End-of-sea­son house clean­ing with a twist

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - By Matthew DeGe­orge mde­ge­orge@21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com @sports­doc­tormd on Twit­ter

CH­ESTER >> Wed­nes­day’s end-of­sea­son house­keep­ing for the Philadel­phia Union came with a twist.

Op­tions were ex­er­cised and de­clined. Pre­lim­i­nary re­sults of the au­topsy of the 2016 sea­son, which ex­pired a week ago in Toronto, were pub­li­cized. All the rou­tine stuff.

What was un­usual was the hour-long or­ga­nized ses­sion of weightlift­ing and on-field ex­er­cises, help­ing play­ers tran­si­tion into the off­sea­son and ex­tend­ing the in­vi­ta­tion to use the new Power Train­ing Com­plex through the win­ter to pre­pare.

“It’s part of the cul­ture change and how we want to raise the level,” club cap­tain Brian Car­roll said. “I think it will be ben­e­fi­cial for all of the guys that are here do­ing stuff and this be­ing here for us for the en­tire off­sea­son for us to do stuff on our own with the strength group will be valu­able for us.”

Those shifts il­lus­trate a larger change in the tenor of the Union’s vale­dic­tory me­dia ad­dress. While the tim­ing is more pre­ma­ture than hoped, the con­ver­sa­tion with coach Jim Curtin and sport­ing di­rec­tor Earnie Ste­wart was un­ques­tion­ably pep­pered with more pos­i­tives than pre­vi­ous in­car­na­tions. But it was tinged with the dis­ap­point­ment of an eight-game win­less run to end the sea­son, the cause of which re­mains un­der in­spec­tion.

Ste­wart of­fered a va­ri­ety of symp­toms: Un­timely in­juries, a back-loaded sched­ule, the bulk of the ros­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing their first games of mean­ing­ful late-sea­son soccer. But he was also en­cour­aged by the progress of play­ers and a young coach­ing staff.

“We had a young group,” Ste­wart said. “We spoke about this weeks be­fore the end of the sea­son where you never know how peo­ple are go­ing to re­act. It’s the first time a lot of play­ers ac­tu­ally came into a play­off stretch and play­off run to get there, and the stress level hits and you never know how peo­ple re­act to that. The best part of it is that ev­ery­body’s been through it now. We can only gain from that ex­pe­ri­ence as a young group with the foun­da­tion that we have to be bet­ter in the fu­ture.”

In a half-hour con­ver­sa­tion with the me­dia, Ste­wart of­fered his ap­praisals on a va­ri­ety of top­ics, from a de­ci­sive vote of con­fi­dence in Curtin’s man­age­rial abil­ity to the po­ten­tial of the club’s young de­fen­sive corps to the oftcited “foun­da­tion” that pow­ered the play­off run. He was par­tic­u­larly im­pressed with Curtin’s tac­ti­cal stead­fast­ness even as the team slumped. He also rec­og­nized the per­cep­tion of the sea­son as par­tially a mat­ter of per­spec­tive.

“I’d say ex­pec­ta­tions changed dur­ing the sea­son, and if you can go back in time dur­ing the sea­son, it’s weird how the brain works,” Ste­wart said. “We could’ve had the ex­act same sea­son and not done well in the be­gin­ning of the sea­son and fin­ished very strong and ev­ery­body would’ve been very pos­i­tive about it. But it works the other way around.”

With all the pos­i­tives, the off­sea­son pri­or­i­ties are less ex­pan­sive than re­cent years.

“Go­ing into this off­sea­son and our tar­gets and the play­ers we’d like to go af­ter to strengthen the squad is clear, be­cause a lot of the foun­da­tion has been laid,” Curtin said. “We have a very good core of young play­ers to build on, and we’ll be ag­gres­sive in the off­sea­son and we’re ex­cited to keep work­ing.”

The first batch of moves came down Wed­nes­day, in a rarely de­ci­sive sweep of an­nounce­ments. The Union de­clined op­tions on five play­ers — loa­nees An­der­son and Matt Jones, rook­ies Cole Mis­simo and Tay­lor Wash­ing­ton, and Wal­ter Restrepo.

Ste­wart also an­nounced that Kevin Kratz would be re­turn­ing to ex­pan­sion club At­lanta United, from which he was ap­par­ently on loan in a de­tail never an­nounced pub­licly. An At­lanta spokesman later clar­i­fied that the Union had agreed to trade the Ger­man mid­fielder in a deal to be rat­i­fied when the win­dow for player move­ment re­opens Dec. 11.

Leo Fer­nan­des and Char­lie Davies are out of con­tract, and the Union are still mulling de­ci­sions on that pair. All other play­ers, in­clud­ing Fabinho via a vest­ing op­tion in his deal, are un­der some form of agree­ment for next year.

That’s enough of a plat­form for the Union to look for­ward with rare quan­ti­ties of hope.

“Right now, you have to for­get ev­ery­thing about this year,” Fabinho said. “I think we have to work for next year. I think the staff will look for other play­ers and what we have to do for next year. And next year has to be bet­ter than this year.”

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