As the Union’s season draws to a close, the team’s elimination from playoff contention will give manager Jim Curtin the opportunity to start judging which players he wants to keep around for next year.
It could also be an opportunity for Curtin to give some of the Union’s young prospects some long-awaited playing time with the senior team.
But Curtin gave the impression on Wednesday that a few of those prospects — most notably midfielders Derrick Jones and Adam Najem — haven’t proven that they’re ready to be on to the big stage right now.
All three players have had plenty of playing time with the Bethlehem Steel, the Union’s minor-league USL affiliate. Curtin said they haven’t taken command of those games to the degree that he would like.
“You have to be able to change those games first, because it’s a big step up [to MLS],” Curtin said. “I know that people want guys to just get thrown out there and get a chance, but they have to earn those opportunities.”
Jones did that early in the season, playing in eight of the Union’s first nine games. Curtin said the 20-year-old hasn’t been able to sustain that form through the year.
“Everybody goes through highs and lows of a season,” Curtin said. “Derrick is an example of a guy who had a great start to the season [and] has hit a little bit of a wall — which is natural for a young player. Now how he responds down the stretch will be important to show where he’s at for his future.”
Najem has been in a particular spotlight because of his potential as a creative playmaker. Ilsinho and Roland Alberg haven’t excelled in the role, leaving many observers wondering what Najem could bring.
“He’s done a good job, he works hard in training, but I still don’t think he’s quite ready to take that next step to first team minutes,” Curtin said. “We want that position to be on the ball a little more than we’ve had it this year, a little more consistent than we’ve had it this year. Maybe Adam down the stretch fights his way into getting a game, but at this moment, based on what we saw at Steel, it’s not quite there.”
Najem and others will not lack for chances to prove their worth in Bethlehem. The team is in the thick of the USL playoff race, which adds some extra competitive pressure to developmental opportunities.
“I still will always argue that the highest level is the most important, and it’s most important that our first team has success as opposed to Bethlehem Steel making a playoff run. That team is really designed to push players through to the first team. So my belief is that first team minutes are more important — but you’re going to learn about the guys that [outsiders] are going to be upset that I’m not playing in the first team, in those big games for Bethlehem.”
Curtin concluded with a long reflection on the role of a coach in a player’s development, and what role the player has in reaching his potential.
“At a certain point you become responsible for your own development” Curtin said. “We want to be, obviously, a developing club, but players also have a responsibility in that. They’re young, they go through highs, they go through lows. I do agree with the point that sometimes you have to throw them out there and let them sink or swim, but at the moment, with the way the rest of our group is, the way the rest of our team is, I don’t think there’s enough support there for them to be set up have success. That’s on me as the coach, and that’s on all of us to get this thing better. … Stronger pieces around you allow young players to have more success, and right now I don’t see a moment to just throw them out there and not have a really strong spine around them.”