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Stewart's revolution paying early dividends in Philadelphia

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

This is more than a hot start. As Scott French discovered, a change in culture is behind the Union's quick turnaround.

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Almost the first thing Earnie Stewart did last fall upon taking charge of the Philadelphia Union as its first sporting director was sit down with head coach Jim Curtin and quiz him on what the club wanted to be. What did the Union need to win games? How should they try to play? What ought to define the team and the club? Stewart and Curtin, it turned out, had similar thoughts.

Their conversation provided a blueprint for what we've seen from the surprising Union in the first two months of this Major League Soccer season and, far more important, for what the club plans to be going forward.

It's a new dawn for Philadelphia, which through its first six years has been something of an MLS wallflower - always there without making much of an impression. The team has posted just one winning record, back in 2011, when it made its only postseason appearance. Last year, while reaching its second straight U.S. Open Cup final, the Union slumped to ninth in the Eastern Conference at 10-17-7, a campaign that bettered, by a point, only its worst, 2012's.

We identified the way we wanted to play, the way we could win games, the way our fans could identify with what we wanted to do, and that we can fill seats in the stadium

- Earnie Stewart

The Union, for the first time really, has a vision of how it thinks the game should be played, and it’s taken the first steps in implementing that vision. The team’s overhauled its roster and brought in new attacking talent, built solid depth at every position, sharply defined each player's role and responsibilities and bred chemistry that everyone, grizzled vets included, calls “special.”

It's added up to a 4-3-0 start - pretty good, considering four of the first six matches were on the road. And it all started with a conversation soon after Stewart settled into his office.

“How do you think we can win games, and how can we play, and what is the style that we want to play - I pretty much asked Jim these questions,” Stewart, a former U.S. national team star, told FourFourTwo. “And from there we identified the way we wanted to play, the way we could win games, the way our fans could identify with what we wanted to do, and that we can fill seats in the stadium.”

Both desired to play an aggressive, possession-oriented attacking game, one that relied on several players to create and score, with a fleet, organized team that could take charge in midfield, stay solid at the back and, ultimately, outclass the opposition. The real aim: trophies. A lot of them.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Curtin and Stewart quickly found the same page. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

Overhauling the squad

It's certainly not novel, but getting there isn't simple. Taking the initial strides would require drastic changes.

Stewart and Curtin found a dozen players from various sources -- eight have already made significant contributions -- to add to a core led by captain Brian Carroll, all-time goals/appearances leader Sebastien Le Toux, U.S. World Cup veteran Maurice Edu and Swiss playmaker Tranquillo Barnetta. The Union brass found Brazilian winger Ilsinho at Ukrainian power Shakhtar Donetsk, grabbed Dutch midfielder Roland Alberg from ADO Den Haag, traded for D.C. United veteran Chris Pontius and found center back Ken Tribbett in the USL. They used the Nos. 2 and 3 picks in January's SuperDraft to nab Georgetown defenders Joshua Yaro and Keegan Rosenberry and then added German forward Fabian Herbers from Creighton with the sixth selection. And they took on defender Anderson Conceicão on loan from Tombense, a Brazilian club from Minas Gerais.

The change in culture won over the players, who quickly bought into the new system and went through a tough but productive preseason, one that left them believing the team could be a force, if it got things right. Getting things right was the priority.

“Earnie's really gone to bat for the players and tried to make everything around the club first-class,” said Carroll, a brainy midfielder who has been in Philly since 2011. “He's demanding a lot out of the coaching staff, which in turn is demanding a lot out of us.”

Like double sessions.

“One idea where we're unlike other teams is that we practice a little bit harder than others do,” Stewart said. “We're out twice a day almost every day, and there's a plan for every player in place.”

It's made for tight battles all over the field -- the Union has never had such competition for playing time -- and Curtin's deliberations on how to fill his 4-2-3-1 alignment haven't been simple. He's got three solid holding midfielders in Carroll, Warren Creavalle and Vincent Nogueira. The three in front of them could be any mix of Barnetta, Le Toux, Ilsinho, Alberg, Pontius and Leo Fernandes. The youngsters at the back have been so good that Raymon Gaddis, who started 27 games last year, has played 45 minutes in the first seven games.

“We have some very good players, and it's made my decisions for selecting the 18, for selecting the XI, each week difficult …,” Curtin said. “[I]n the past maybe it was pretty clear to everybody who I was going to select each week ...

“We needed some good results early to justify it, because there was a lot of change, and when maybe you're only getting ties or a couple losses in a row, it's more difficult to have guys buy in. But they've bought in and it's been a good start for us, something we're looking to continue to build on.”

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