While traveling across the country to call MLS playoff games as Fox Sports' lead color analyst, Stuart Holden took a few minutes to chat about the Union and what might be ahead for them.
You'll next see Holden on Fox Sports 1 on Thursday night for the second leg of the Seattle Sounders-Portland Timbers Western Conference semifinal series.
The Union want to play the kids, as the saying goes, and they're going to try their best to keep doing it. But we all saw Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie get taught some lessons by New York City FC, and people in Philadelphia are wondering if the philosophy can take the team only so far. What do you think?
These are harsh lessons for kids. These are young players that have bright futures. Everyone clamors to play the kids in American soccer, and these are moments that are going to happen. These are big games under the lights. These are where you learn some of the harshest lessons. These are moments in games that you remember for a long time, but that also make you better.
I respect what the Union are doing. I think it's a plan that they've been cultivating and developing. It started under Earnie Stewart, and then Jim Curtin hasn't been afraid to play some of these young players. And we've seen two young centerbacks that have grown up over the course of the season — but quite frankly, aren't there yet and experienced enough to take this team deep into the playoffs.
I think that they are certainly pillars of this team for the future. They will be a part of that team next year, and they'll be better players because of that.
The recipe for success in MLS these days seems to be to have three Designated Players, a set of players paid with Targeted Allocation Money, and as many academy kids as possible with one or two veterans to help teach them. In the offseason, if you're the sporting director of any team that isn't one of the big spenders, and you have to go to your team's owner and make the case to open up the checkbook, how do you do it?
I think when you look around the league and find teams that have a great balance, Sporting Kansas City is one for me that doesn't get talked about enough. They have some young players, they have some homegrown players that they bring through their own system, and surround them with good MLS veterans, with good overseas veterans.
A guy like Johnny Russell that slides in there and becomes a natural leader. A guy like [Daniel] Salloi is a younger player that learns from a guy like that. A guy like Ilie [Sánchez] in the middle of the field. They've made some savvy pickups without having the big, splashy DP-type of player.
That would be my case for someone like the Philadelphia Union and what they're doing. Surrounding some good, promising American youngsters [with] guys like [Alejandro] Bedoya — who I think, when he first came in, was trying to burden too much of a load [on himself], trying to be someone that he's not. He's a great leader, he's a role player, he's a guy that fits a system, and I think we've seen the best of him this season.
I think a guy like [Jay] Simpson, that's not a signing that I think fits what the Philadelphia Union are trying to do — and one that they got wrong, and money that could be spent on guys that could have more of an impact in this league.
I don't think this Philly team is that far away. We saw them playing some really good stuff in the middle and toward the end of the season. And certainly the foundations are there, if you can add now two or three really good players to go along with that — and it doesn't necessarily have to be a $3 to $4 million DP.
It feels like we've said that every year, though.
It does. And look, that comes down to recruitment. If you have a 25-to-30-goal scorer, a guy like [Atlanta United's] Josef Martínez, he's also that type of goal scorer because of the system and the players that they have around him.
I know Philly fans continue to get frustrated. Philly fans are well within their right now to expect results as part of this project. They're not going to pay their money to sit in the stands and watch a bunch of kids every single year get a lesson in big moments. They want experienced players around them that ultimately can deliver championships.
Do you think David Accam bounces back next year?
Yeah, I didn't see that one coming. I think Accam, on his day, we've seen what he did for the Chicago Fire. He was a player I thought the Union were going to get and was going to fit really nicely into the way they wanted to play.
Players go through these waves in their careers, up and down years, with injuries and not performing on the field. Being out of favor, being out of the team. So it's a big offseason for him. And also, he's on a pretty hefty contract, too. The Union are going to have to decide if he's worth the money, or if they move him on.
Ernst Tanner wants to change this team's playing style and make it more up-tempo and transition-oriented, similar to what he helped build at Hoffenheim. What do you think it takes to make that work in MLS?
It takes a coach that has an understanding of that type of system. You have the players in Philadelphia who are capable of doing it. It takes good athletes, it takes smart players, and it takes finishers. It takes goal-scorers. Players that can execute in the final third.
We saw some great years this season. A guy like Fafa Picault, I thought, had a great year. He can fly. He could play in that [system].
But I think ultimately, again, it's going to come down to, in the middle of the park, having guys that can get up and down. A guy like [Haris] Medunjanin isn't going to run all over the field, and isn't going to close players down and play that type of system.
If you're going to go that way, you have to commit. You have to get the players and the pieces that fit into the system that the coach wants to play. And if that's Jim Curtin, that's a total shift in the philosophy [from] the way he's been playing, but maybe that's the style he's been playing with the roster that he's been given.
You could go back and forth, but ultimately that vision needs to be set by the guy who's recruiting the players — and then also executed by a coach on the field.
Do you think Curtin is the guy who can do it?
I think Jim Curtin is a good coach. I've seen the way he prepares his team. I've heard the way guys have talked about him within the locker room. About him having a plan, about the preparation and the work that he does. But ultimately in the end, you have to match that with results on the field. Come crunch time, that's what really matters.
No one remembers a regular season unless you're a record-setting team — but even that is short-lived. It's about winning titles and winning big games, and Jim Curtin fell short in the [playoff] game against New York City FC. But I do think, with the roster and the team that he's had, he's achieved and has done a lot.