Last Thursday evening I had the opportunity to tour the Union’s new training facility, the Power Training Complex, and attend the town hall. I am not, myself, a season ticket holder, but my cousin is. He was kind enough to invite me along with him.
It was an amazing experience. I am grateful to root for a team that puts that kind of effort into communicating with their fans. I’ve been a sports fan all my life, and I’ve never had any experience come close to this. I know MLS doesn’t quite have the national prestige of the NFL, NBA, or MLB, but it’s not exactly small potatoes either. Earnie Stewart and company are busy people, tasked with running a large organization with millions of dollars being invested in it every year. For them to take the time to sit down and answer questions from season ticket holders in person is a pretty incredible thing, whether you agree with their decisions or not.
If you’re interested in reading a detailed breakdown of the questions and answers of the Q&A portion of the town hall I recommend checking out Kevin Kinkead’s article. He had an audio recording of the meeting and transcribed a bunch of the answers verbatim. I’m not really going to try to summarize every question and answer for you here. Instead I will give you some perspective into what the overall experience was like, and provide some insight into the answers that you might not get from reading the quotes.
The Power Training Complex is Even Better Than You Think
The first part of the night was a self-guided tour of the Power Training Complex. I’m sure you’ve seen pictures aplenty of this facility, as the Union are more than eager to show it off on social media. If you haven’t seen it in person you probably don’t have the full picture of how awesome it is in there.
The first thing that strikes you is what a great job they did on keeping the aesthetic of the old building. The exposed brick is present everywhere and it gives the whole place a very industrial feel. Very on-brand. But that industrial feel doesn’t do anything to take away from the fact that this facility is fancy. The whole thing is incredibly professional and doesn’t seem like the training facility for a team in a second tier league. That building would stand up to anything you’ll find in any of the four major leagues in the U.S.
I also took a bunch of pictures. click on the following link, as I posted them in a gallery-style article.
Jim Curtin Is a Better Presenter Than I Thought He’d Be
Before the question and answer section of the town hall started each person present took some time to speak. First Tim McDermot, followed by Earnie Stewart, Jim Curtin, and (briefly) Alejandro Bedoya.
Jim actually had a PowerPoint presentation that he presented on the vision that he and Earnie have for the team. Curtin spoke about many things you’ve probably heard and read about before, including their decision to imbue the 4-2-3-1 style into every facet of the organization, from the academy to the first team. He also spoke about their expectations for the players in terms of athletic performance and how that affects their decision making.
All in all Jim is a good public speaker. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, being that he is a leader and a head coach, but still. Having seen him in press conferences he’s not exactly the most commanding presence on camera. He often comes off as very soft spoken and you wonder how he’s able to corral the attention of 30 adult men. He did a much better job at the town hall, which could just be the result of him being familiar with the material. But he seemed more comfortable in front of fans than he is in front of the media. He commanded the attention of the room and made his points in a clear and concise manner. I’ve seen my fair share of public speakers and he’s far from the worst I’ve encountered. If anything, he’s one of the better ones.
This might seem like a silly point to make, but for me this made me feel more confident in Jim’s abilities as a “leader of men,” to use Earnie Stewart’s words. Before this town hall I couldn’t help but wonder where statements like that come from. Jim always seemed like an incredibly nice guy, but I always wondered about his ability to motivate his players when they needed it. He just seemed too quiet. Seeing him speak in front of a room of over 100 understandably disgruntled Union fans and command their attention and respect definitely made me think twice about my original assessment. I can believe what Earnie Stewart said about him – that he is a good leader of men. That being said, being a good leader isn’t necessarily the same thing as being a good coach.
Earnie Stewart’s Passion is Infectious
If you’ve read any of the quotes that came out of the town hall you know that a lot of them came from Earnie Stewart. Of the four of them that took questions, Stewart spent the most time talking, by far. At one point, he got so wrapped up in his rant about the team that he completely forgot the original question he had been asked.
I know there are mixed feelings out there about some of his quotes, but I gotta say… it was very difficult not to be swept up by Earnie’s obvious passion for this team.
He cares. He cares a lot. This guy isn’t half-assing his job. He cares just as much about the bad results as the fans do. When you read some of his answers it’s easy to assume that it was said disingenuously. I can assure you it was not. There was one moment where Earnie took the time to share a very personal and touching story (I won’t write the details, it really was personal and it wouldn’t be right to share it), and it cemented in my mind the certainty that Earnie Stewart cares deeply about this team.
I went into this town hall feeling just as upset about the direction the team was going in as anyone else. I was ready to be skeptical, and to share sideways glances with my cousin all night about the answers they were giving. But I have to admit that I was caught completely off guard. The candor and enthusiasm with which Earnie spoke was extremely refreshing. I won’t go so far as to say that I’m drinking the Kool-Aid, but I definitely smelled it a little and found the aroma somewhat appealing.
I still have my doubts. I’m still not ready to let them off the hook. But… I’m willing to be more patient than I previously would have been.
The Team Has No Scouting Network
One of the biggest takeaways was the question and answer about the team’s scouting network. You can read the text of the answer but in the moment, based on Earnie’s tone and body language, the impression that I got was basically, “There is no scouting network.” Or if there is one, it is entirely insufficient.
I think this explains a lot about the team’s current roster. It probably explains why some of the signings they have made haven’t been 100% ideal. It probably explains why they haven’t signed a 3rd DP yet, as they’ll want to thoroughly scout that acquisition and find the right player. Without the resources in place to find “moneyball” signings, Stewart is essentially hamstrung when it comes to building a roster that fits the vision he has for the club.
He did speak at length about how Alejandro Bedoya is the ideal player for this team and how he’s the kind of player they didn’t really need to scout because they were so familiar with him from U.S. Soccer. Until Stewart has the time and money to build a proper scouting network, I’d expect any big signings the team makes to be U.S. Internationals. (Aaron Johannsson anyone?)
I’m not saying this to make excuses for Stewart, but it is at least an explanation. The team should have a scouting network, and the fact that they don’t is bad. But building that kind of thing takes time, so I’m willing to be more patient.
The Union is Spending More Than Any Other Team in MLS on Their Academy
This was said almost as a throwaway line in answer to one of the questions. If true, I think it is pretty significant. I knew that the Union were making huge investments in their academy system, but I had no idea that it was the most out of any team in MLS. That’s a pretty big deal. We’re starting to see the Academy bear fruit in the first team with players like Rosenberry, Jones, and Trusty. It makes you excited for the possibility of a future where a huge portion of the roster is comprised of academy players.
Stewart told a story about how proud he was watching his old team AZ Alkmaar playing and how they finished a game with 8 players from the academy that he helped build, on the field.
If that’s the kind of team the Union want to build, then I am on board.