CHESTER, Pa. – It might seem curious that, only a few days after the Philadelphia Union concluded the 2015 season tied for the league’s second-worst record, head coach Jim Curtin would be as optimistic about the franchise as ever before.
But it makes more sense when you look at how quickly the Union went to work trying to forge a new direction, first hiring Earnie Stewart as sporting director a day after the regular season ended and then bringing back popular former assistant Brendan Burke to coach their expansion USL affiliate, Bethlehem Steel FC, later that week.
Those two moves, combined with majority owner Jay Sugarman publicly backing Curtin, certainly helped the Union head coach move on from the year's frustrations and look ahead to what he firmly believes will be brighter days in 2016 and beyond.
“It’s a really exciting time in the club’s history,” Curtin told MLSsoccer.com. “Everyone had a bad taste in their mouth of how the season went. Obviously the [US] Open Cup final was a big disappointment. But since then, there’s been a lot of positivity around the organization – a lot of strong moves and moves that show a commitment to myself, improving things and moving the bar in the right direction.”
The move to bring on Stewart to oversee the first team, the burgeoning youth academy and the Bethlehem Steel was an especially exciting development for Curtin, who played against the former US national team regular and looked up to him well before that. He still remembers exactly where he was (his grandparents' house in North Hills, Pennsylvania) when Stewart scored his famous World Cup goal vs. Colombia in 1994.
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Admiration of him as a player aside, Curtin also realized he’d be the perfect fit to work for the Union after reading an ESPN.com article about how Stewart brought “Moneyball” to AZ Alkmaar as the Dutch club’s director of football affairs. Like Alkmaar, the Union have not – and will not – spend as much as the league’s top-spending teams and will focus more on making smart acquisitions and developing young talent.
“The things he was doing, he spoke a lot of the same language that [minority owner Richie Graham] speaks, that Jay speaks, identifying players and the process he has for that,” Curtin said. “And his familiarity with MLS pops to mind. And the fact that he’s done it at the highest level as a player and a sporting director, it just made sense.”
Still, playing “Moneyball” doesn’t mean the Union will always be frugal, with Curtin reiterating that Sugarman plans to open the wallet for the right players. Rather, it means to avoid some of the past mistakes the club has made in doling out big contracts to players that didn’t fit and didn’t stick. Curtin noted, “we’ll have a lot of data behind everything we do,” when he, technical director Chris Albright and Stewart present their plans to ownership.
As for the offseason plan, Curtin hopes the club can find the right “blend” of “American players that fit the league” with “foreign players that can come in and leave an impact.” And while they may keep much of the returning core, the Union don’t have much money tied down in guaranteed contracts -- meaning they’ll have some flexibility to bolster their speed on the flanks, get defensive help and find a potentially game-changing striker.
“Obviously everyone’s looking for a striker and a goalscorer,” Curtin admitted. “Those are the hardest things to get right. But Earnie’s very knowledgeable about that. He has connections all over Europe and the world, and we’ll tap into that.”
The Union will also tap into Burke’s experience to create an important bridge from their youth academy to the first team through the Steel, who will train at the practice facility at PPL Park and give valuable playing time to young players.
That’s been a missing piece for the franchise, which has only had one Homegrown signing – Zach Pfeffer– see significant minutes in the club’s six-year history.
Curtin hopes that will soon change and that talented academy products will fill out a deeper roster that should also be strengthened at the top with a few key acquisitions that can take the club to the next level.
“One thing about myself I would stress is I am a guy who wants to play young players,” Curtin said. “And I want to play a certain way and much more attack-minded than we’ve been able to do. With the personnel we have, we’ve had to make some adjustments and maybe play a little differently. We weren’t quite ready to play the high-pressure system we wanted, so we tweaked things a little.
“And now we want to take the training wheels off. With the addition of an Earnie and with the addition of a Brendan, it’s time to really make this push in the right direction in 2016.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com.