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Don’t buy Stewart’s claims that the Union improved

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Earnie Stewart thinks the Philadelphia Union improved this past season. He's wrong.

Philadelphia Union vs DC United Photo Gallery Trey Madara / Brotherly Game

On Wednesday, the Union top brass of Earnie Stewart and Jim Curtin gave their annual end-of-the-year press conference, where the vision for the 2018 season was laid out. Among other things, Stewart dished on players than would not return to the club, players that may return to the club, head coach Jim Curtin as well as the vaunted number ten position.

It was stunning to say the least as Stewart painted a very rosy picture of the franchise that just finished their eighth season of existence, six of which have been playoff-less. The full transcript is available here courtesy of Jonathan Tannenwald of Philly.com

For Stewart, bringing back Curtin is not the craziest thing in the world. He has not really had much talent to work with overall. "When you look the last two years at what has been spent and the job Jim has done, it's been an amazing job." Stewart said, as transcribed by Matt De George of the Delco Times.

While bringing back Curtin again is somewhat understandable, to say that a coach and team, who luckily backed their way into the playoffs last season and looked terrible for most of this season, did an “amazing job” is an amazing afterthought.

On the notion of progress of the club, Stewart told the media:

“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 where we had a goal differential of minus-3, to 2017 where we had a goal differential of plus-3. So when we talk about progress, and what we’re trying to do in the system-based approach that we have, and making sure that people get chances, and can show themselves, I think that part has shown throughout this year.”

It is true that the Union had a better goal differential from 2016 (52GF, 55 GA) into 2017 (50GF, 47GA), a total change of six goals. Further, the team finished with the same record and same amount of points both years, 42 goals. However, 42 points was good enough in 2016 to put the Union into the sixth seed in the playoffs. This season, the team was as close to having a top three pick in the SuperDraft (which they wouldn’t have had due to the Charlie Davies trade) to being in the playoffs.

It is hardly fair to base the progress of the franchise on goal differential. To add, most of the “improved” goal differential was made up in the 6-1 destruction of a lifeless Junior Varsity Orlando City team in the last game of the season. Going into the last game of the season, the GD was -2, it ended up at +3, which shows the fickle nature of choosing such a random metric to base a season’s progress on.

Stewart failed to mention the total collapse of the club on the road. In Major League Soccer, you need to win a few games on the road. Even in the horrific 2015 season, the Union still managed a better road record than this team that supposedly “progressed.” The Union looked downright putrid on the road all season, leading to the third worst road record in all of MLS. Throughout the season, the coaching staff preached “being brave and tough” on the road, only to play like an uninterested jumble of players with no vision at all.

From the eye test, it was clear this team looked nowhere near the level of play that the coaching staff apparently believes was there. Besides CJ Sapong, Andre Blake and Haris Medunjanin, its hard to find a player who delivered the skill set that was promised at the beginning of the season.

“I dare say that every player developed this season, except the output wasn’t always the same on Saturday or Sunday.” - Earnie Stewart

I will give the team some credit here on the progress of some of the team’s younger players. Jack Elliott was surprisingly very good for a fourth round draft pick while Marcus Epps and Adam Najem both showed promise in reserve roles.

However, there are some glaring omissions here. The elephant in the room is Keegan Rosenberry, who regressed severely on the season, going from starting every week as a rookie to the bench. Fabian Herbers, up until his injury, was on the bench for Ilsinho. Giliano Wijnaldum, who was supposed to be the next left back of the future for the team, is likely not coming back. Josh Yaro was injured for much of the season and was shaky and unreliable when he did play.

Practice is well practice. It’s fine and good to be progressing in practice, but at the end of the day the real test is on Saturday or Sunday. No organization wins a title by being the best practice team and not showing up on game day.

On the question of a DP number ten signing, Stewart told the media:

“First and foremost, you look in your back yard. And if you can’t find it in your back yard, you go somewhere else. That’s the way we do business here. So, you know, without saying where we’re going to search or whatever that is, and 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 think one person is going to make all the difference in the world.”

To anyone who has watched the Union for the last year or so, it’s all too clear what a colossal dearth there is in the number ten role. For Stewart to say that he doesn’t think “one player is going to make all the difference in the world” and then go on to mention a designated player like New York Red BullsSacha Kljestan as a difference maker, there’s no way to balance those two statements.

Look at the final eight teams in the MLS playoffs. All eight have a bonafide playmaker their team can rely upon to come up clutch. While CJ Sapong had an excellent season this year, imagine how much more of a force he could become with a dangerous number ten behind him to feed him.

In the end, Stewart definitively doubled-down on a flawed philosophy, or lack thereof, that has led the Union to be a stagnant franchise at best these last two years. It does not sound like a game changing player is coming to save this flailing franchise this off-season and it’s very hard to understand why that is not going to happen.

The foundation of solid young players like Elliott, Rosenberry, Epps, Najem, Auston Trusty, Derrick Jones and a few others is very promising. Everyone who follows this team knows their number one need continues to be: a true, consistent Designated Player-level number ten. To continue into 2018 with the philosophy of patching and plugging in players like Ilsinho, under the guise of some “moneyball” like philosophy, will not cut it for a team looking to make the playoffs with nearly every other team in the MLS Eastern Conference improving daily.