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.