CHESTER, Pa. — For some people around the Philadelphia Union organization, it might seem like the weight of the world is crashing down on them as their winless streak stands at 16 games heading into Saturday’s contest vs. the New York Red Bulls (7 pm ET, MLS LIVE).
But when second-year sporting director Earnie Stewart chatted with reporters following the club’s training session Wednesday, he conveyed a sense of breeziness that belies the team’s 0-4-4 record.
And he remains confident that a big turnaround can happen, even without making any significant changes to the roster or coaching staff.
“Last year we made the playoffs and I still feel like we can make the playoffs this year,” Stewart said. “Because from a broader perspective, apart from what the results are and how we’re playing, I believe we have a better group of guys. There’s more talent there.”
Some would certainly question the talent level on the Union compared to other teams in the league, but Stewart insisted that the lineup is similar to last year’s with the additional benefit of more depth. As for his big offseason signings, he said midfielder Haris Medunjanin has proven to be “the No. 6 that we wanted” while striker Jay Simpson has “been pretty much unlucky” after getting hurt moments after scoring his first MLS goal and failing to get back into a rhythm since.
Stewart did admit that one major issue has been that players who enjoyed breakout seasons last year have taken a step back in 2017 — none more apparent than 2016 MLS Rookie of the Year runner-up Keegan Rosenberry, who’s been benched for the last two games.
But he believes that’s only a small speed bump.
“Keegan comes in as a rookie, plays every single minute, does really well and is an All-Star, is invited to national team camp, and expectations are different,” Stewart said. “I think it’s normal for young players that they have a dip in their career — really normal. And unfortunately we have a couple of dips all together, and that is never the situation that you want to get in.”
Stewart also reiterated his strong public backing of Jim Curtin, who he firmly believes is an excellent young coach. He said he watches Curtin in training effectively teach the system and the club’s style of play while relating well to the players.
And so Stewart, who likes to take the long view, does not think firing such a promising young coach would be a prudent move, nor would changing the formation or the general foundation he’s trying to build with Curtin and the rest of the coaching staff.
“I’ve been in situations where changes have been made for change's sake … and it’s not something I believe in,” he said. “I’m not saying that nothing will ever change because that’s not the case. You see names change and everything, but the philosophy that we have, that doesn’t change because we lose a couple of games.”
For Stewart, the philosophy and foundation is more than the current collection of players but also involves the youth academy, the practice facility and other building blocks. And after throwing his support behind Curtin, he did the same with his boss, majority owner Jay Sugarman, who he’s been on the same page with around those upgrades.
“I hear all those things going around and this and that — but Jay has never said no,” Stewart said. “But I want to make sure when I present something to Jay about the infrastructure, about how we can be successful as a team, how we can do scouting, how we can do analytics and everything — that it’s based on something.”
The infrastructure enhancements, of course, have done little to appease a Union fan base that has seen a lot of rough moments on the field since the franchise’s expansion season in 2010 — long before Stewart got on board. Stewart is well aware of those past frustrations but maintains his belief that the future will be bright, just as soon as the club can end the winless streak and gain some much-needed confidence and momentum.
“If you win four, five games in a row, the chances that you win number six and seven are pretty good because everybody feels good about it,” he said. “But it also works the other way around, and that’s the situation that we are in right now. The key is to get out of that as quickly as possible.”