In a recent interview over on FourFourTwo, Union Sporting Director Earnie Stewart discusses the recent past and near future of the Philadelphia Union, as well as his time with the USMNT and the current state of the U.S. Soccer.
Since Earnie Stewart took charge of the club, he has always stressed the importance of developing young players. He very much seems to have faith in the production capabilities of the Union’s youth development and referred to the Union as a “development club.” That’s a very interesting (and admittedly good) way to put it. He very clearly has a focus on youth, and the club has quite a few exciting young prospects on the come-up.
In almost the same breath as his quote about the U being a “development club,” he went on record saying that the Philadelphia Union are “years” away from a title. Yikes! That’s not exactly confidence-boosting for a fanbase that has been subjected to subpar play and subpar management for years; a fan base that, in my opinion as a fan of the club since its inception, is at an all-time low in morale. The team has made the playoffs only twice in its eight-year history. I’m no expert admittedly, but that’s what the kids would call “not great.”
Listen, I’m not an idiot. I know that success does not come easy. Success is earned and it requires development and hard work. The problem here is that the club hasn’t done enough in this regard. Years of inconsistent management and personnel changes have left this club in the midst of a seemingly life-long rebuild.
In the interview Earnie goes on to say, “You always want to win tomorrow, so it’s as simple as that, but at the same time, we have to be realistic about things and look a little bit forward to that.”
When asked to give a message to the Philadelphia Union fans, who (like me) are losing patience with the club, Stewart continues to shoot down the idea of any near-future success.
“We are who we are,” Stewart says. “So we’re not going to be that club that goes out and spends all kinds of money.”
When asked about whether or not the club have improved in recent years, he deflects by pointing to the fact that they had the same number of points in 2017 as the club had in 2016, and points to the fact that the Eastern Conference in MLS has gotten “stronger.” I fully understand the basis of what he’s saying here, as I do believe that the East has become much more competitive in recent years. I also fully understand that the finances are essentially out of Earnie’s control here. Spending money has much more to do with the ownership group and Majority Owner/Chairman Jay Sugarman. Thus Earnie Stewart continues to speak about the club’s small budget and keeps pushing this idea of doing things in a “different” way. “Different” meaning giving the youth of the squad playing time, either with the first team or with Bethlehem Steel FC.
My issue with Earnie Stewart’s “message” to the fans throughout this entire interview is that it feels almost disrespectful to the past eight years of frustration and dedication to this club. I don’t like how he dismisses and only briefly mentions that the Union had existed for years before his appointment, and that we will feel the effects of he and his team’s decisions for years after he leaves (whenever that may be.) To be perfectly clear, I have faith in Earnie and most of his vision for this club. I wholeheartedly agree on the topic of youth development, and I love to see his faith in our academy. I’m happy to see his faith in head coach Jim Curtin, because I have defended Curtin time and time again as a coach. Stewart points out that Curtin is dedicated and working very hard to develop the club’s style of play, but also mentions that there is a standard when it comes to the actual matches that just isn’t there yet.
The real issue comes in Earnie’s complete aversion to anything other than his “vision.” This team cannot compete with an entire squad of youth players. Look at other clubs in MLS that have mixed homegrown/youth players with those bought or brought in on big DP contracts. Atlanta United is a squad that made the playoffs and played very impressively in their first professional season. They have the support of the fans and put out an impressive quality of play on the field. You must spend money in today’s game. Like it or not, that’s just the way it is. I very much agree with this vision, but it is inherently flawed and incomplete.
I can only hope that with this upcoming offseason, we can see some real commitment to the short-term and long-term future of this club. I love the Philadelphia Union, and I hate to see the dwindling attendance numbers and poor play on the field. It hurts, but I don’t blame the fans for being fed up. I still have hope for the future of the club, and faith in our Sporting Director Earnie Stewart, but this offseason is time to put him to the test.