure that if we keep up with what we do on a daily basis and don't get distracted from the noise from the outside, then we can get back to getting results. Do I think he's a good coach? Yea. We all stand here; do I think we all make mistakes in life? Yep. We sure do. As long as we learn from them, then we're in good shape."

PhillyVoice: When we spoke at the end-of-season press conference last year, I was asking about the concept of changing the tactics or the shape as a way to maybe break out of that slump. You and Jim both doubled-down on the idea of going "back to basics," reinforcing existing ideas instead of experimenting with something new. Jim has also talked about the complication of teaching something new, but, realistically, is it too much to ask these guys to learn how to play with two strikers, or in a different setup, or just tweak things a bit? Is it really that hard?

"Yeah. It's difficult. They already have difficulties with what we ask of them..."

PhillyVoice: Is it really? You've got guys out here who have played in the same shape for two years. They've played in World Cups and on national teams.

"You're projecting it on players who played at the World Cup. For those players, no, it's not difficult. But for all of those others, it is."

PhillyVoice: Ok.

"Once again, if you change (for the sake) of change, it's fine. You can try something else. But it doesn't mean that you're going to solve a situation. Do I feel, within our system, that you can make tweaks? Yea, for sure. But tweaks are, a lot of times, names. As an example, with C.J. and Jay behind him, what are you playing? You're also playing a 4-2-3-1 but it's a tweak. Because there are different players in those positions, they're going to react a little bit different. But a formation, and a system – because everybody hangs up on that – it's whatever the players make of that system. It's more about the organization defensively. That's the most important part. Building a foundation doesn't start with, 'let's just go attack all the time.' It starts with, 'how do we defend with each other?' If you make sure your defense is good, and you don't have any goals against you, then you're going to have a pretty decent season. And if you don't do that, then it becomes a difficult one. So, organization is based on that. To change, when there's already chaos in people's heads, then you don't want to change." When you look at the players now, do you think there's enough talent to make the playoffs or go on a run?

"Yeah. I had a conversation with someone and I'll ask you the same question: when you look the team last year, to this year, is there a big difference? I'm not saying result-wise, but name-wise." A couple of different spots.

"A couple of different spots. That's it. Last year made the playoffs and this year I feel we can make the playoffs because I don't think, apart from a broader perspective in our team and current results, that we have a better group of guys. There's more talent there. Last year I thought we had 13, 14, 15 players that could step on the field. I think we have a little bit more now. Every time, we need to expand that. And I don't just see that with our first team, I also see it with Bethlehem Steel. We play easier games with Bethlehem Steel than we have in the past because those guys that come down from our first team are more gifted and talented. Once again, it's a situation where we need to get back, ASAP, to our task and roles and responsibilities of what we need to do because that will give confidence and obviously help win games because that's the most important thing."

PhillyVoice: Is there anything ownership can do to help? Do you have the resources you need to be competitive relative to 21 other MLS teams?

"See, that's something where, when I talk about foundations, it's not only the team and players in that team, but it's about building everything here around it. Jay (Sugarman) has never said no. It's as simple as that. I hear all these things going around. Jay has never said no. But I want to make sure that when I present something to Jay, about the infrastructure, about how we can be successful as a team, about how we can do scouting and analytics, that it's based on something. Yea, we're building on that as we speak. Do you see all of the results right now from the conversations of what we're trying to put into place? No, not directly. But I'm pretty sure that they will come. It will be in place at one moment. But you can't do (everything at once). That's a lot."