The Union have made the playoffs in two of their eight seasons in a league where more than half of the teams earn an invitation. If they were operating as an average organization we’d expect them to have earned about four trips to the postseason. So barring the belief that this team is unlucky it’s safe to say that something is wrong in Chester, and that the organization is a flawed below average collection of resources and processes.
This season was particularly painful. The last three seasons before it have either been a playoff season or involved an exciting U.S. Open Cup run. This year we got none of fun that makes a year memorable. The team started poorly and barely sniffed the notion of making the playoffs. As fans, how do we wrap our head around what’s gone wrong?
To my mind there are five layers of the organization that influence the outcomes on the pitch. They are:
- Ownership (Jay Sugarman and Co.)
- Management (Sporting Director Earnie Stewart)
- Coaching (Jim Curtin and his staff)
- Lady luck
What makes this sort of analysis difficult is the gray areas in the links between these influences. For example we know that Earnie Stewart decides whether or not Jim Curtin is the coach, so how much do we blame Jim Curtin for something versus the decision that he is the coach? I’ll try to break down each of these areas in isolation.
Let’s explore each to determine how much of the Union woes should land at their toes. At the end of the post I offer my little opinion on how I allocate the blame.
- Ownership (Keystone Sports and Entertainment LLC)
We’ve heard it all before. The Union can’t and won’t spend with the big boys. Money is mattering more and more in MLS. The surge of expansion team Atlanta United reminded us of this trend as they bought their way to a playoff spot. The top spenders in the east, Toronto and NYCFC, are also the top two teams in the east. But the Union don’t spend significantly less than most of the teams in the league and while money can buy you a playoff spot, the rest of the teams do get to essentially flip a coin to get in. The Union ranked 12th in the league in guaranteed compensation to players, so it could be worse. Even with average spend the Union should still be getting into the postseason more often than they have.
By all accounts the ownership have invested in the Academy system at a solid level. The fruits of which are not evident yet but you can’t blame them for not trying. On the flip side investments in analytics and scouting clearly are dry. These are no doubt hamstringing Earnie Stewart to some degree but how much exactly is unknown. How much Stewart’s organization is limited by the budget is one of those gray linkages I was talking about, and in this case there is no good answer.
The ownership also picks the management and sets the budget for personnel. The extent to which Curtin is the coach because of his relatively low salary is conjecture at best. My sense is that is Earnie’s decision to make and not one that is limited by a few hundred thousand dollars.
While it would be nice to have an owner that spends wildly and buys a playoff spot every year like other teams have, the Union have still under-performed their spend. It’s taken time for the ownership group to get the Union organization up to competitive levels but over time they are making strides, and I don’t see the ownership group as the biggest problem.
2. Earnie Stewart
Earnie is first and foremost responsible for the development of the roster. While Jim Curtin no doubt has an influence, Earnie is ultimately responsible for players coming in and players going out. You don’t have to be a moneyball expert to realize that there is a lot of waste on this Union roster. The likes of Roland Alberg, Ilshino, and Jay Simpson cost nearly $1.5 million and eat up more than a third of the salary cap. In a salary cap constrained league you can’t afford to spend that much for two bench players and inconsistent starter in Ilshino. You are destined to fail with those signings alone.
On the solid but not spectacular front Stewart acquired Alejandro Bedoya, Harris Medunjanin and Fafa Picault. Picault’s compensation of $128,666 is a pretty good deal, but not a game changer.
While there have been hits and misses on the player front, one of the biggest issues is the lack of player fit with Jim Curtin’s supposed system. For a while last season and early this season we saw Curtin attempting to install a high pressure attacking system. But when your 10 is either Roland Alberg or Ilshino that’s not going to happen, and Medunjanin is not known for his speed or defense. Curtin was forced to abandon that style because he didn’t have the players. That’s on Stewart.
The two best financial deals on this team, Andre Blake and CJ Sapong, do not have Stewarts stamp on them as they arrived before he did. Jack Elliott on the other hand appears to be the steal of the draft, but Lady Luck might be a positive factor there as well when you’re talking about a 4th round pick.
Then there is the odd decision to sign Jay Simpson for a cool half million. Every scouting report said that Simpson played best when paired with another striker, but Jim Curtin is the most stubborn coach in the world (I am not exaggerating, name a more stubborn coach) when it comes to formations and has always played the 4-2-3-1. Simpson was never going to be paired with another striker and so was never given a chance to showcase his best play.
Stewart and Curtin clearly need to talk more.
The biggest knock on Curtin is his tactical inflexibility, which results in players on the pitch that aren’t in their best position to succeed. The result in my opinion are teams that lacks any clear identity, a critical characteristic of a winning team. To credit Curtin he recognized that his defense was leaking goals and he tightened up the lines and they’ve been a pretty compact and disciplined bunch for the latter part of the season. The Union defense has given up 1.34 goals per game this season, down over 15% from last season. The problem is that going forward there isn’t a clear counterattacking strategy to take advantage of their compactness. So while I give Curtin credit for what’s he’s done with the thin roster, there are still very clear gaps from a tactical point of view.
The other knock on Curtin is the lack of development of his younger players. I think we’ll all agree this is a lost season for last season’s draft class. Injuries plagued Josh Yaro and Fabian Herbers, but their time on the pitch was not significantly improved from last season. Keegan Rosenberry didn’t start for thirteen consecutive games this year after being runner up last year for Rookie of the Year. Clearly Rosenberry hasn’t developed. Derrick Jones had a bright start this year but has barely appeared in the second half of the season. Richie Marquez developed some but also lost playing time as the year wore on. It’s really hard to find players who are developing aside from Blake and Sapong and their development might be more a function of their age than any coaching that’s been happening. Given the lack of player development team wide I can’t give them credit for the few good stories.
The issue of development is one that could plague the team for years to come. In this league teams have to get production out of lower salary players. It’s imperative. If the Union can’t develop those lower salary players it will be difficult for them to consistently reach the playoffs.
4. The players
In my opinion, if the players are to blame it’s because they are under-performing their own expectations or past seasons. Perhaps the lack of development for Rosenberry, Marquez and Jones should be placed at the feet of the players first and foremost. Certainly they share any blame.
Chris Pontius has under-performed from a goal scoring perspective but other than that I’m hard pressed to think of players who had they dramatically improved their play would have made a big difference on this season.
One thought I can’t shake: If you’re a player looking up at these first three layers of inconsistency and lack of coordination, would you want to give it all you have to the organization?
It’s hard to know if players under-perform due to their own struggles, tactical issues, nagging injuries or coaching direction. In my opinion the players have played hard and there aren’t significantly under-performing examples on the roster right now.
5. Lady Luck
One key issue I haven’t touched on is Maurice Edu. Injuries are part of the game and every team faces them, but few teams lose their second highest paid player for two whole seasons. There is no doubt that Edu’s absence has caused an issue. Imagine if the Union were able to add another Designated Player to this roster. They might legitimately have a shot at the playoffs. Most teams don’t lose their Designated Player for a whole season. Let alone two. It’s bad luck and an unfortunate part of the Union’s woes.
On the good luck side, how about a nod to Jack Elliott? It’s safe to say the Union aren’t geniuses of the draft so Jack’s fourth round jump to arguable Rookie of the Year has some luck involved. Good for the Union though.
As far as on the field luck goes the Union have performed at expectations. A statistical measure called expected goals looks at how many goals a team should have scored if they were an average team. Any difference in real goals and expected goals can be attributed to luck or skills above or below the norm. The Union have outperformed their expected goals so far by 2.6, which indicates that bad luck isn’t really even an option for this squad.
Now that we’ve walked through the issues in all five areas here’s how I personally allocate the blame. I think you’ll see that this is far from scientific but at least I’m drawing something in the sand for you to argue with.
Buy it? As I look at this allocation what concerns me is there isn’t one simple change the Union can make to turn it around. It’s happening at all levels and my biggest allocation has gone to the star of the organization, Earnie Stewart. That’s going to be tough to change, but hopefully Earnie has a few tricks up his sleeve. Now let’s turn our attention to the Union’s all important off-season and see if any of this can’t get fixed and the team can claw their way back to average.