CHESTER, Pa. – Earnie Stewart is naturally pleased that the Philadelphia Union sit in first place in the Eastern Conference at the Copa America Centenario break.
But the club’s first-year sporting director believes they have yet to hit their full potential.
“I think there’s still more there,” Stewart told MLSsoccer.com. “We’re in good shape, and we’ll see if we can reach the next level with these guys.”
What might that next level look like? Stewart, who’s helped rejuvenate soccer in Philly after several losing seasons, said the team still needs to “learns to kill off games,” pointing specifically to their 1-1 draw with the San Jose Earthquakes on April 30 in which they surrendered a late lead while playing with a man advantage.
Stewart also admitted the club will “always be on the lookout” for new players during the summer transfer window – but quickly added that he’s “happy with what we have right now” and that some current players have still not even showed all that they can do.
“My feeling is that in practices, we’ve even been better than games,” Stewart said. “So there’s still progress to be made from a soccer standpoint. I believed [being in first at the Copa break] was possible, but it was not something we set as a goal. The goal that we do have is we want to win the MLS Cup. And to win the MLS Cup, you have to make the playoffs.”
The Union, who are currently riding a club-record eight game unbeaten streak, have only made the playoffs once in club history – all the way back in 2011. But those past struggles did not put head coach Jim Curtin on the hot seat when Stewart was hired last October with the task of turning the team around.
If anything, Stewart leaned on Curtin and his coaching staff to help get accustomed to MLS after a decade working in the Netherlands. And the coaches, in turn, were more than willing to adapt to the ideas that their new boss brought over.
“Having a coaching staff that is willing to work hard but also is open for new ideas and innovation makes the job so much simpler,” Stewart said. “In Europe a lot of times, your job as a technical director or sporting director – it almost seems like you have to convince people first of the steps that need to be taken. Here, they’re open to new ideas. … That openness and willing to work is fantastic. That’s made my transition very easy.”
In particular, Stewart praised how fit the players have been, as training sessions have been taken up a notch, and how assistant coaches Mike Sorber and B.J. Callaghan have worked on developing creative new set-piece plays.
As for Curtin, Stewart thinks the 36-year-old former MLS center back has a bright future ahead of him – this season and beyond.
“Jim’s been great,” Stewart said. “He’s a coach with a lot of knowledge. He’s very good with words. He knows the game very well. And he knows Philadelphia.
“He’s also been a help to me understanding the culture we have at the Philadelphia Union and what our fans expect from us. It makes my job easier. Jim is, first of all, a fantastic person and, second of all, a very good coach.”