Throughout his time with Philadelphia Union, Sporting Director Earnie Stewart has preached that the foundation is the key to the future of the program. In 2017, Stewart said he saw strides in the building of that foundation. Stewart and the rest of the technical staff targeted the middle and bottom part of the roster, focusing on making sure the depth of the team was strong. Not only was building the foundation key, but also making sure that the foundation continues to see improvement throughout the season. Stewart said while the team may not be playing in the playoffs right now, that doesn't mean they didn't improve and progress from 2016.
"The building of the foundation was more from the bottom and from the side," Stewart said. "From that part, the roster that we had for 2017 was a better roster than it was in 2016. Still disappointing, because in everything, you want to win. You want to be MLS Champions, and maybe that was more ambitious than realistic a goal, but I believe you have to set the bar high. We'll do that for the 2018 season as well, because I believe that's very important to getting the best out of everybody. When we talk about progress and what we're trying to do in the system based approach we have, and making sure people have chances to show themselves, I think that part has shown throughout this year."
Before the press conference, the team announced which players would be returning, while which players were out of contract or had their options declined. The players returning to the Union next season are Andre Blake, John McCarthy, Jake McGuire, Jack Elliott, Raymon Gaddis, Richie Marquez, Keegan Rosenberry, Auston Trusty, Josh Yaro, Alejandro Bedoya, Warren Creavalle, Marcus Epps, Anthony Fontana (as of 1/1/18), Derrick Jones, Haris Medunjanin, Adam Najem, Fafa Picault, CJ Sapong and Jay Simpson. But more importantly, Stewart announced at the press conference Jim Curtin would return to the Union as the team's head coach. Stewart has stood behind Curtin, the Union's all-time wins leader and the only Union coach in history with three consecutive 10-plus win seasons. Curtin, in return, is ready to take the Union back to the playoffs and continue the progress being made.
"Building a part of that 2018 roster, one very important part of that is the head coach," Stewart said. "I'm very pleased and proud to announce Jim Curtin will be head coach in 2018 and we'll make sure we keep going in the direction that we have been going in. I think he's a big part of the foundation that we've laid down. Very pleased that he will be back. I think he's progressed in a great manner and I'm very pleased he'll be a part of the 2018 season. I'm hopeful we can continue to build on the continuity we already have and look forward to the 2018 season."
"Earnie backed me during the hardest times of my young coaching career," Curtin said. "Earnie's a guy I trust and I believe in. A guy that showed a real belief in what I was about, saw more than just results. He saw a team that stuck together and continued to fight. Very grateful for the opportunity. The focus now is on 2018. Both Earnie and I want to win more than anybody. Still very confident in the roster we have, the players we have, the flexibility we now have going into the offseason. Now the work starts. We know we can achieve big things here."
Development Across the Roster
Just as important as progress is for a team as a whole, it's equally important for players to progress in their skillset throughout the season. To Stewart and Curtin, both said they believe every player on the roster has progressed from the beginning of the 2017 season to the end of it. Sometimes, it's difficult to see those improvements when looking at a game-by-game basis, because every player has positive and negative matches throughout the season. But when looking at the season as a whole, every player has improved their game. The key for Curtin and Stewart will be to continue to foster that improvement and growth and carry it into next season.
"Every player goes through highs and lows, peaks and valleys in their development," Curtin said. "When you talk about development, there's on-field success and off-field success. It's all part of growth. It's an on-going thing."
"Development, especially for young kids, goes up and down," Stewart said. "But when they become the age of Haris Medunjanin or Alejandro Bedoya, it becomes more linear. I dare say every player developed this season, although the output wasn't always the same on Saturday or Sunday. That's something totally different. Development never stops, and our players are out there every single day, sometimes twice a day, so they do develop themselves. The output, at times, can be different, and that has to do with where you're at as a team. When we talk about development, I truly believe every player developed themselves, some in different ways than others. But when you're out on the practice field every day, you're going to develop."
Building Next Season's Roster
The Union's roster is now currently set at 19 players, with 11 open spots available to fill for the 2018 season. Stewart said he first looks close to home and works outward to find the players who fit the Union's style and needs the best. When specifically asked about a possible fill for the No. 10 position, Stewart pointed that it's not just one player or position that will immediately fix everything for the Union, but in that role, someone who commands the ball will be key.
"First and foremost, you look in your own backyard," Stewart said. "And if you can't find it in your backyard, you go somewhere else. That's the way we do business here. When you talk about if it's going to be that position, I don't think it's only just that position. I don't think one person is going to make all the difference in the world. Will it be better? Yes, for sure. But at the same time, when we look at the No. 10 role and what we expect...a lot of touches on the ball is a very important part. Once you have your creative person on the ball as much as possible, I think that's fantastic. When it comes to that position, that's something we search for."
Young Players Will Play an Important Role
Heading into next season, there will be plenty of opportunities for young players to make an impact on the first team. In 2017, Jack Elliott was the best example of a young kid stepping up and becoming a very important part of the team. Stewart and Curtin pointed to players such as Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty as guys who will have an opportunity to make an impact on the first team next season. The team will continue to give opportunities for the young kids to get chances in the league, and it'll be up to them to seize the opportunity.
"When you look at the roster moves and start to see, maybe, a little bit has been cleared now for a Trusty, for a Derrick, just by evaluating our roster," Curtin said. "There are young players who are going to be coming and pushing. We believe in the job that everybody has done at our Academy. They've done a great job. These are young guys. Look up the spine of the team, the experience that we have, with Andre, with Bedoya and Haris, with Sapong. That's a strong, exciting group, and with a couple pieces sprinkled in, we can rise quickly. And it will be the young guys that drive the roster as well."
Watch the Full Press Conference Below: