Nine days after Philadelphia Union’s postseason exit against FC Cincinnati, Head Coach Jim Curtin and Sporting Director Ernst Tanner met with the media for an end-of-season press conference on Monday morning.
The pair spoke just hours after the team released their official roster decisions, turning focus toward the year to come. During the season-closing session, Curtin and Tanner provided big picture takeaways regarding the future of the club and what to expect for the 2024 campaign.
The Union plan to stick to their pillars in the upcoming year
In his opening remarks, Curtin assured that regardless of this season's final result, the club is committed to upholding the principles that have led them to six consecutive playoff seasons and unprecedented success in recent years, including an appearance in the 2022 MLS Cup Final.
The first pillar, he explained, is developing within, which has long remained a priority of the club through its top-ranked Academy pipeline and homegrown players.
“We're going to improve the players that are currently here,” Curtin said. “We want to develop players, coaches, and staff members from this club and our academy. We also recognize we're going to have great European players too that we want to develop and get better as well.”
The 2023 season saw multiple players take substantial leaps in production and impact across the roster, from homegrown products to international players. Defender Nate Harriel, who established himself as a reliable right back, while also filling in on the left when called upon, and Venezuelan midfielder Jesus Bueno, who earned a contract extension after impressing in a career-high 24 appearances, both proved testament to the club’s renowned ability to promote growth in young talent.
With only two departures, in back-up goalkeeper Joe Bendik and defender Anton Sorenson, and 25 players under contract through the 2024 campaign, both Tanner and Curtin emphasized the importance of focusing on the talent they have in the building in the year to come.
The second pillar, Curtin explained, is maintaining cohesiveness among the group despite availability, which will be paramount as the season to come is slated to bring about a slew of absences due to the 2024 Olympics in Paris, Africa Cup of Nations, UEFA Euro 2024 and FIFA International Breaks.
“We're gonna have to be innovative and creative in how we do it,” said Curtin, noting it as the third focus for 2024. “Looking forward, we're going to focus on those three pillars. Get back to some things and improve some things and take a nice little break here, but also recognize in about five weeks, we go again.”
Learning how to manage a strenuous season
Philadelphia Union closed this year’s campaign after playing a record number 51 games in 2023. The season was one of, if not the most physically challenging that the club has ever faced, and the team’s leaders both emphasized how important it will be to glean lessons from 2023 to help shape the way they manage their 2024 schedule.
In his first remarks, Tanner announced that the team traveled about 40,000 miles, crossing multiple time zones and landing in varying climates through seven months of play.
“That's what we need to acknowledge in future, in our roster as in the scheduling of the games and how we deal with that, because you will see that there is an increase of injuries, players are mentioning that it is too much for them,” Tanner said. “It looks to me that almost nobody is listening to that. But despite that, we were pretty successful.”
Although winning remains at the forefront, the pair will look to find new ways to approach the demands of Major League Soccer, leaning on their depth to maintain success amidst another hectic year.
“I hate saying the word prioritize because you want to win everything,” Curtin said. “But you have to find and we have to get creative about what games you go full tilt after, and which games you go, ‘let's rotate and change,’ and then trying to keep that drop off not that much.”
This team remains an MLS Cup contender
Philadelphia Union has seen their most successful seasons in club history as of late, and although there are inevitable offseason changes on the horizon, Curtin doesn’t anticipate their dominance will wane.
“We know our fans want the MLS Cup. So did we,” Curtin said to close his opening statement.
“We came up a little bit short and the season only ends perfect for one team. The only ones that are happy right now are still Columbus and LAFC because we're the only two that have the chance, so that hurts. That'll motivate us moving forward.”
With just two departures as of the date of their press conference, the announcement of on-going talks with impact players in Alejandro Bedoya and Kai Wagner, and the club’s shared focus on the talent in the building, Curtin holds steadfast to the goal of hoisting the MLS Cup with the Boys in Blue.
“I still believe very much that we can lift the MLS Cup. I think the past games, we've been as close as you can possibly get to it, I think even this season. Are we as good as the Final Four teams? We're somewhere right in the discussion,” Curtin said. “We're a bounce, a break, a player having an amazing game, a coach making a good decision away from it, and I think that we're going to fight like crazy to get that for our fans.”