“We have something special,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “Our group was truly a team in that everybody had to have a good game for us to get results and they all believed that. For a lot of the year, they did it.”
Under normal circumstances, the Union’s season, which culminated in making the playoffs for the first time since 2011, would have been viewed as an overwhelming success. Back in 2015, the club could only dream of the postseason as they stumbled to a near league-worst 10-17-7 record. Instead, it was somewhat bitter.
Union sporting director, Earnie Stewart, believes that grading the club’s season is a matter of perspective.
“Expectations changed over the season,” he said on Wednesday at Talen Energy Stadium, in the team’s final press availability of the season. “We could have not done well to start the season and finished strong, then everybody would be very positive about it. But it works the other way around.”
The Union did start strong, punching through the U.S. Open Cup early rounds and even reaching the top of the Eastern Conference at one point. The club lost three of five games prior to the Crystal Palace friendly, which they followed by earning just three wins in the next 15 games to end the season.
Curtin admitted that the club didn’t have an answer to why it went on this steady decline. Both Stewart and Curtin denied that it was the midseason departure of Vincent Nogueira or the team’s daily two-a-days.
“We are examining, trying to pinpoint what it is exactly,” he said. “The harder we search and the more that we look at the data, the analytics, the games, it comes back to a variety of things. Is it losing a player, a drop in confidence, the fact that the schedule gets a little harder? All these little variables do come in.”
The manager, who was delivered a strong vote of confidence by Stewart on Wednesday, even mentioned an unwanted tactical change by his players as the possible culprit.
“We maybe got a little too direct and weren’t as confident and comfortable on the ball,” he said. “That led to creating fewer chances. It’s a combination of things, different variables that we continue to look at.”
Stewart mentioned that one factor was the club’s inability to score down the stretch, which exposed the team’s young back line to more pressure than it was ready for.
“We were a team that had to play well to score easy goals,” Stewart said, alluding to the Union being shutout three times in their last seven games. “When that happens, it places stress on the back line. In the beginning of the season, we scored a lot of goals.”
But whatever the issues were, the Union are looking at what they gained. For Stewart, it was vital that his young club, with core players like Keegan Rosenberry, Richie Marquez and Fabian Herbers, experience the ups and downs, heartbreak and heroism of a long MLS season.
“The good part is that everybody’s been through it now,” he said. “We can only gain from that experience as a young group to be better in the future.”