But Union sporting director Earnie Stewart made another major decision that stressed continuity over change: retaining head coach Jim Curtin.
Announcing the move in an end-of-season press conference at Talen Energy Stadium on Wednesday, Stewart praised Curtin’s growth as a coach and pointed to his ability to avoid collapse when the team began the season winless in their first eight games and calls for a coaching change became most intense.
“I think he’s a big part of this foundation that we’ve laid down,” Stewart said. “When we talk about progress, I think the system-based approach and the stability of a good organization, continuity is very, very important. And I think that has shown this season and in a time where everybody thought we were down and out, we were at one point in a position to once again get back into the playoffs – and that is a great credit to Jim and his coaching staff. So I’m very pleased with that, and very pleased that he will be back.”
Curtin is well aware that it’s a tough business and that coaches have been fired for less, even admitting at the time it was hard not to wonder if the Union’s season-ending 6-1 win over Orlando City SC might be his final one in charge.
But the Philly native also said throughout the year that he felt comfortable with his standing with Stewart, who was hired to turn the franchise around ahead of the 2016 campaign, when Curtin had already been the head coach for a year-and-a-half.
Curtin rewarded that faith by leading the Union to the playoffs last year, which followed back-to-back trips to the U.S. Open Cup final in 2014 and 2015. But the team failed to build off that momentum this season, finishing in eighth place in the East even though they finished with the same point total (42), and a better goal differential, than they did in 2016.
“I think back to the support that I got in the hardest time,” Curtin said. “I think that’s when you learn the most about people and Earnie backed me in the hardest time of my young coaching career — that was the beginning of the season when we lost games. There’s very few people that you can trust, and Earnie is a guy that I trust, that I believe in. … I will be loyal to him forever.”
Of course, Curtin knows he must repay that trust and loyalty by taking a big step forward in 2018. Much of that will come down to what kind of upgrades Stewart and technical director Chris Albright can make to the roster, particularly at the coveted No. 10 position. But a lot will also have to do with how Curtin helps get promising young players like Keegan Rosenberry, Josh Yaro and Fabian Herbers (who had his option declined but may still return) back on track after rough or injury-plagued campaigns in their second seasons.
“These are young guys,” Curtin said. “We recognize that the season was not perfect. But if you look up the spine of the team, the experience that we have with Andre [Blake], with [Alejandro] Bedoya and Haris [Medunjanin], with [CJ] Sapong, that’s a strong, exciting group that, with a couple of pieces sprinkled in, we can rise quickly. And it will be the young guys that drive the roster, as well.”
Stewart, for his part, was pleased with the development of recent draft picks and former academy players like Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty, saying every young player goes through highs and lows and adding that he firmly believes that “every player developed this season, except the output wasn’t always the same on Saturday or Sunday.”
It will be up to Curtin, now, to see if he can get the output to match the development while helping the Union rise to a new level in 2018.
“Both Earnie and I want to win more than anybody,” Curtin said. “I’m still very confident in the roster that we have, the players that we have, the flexibility that we have that Earnie and Chris have done a great job in presenting — and now the work starts on a new year. Things can change fast in MLS.
“We know that we can achieve big things here. I’m not going to do any promising or talk out of turn, but I believe in the group that we have and that starts, first and foremost, with being grateful for Earnie’s backing.”