Union boss Earnie Stewart is optimistic about a turnaround — but why should fans believe him?

Union boss Earnie Stewart is optimistic about a turnaround — but why should fans believe him?

CHESTER, Pa. — In some ways, Earnie Stewart should be commended for not panicking. 

Even as his team is in the midst of a near-historic winless streak, the Union sporting director firmly stated this week that making a change just for the sake of making a change is “not something I believe in.” 

And it’s hard to fault him for that line of thinking. If Stewart really believes that Jim Curtin is a promising young coach — a notion many seem to agree with — then he shouldn’t fire him for the short-term gain of possibly changing the team’s current momentum and abandon the long-term foundation he’s trying to build with him.

But it seems clear that something should be done — or, at the very least, for Stewart to provide some sort of cogent rationale as to why the Union’s epic streak could match an all-time MLS record following two more games without a win. And that’s where things get a little dicier.

When asked this week to discuss the current state of the team, Philly’s second-year sporting director mostly talked in generalities about things like momentum and confidence and how players are “human beings” who feel the weight of such a streak.

“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,” Stewart 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.”

Momentum in sports is certainly a real thing, though perhaps not something you’d expect to hear as much from a guy who specializes in data and analytics. Not to mention the fact that if the Union were expected to do well this season (they weren’t, according to most pundits), you could make a better case that the terrible start is a blip rather than a predictable regression. 

But, sure, fine. Most people would probably agree that a win could do wonders for morale and help transform the club from a potentially historically bad one into a run-of-the-mill mediocre one.

But that brings us to Stewart’s next claim. When asked if the talent is there to make the playoffs, Stewart said that it is, pointing to the fact that the lineup is similar to last year’s postseason team, save for a couple of spots. While this may be true, it likely won’t ease many fan concerns considering the 2016 Union limped into the playoffs, finished with an 11-14-9 overall record, and then lost a player in Tranquillo Barnetta that Curtin called “the best player that ever wore a Philadelphia Union jersey.”

Haris Medunjanin — Stewart’s top offseason acquisition — has helped to fill the void left by Barnetta and Vincent Nogueira (a major departure in the middle of the 2016 season) but he’s a deep-lying midfielder that plays in a crowded position for the Union while questions remain in the attacking midfield. And the club’s other high-priced signing this past offseason — striker Jay Simpson — has been “unlucky,” according to Stewart. Others would probably put it in less kind terms, considering he’s the team’s fourth-highest player and rarely plays more than 10-to-15 minutes at the end of games.

But Medunjanin looks like a good pickup and Simpson still has time to turn it around. A bigger issue right now, Stewart said, is the regression of certain players who enjoyed breakout seasons last year — which he said, “is totally normal.”

“And unfortunately we have a couple of dips all together,” he added, “and that is never the situation that you want to get in.”

Sure, “sophomore slumps” can certainly be an issue and that seems to be something that Keegan Rosenberry — last year’s star rookie and MLS All-Star — is dealing with as he’s been benched for the last two games.

But is there any guarantee that Rosenberry will regain his All-Star form, or that the other promising youngsters like Fabian Herbers, Joshua Yaro, Andre Blake, Derrick Jones and Jack Elliott will improve and grow with the club? 

Think about all the other exciting young players that have worn a Union jersey. From Roger Torres and Danny Mwanga to Jack McInerney and Amobi Okugo to Michael Farfan and Zach Pfeffer, there have always been guys the Union have touted as prized building blocks, only to see their development stalled and their suitcases packed. When does a “normal” dip just become the norm?

Curtin can be prone to pumping up unproven youngsters at times, too. He called Leo Fernandes the sharpest player in preseason camp last year but that never materialized to anything. Ken Tribbett looked to be a revelation as the 2016 season kicked off but it seems unlikely he’ll ever have much of an impact on the team again.

So when a rookie like Jack Elliott comes out of nowhere to start at center back, ask yourself if it’s more likely that he’ll be a starter in this league for the next few years or if he’ll fall back into the shadows like Tribbett? Will Rosenberry be a star in Philly for the next decade or will he suffer from the same developmental problems as other Union players? Or is the problem more that the league keeps getting better and better every year and that’s why guys who once looked like promising upstarts or sure things suddenly no longer do? Will the Union ever be able to keep up? 

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare current players to past ones. Rosenberry, for what it’s worth, does have a shot to be a foundational player, even if such a thing has been hard to find on a team with so much roster turnover over the years. This is, after all, being billed a new era under Stewart and Curtin, and they rightfully don’t want to be lumped in with the mistakes of their predecessors.

But Stewart would be wise to realize that Philly fans have seen it all, the ghosts of Union past lurking around every Talen Energy Stadium corner. And while there’s certainly nothing wrong with expressing optimism during a brutal stretch, you can forgive those fans for treating it with a whole lot of cynicism.

Borek Dockal's MLS debut uneven, but a start

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Borek Dockal's MLS debut uneven, but a start

CHESTER, Pa. — When Saturday’s game ended, Union midfielder Borek Dockal told head coach Jim Curtin two things: that his body felt fine and that he knows he can play a lot better.

That’s probably just about all Union fans need to hear.

Sure, it was a mostly uneventful and somewhat disappointing MLS debut for the team’s new Designated Player in a scoreless draw with Columbus Crew SC (see observations). But it’s also a long season and Dockal is still trying to mesh with his teammates and get his fitness up after dealing with a preseason ankle injury.

“I think he had some good moments,” Curtin said. “I think you can see his quality and how comfortable he is on the ball. He can pass and he looks forward. … [But] it’s been a week where he’s really trained with the group, so you see a ball played behind when he’s looking to play through. It’s going to take a little bit of time. But overall [I’m] happy with the amount of minutes he was able to push.”

Dockal, signed only three days before the start of the 2018 season, was a tougher critic on himself after sometimes struggling to connect passes and move to the right spot in his 77 minutes of action. But the Czech playmaker also acknowledged that he needs more time to adapt to MLS and learn his teammates’ tendencies.

“For me, it was the first game so it was a little bit about how to find my space on the field, to see how my teammates are moving, which kind of positions should I be in the most to help them,” said Dockal, who sat out the Union’s first game — a 2-0 win over the New England Revolution. “So I just have to learn from this first game and be better the next game.”

Expectations will certainly be raised when the Union play their next game, in two weeks, on the road against the Colorado Rapids. But expectations are already high for Dockal, who has experience in the Champions League and with the Czech Republic national team.

Along with fellow newcomer David Accam — who he said the team needs to find more on the wing — Dockal is filling in what was a major position of need last year and should provide a major offensive punch in the midfield, playing in front of veterans Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin.

It just hasn’t happened yet.

“My performance definitely can be better,” Dockal said. “But I have to start at some point so it would actually be a miracle if I played an excellent game today.”

“Overall, it’s a first step and nothing replicates these games,” Curtin said. “We didn’t put him on the ball as much as we would have liked. ... But he's an incredibly talented guy."

Union lifeless in draw with Crew

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Union lifeless in draw with Crew

CHESTER, Pa. — In a matchup of two teams with perfect records, it ended up being a stalemate.

On Saturday afternoon at Talen Energy Stadium, the Union and Columbus Crew SC fought to a scoreless draw as goalkeepers Andre Blake and Zack Steffen finished with three saves apiece.

The Union move to 1-0-1 on the season while the Crew, who entered the day in first place in the Eastern Conference, sit at 2-0-1.

• With the Union coming off a weird early bye week, the game lacked fluidity for much of the first half as both teams only put one shot on target before halftime. 

• Borek Dockal, the Union’s new Designated Player, made his MLS debut after sitting out the opener. The Czech playmaker looked tentative early in the match and had some giveaways in the second half before coming out in the 77th minute. It’s too early, of course, to make any judgements but that probably wasn’t the kind of debut head coach Jim Curtin hoped to see.

• David Accam, the team’s other prized newcomer, enjoyed good start to the second half and was active throughout in his second game in Philly. It shouldn’t be long before he opens his account for the Union.

• Steffen came through with a couple of big saves early in the second half for Columbus. It might be hard for some Philly fans to see the Downingtown native and former Union academy player on the visiting side, even if they do get to cheer for a star ’keeper of their own in Blake.

• CJ Sapong, fresh off signing a new contract, couldn’t get on the ball much or even get any shots off. The Union striker had three goals and three assists in seven previous meetings against the Crew.

• On the other end of the field, Gyasi Zardes was held in check after scoring three goals in his first two games for Columbus following a trade from the LA Galaxy. That’s a good sign for the progress of Philly’s young center backs, Jack Elliott and Auston Trusty.

• Ray Gaddis entered the game as a halftime sub for Fabinho, who left with a leg injury. Fabinho and Gaddis are both two of the club’s longest-tenured players, and Gaddis being able to play as both a left back and right back is a nice luxury to have off the bench.

• Despite an announced attendance of 15,323, the crowd at Talen Energy Stadium looked smaller than usual — and with less energy. A lot of that probably has to do with the on-field play but in general, the Union seem to have a better home-field advantage during night games, when the atmosphere is more electric.

• A shoutout to the Sons of Ben, though, for unveiling some cool Philly tifo before kickoff — a “cheesesteak shark” preying on a boat of Crew rowers underneath the word “Jawns.” 

• The Union — who are 4-1-1 in their last six meetings with the Crew — are off again next weekend before before facing Colorado on March 31 in their first road game of 2018.