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Going local: What the Jim Curtin hire means

Photo: Courtesy of YSC Sports

“Being from this area, you always have to expect there’s going to be something that’s going to shut down all your hopes or make you question why you have them.” — Jim Curtin, 2006

Reason No. 1 to like the Jim Curtin hire: Philadelphia Union’s newest assistant coach knows Philadelphia like only a local can.

Curtin said that to me six years ago at Toyota Park, when he was still a player for the Chicago Fire. The context: The Oreland native was touting Philadelphia as the next MLS expansion market. Like most Philly fans, he maintained hope, despite a lifetime of having your sports hopes crushed. He said he hoped to play for a team in Philadelphia one day.

Neither of us knew it back in 2006, but Curtin’s hopes were starting to get shut down. After having established himself as a top center back in MLS, injuries struck him that year and never let up. Curtin should have been living the dream as a top player in his prime, with his younger brother also on the roster. Instead, he never regained his peak form and played his last game in 2009, just before the Union joined the league. He just barely missed out on the chance to play for his hometown team.

Life has a funny way of working out though. Curtin made it back home to the team he always hoped would exist, and today, he could have a more influential role in building the Philadelphia club than he could have as a player.

That’s because he’s local. He knows this place. He knows its youth development system not just from having worked the last couple of years with the Union’s youth academy, but also as someone who grew up in the area, played at a local college (Villanova), and experienced and understands the local soccer culture and sports fans as only a native can.

If you’re serious about building a sustainable franchise, that’s what you need.

The Union have populated their coaching staff with with local ties. Brendan Burke emerged as an assistant coach prospect after, as Reading United’s manager, he helped transform the PDL club into one of the nation’s best. Rob Vartughian is a former Penn assistant coach who grew up barely an hour north of Philadelphia, in North Brunswick, N.J.

If there’s a weakness on John Hackworth’s coaching staff, it’s that they’re young and inexperienced. Only Hackworth has hit age 40. Then again, this can bode well for a team full of young players, provided the innate coaching acumen is there, because they may relate better to younger players.

Going local has been and will continue to be a gradual process for the Union. You can’t magically snap your fingers and produce a squad populated with professional quality players from the Delaware Valley, particularly under the roster rules employed by MLS. No Philadelphia-area native has featured yet as a regular starter for the Union. Veteran Chris Albright signed last year and was a spot contributor, but he is winding down a career that could end with him on the coaching staff alongside Curtin, his former youth teammate. Homegrown players Jimmy McLaughlin, Cristhian Hernandez and Zach Pfeffer show promise (and Pfeffer’s loan to Hoffenheim has some major implications), and while they’re not ready for prime time, they’re great signs for the future.

If the rumored Jeff Parke acquisition goes through, that will be a big moment for the Union, because he’d likely become the first local to become a regular Union starter. (It would also likely mean someone named Soumare or Valdes won’t make it to preseason camp, but that’s another story altogether.) But that’s just one player.

By crafting the framework of your club around a coaching staff with strong local ties, the Union have taken a key step toward building a sustainable, local institution.

Now, about that tax bill …


  1. Paul Rupe SEC 119 says:

    Letoux is back. Great job Nick!!!!!!

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