Shortly after the Philadelphia Union’s first playoff appearance in 2011, two of the top players on that team stepped onto a podium and talked about stability.
Sure, it was upsetting for Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Califf that the Union had just been swept out of the playoffs by the Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. But the stalwarts of the then-two-year-old franchise pledged continued improvements in 2012 if the same core returned and no sweeping changes were made to the roster.
What happened next remains the stuff of nightmares for Union fans. Le Toux, Califf and others were shuttled off with the Union getting little to nothing in return. The 2012 season started disastrously, controversial manager Peter Nowak was fired after orchestrating the puzzling moves (and doing far worse), and you could argue the franchise took years to recover.
Which brings us to the 2016 season.
Back in the playoffs for the first time since 2011, the Union once again had a short postseason stay, getting bounced out of the knockout round by star-studded Toronto FC on Wednesday night.
But just like it felt at the end of the 2011 season — before Nowak began his systematic dismantling — the brief trip to the playoffs feels more like a step in the right direction than anything else.
The season has ended, but in many ways this feels like only the beginning.
Forget for a second that the Union finished the season on an eight-game winless streak and consider that three of their top players throughout the year were 2016 first-round draft picks Keegan Rosenberry, Fabian Herbers and Joshua Yaro — a rookie trio the coaches hope will remain in Philly for up to a decade.
Forget that the team had a worse record than any MLS team to make the playoffs and consider that they got to the postseason without arguably their two most influential players — captain Maurice Edu (who missed all of 2016 with injuries) and Vincent Nogueira (who returned to his native France in the middle of the season because of a personal health issue).
Forget that they were outclassed by a Toronto team built on the backs of superstars Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and consider that, for one of the first times, owner Jay Sugarman opened the wallet this summer to bring in Alejandro Bedoya, a U.S. national team player who scored the second goal in Union playoff history Wednesday. Bedoya will be a focal point of the team for the next three years.
There were several other positive takeaways from 2016, including the spectacular season of highlight machine Andre Blake in goal, the career revival of Chris Pontius on the wing, and the reliability of Richie Marquez at center back.
And, to be sure, there were plenty of negatives too, including the late slump of striker C.J. Sapong which coincided with the team’s late-season slump, the inability to turn the attacking bench trio of Ilsinho, Roland Alberg and Charlie Davies into a true weapon, and the hard-to-watch struggles of Ken Tribbett, who once again showed Wednesday that he can’t match up with the league’s best strikers.
The key now is to fix the areas that need fixing — a big striker should be a necessity, for starters — while continuing to build upon the foundation that got the Union into the playoffs. And yes, that should mean keeping Jim Curtin as head coach.
Like anyone, Curtin has his faults. Deciding not to tinker with the lineup and bench slumping players like Sapong may have hurt the Union down the stretch. And his comments now about how no one thought the Union would be in the playoffs are both not true (CSN’s two Union writers both picked them to sneak in!) and unfairly diminish expectations for a team he himself says should be considered in the top 10 of MLS.
But recalibrating expectations after a season is nothing new. Former Union manager John Hackworth did the same after the Union barely missed the playoffs in 2013, essentially saying he got the most out of his team and that it was a rebuilding season (which came to a surprise to some players at the time). Curtin and Hackworth also, perhaps, share a loyalty to the players they like even in times of struggle, which can be problematic but is a far better trait than Nowak’s old habit of tossing club stalwarts to the scrap heap.
Why bring up the Union’s past coaches when neither have been around for years? Because it’s important for this franchise to learn from its mistakes at what is now a critical junction in franchise history.
The Union have already done that well by building a beautiful new training facility and hiring a smart sporting director in Earnie Stewart, who helped put the team on a better path in his first year. But it will be much harder to continue the building process by undergoing a roster overhaul or switching head coaches in the offseason.
Sometimes a coaching change is necessary. But Curtin has a lot of good qualities that embody what this franchise is striving to be and has been a big part of turning the team around from the dark days. And as Union fans know well, a new coach also can mean going back to square one, which is not something this team can afford right now.
The only other time they made the playoffs, the Union were dismantled. This time, they need to do the opposite.