Is Jim Curtin the right man for the Union job?

Photo: Earl Gardner

A coaching search is serious business, especially when a team reaches a pivotal moment in its history. All it takes is a look back at the 2012 season to see how one decision can impact a team’s plan for years to come.

The firing of John Hackworth was a decisive move by the Philadelphia Union front office, and has played out well for the team. Solid league and Cup form has landed the team in a position few envisioned possible given their early trajectory.

Jim Curtin deserves credit for bringing this group to their current standing. But should this run mean that the coaching search should stop with him?

A scary question

Let’s start with the team’s form: 7-1-3 in all competitions under Curtin (not counting the loss in the Crystal Palace friendly). Their only defeat was against FC Dallas on the road, a match avenged by Tuesday night’s win in the US Open Cup semifinal. Most of us would take the trade-off between losing a league game to the Hoops while advancing to the USOC Final (which will be at home on Sept. 16 —  even better).

But I want to cut to the heart of this discussion, which I would characterize as fear. Removing the interim tag on a second green Manager in a row is a scary proposition. We’ve all seen how the team has played under Curtin. They haven’t been perfect, but they have improved greatly since Hackworth’s departure.

Yet when the transition was Nowak to Hackworth, a similar bump occurred in form. It wasn’t quite the reversal of fortunes as we’ve witnessed under Curtin, but it included a 4-win month in July 2012. But fate was sealed after a cold, winless August, and Nick Sakiewicz still removed the interim tag and the Hackworth Era was commissioned.

So fans have a right to be leery of this streak, and so should the Front Office. But let’s look at another case study.

Inexperience isn’t a knockout

35. It’s common to bring up Jim Curtin’s age. It’s also his first job as the top man in charge of an MLS team, another strike against.

In DC four years ago, Ben Olsen was appointed as interim head coach at the age of 33.

DC United hasn’t been the picture of consistency under Olsen. In between two mediocre-to-horrible MLS seasons was sandwiched their 2012 campaign. That gem saw a second place regular season finish in the East and a run to the Eastern Conference Finals before they lost to Houston.

Olsen has DC United playing well again this season, sitting in second with games in hand on Sporting Kansas City. And while 2013 was a dismal year for the team, they also picked up the same US Open Cup trophy the Union will play for on Sept. 16.

There are other names that can be thrown out in this Young American Coach vein – -Kreis, Heaps, Petke. Not all as young as Curtin, but they all have had their share of success in MLS.

Does the style of play matter?

Soccer is a confounding mixture of style and results. You mathheads out there can picture one of those dual axis graphs, plotting style on the X and results on the Y. Hackworth was modestly successful in pushing the horizontal success of the Union, but could never make it translate on the vertical scale.

Curtin has adopted a less sophisticated approach with his team, and it’s rendering positive results in the standing.

It’s easy to argue this comes down to the American player, and the comfort in playing the style you have grown up playing. Players who struggled to adapt to Hackworth’s possession tactics have broken out under Curtin.

So does the style matter? It very well might. Curtin has lived and matured as a soccer player (and coach) in the US/MLS environment.

The verdict

It’s tough to stand right up and say, “Hire Curtin.” But it’s tough to look at this league and not be intrigued by the idea.

My top concern at the moment continues to be Curtin’s inability to blend youth into the squad. Having three Homegrown Players and Pedro Ribeiro absent from gameday appearances is troubling, but may speak to his need for results to corral the full role of manager.

Let’s say this: if the Union find a way to win the US Open Cup, and get themselves into the MLS Cup playoff bracket, it could make the Front Office’s mind up for them.


  1. Hard to say without knowing what the other coaching options are, I.e., who else they are looking at. Good article though.

  2. He is until he isn’t…just like Nowak and just like Hackworth.
    This business is cutthroat, results based…so give him the job…when results stop, fire him…just like ya know.
    Seems like he could be a cheap (?) option.

  3. I’d say yes. If you hire a big name Int’l coach, another MLS team will swoop in and hire Curtin. He is 7-1-3, he will be in demand. I’d rather stick with what is working for us. Cup final and playoff run!

  4. No thanks. Next please. Maybe in the future.

  5. Jim Curtain is in the exact same situation as Zac MacMath. He’s been doing a good job, but it’s time for a real pro to take the reins.

    • I was thinking of this exact analogy. But I think plenty of us have reservations about whether spending the money on M’Bolhi is the right move too. So I would say that both parts of that equation are pending solutions at the moment.

    • Ok. But who’s the real pro then?
      And don’t give me Rene Maulentseen.
      (Not saying they aren’t out there, but backup your comment when you say something like that.)

  6. Section 103 says:

    I will say this, I’d be more nervous if the FO installed a foreign manager than if they opted to give Curtain the full-time job. Managers coming into this country have, time and again, failed in Major League Soccer.

    Should the Union win the Open Cup and advance to the MLS Cup playoffs, how could you not give Jim Curtin the job?

  7. Andy Muenz says:

    I’d say that unless Alex Ferguson comes out of retirement or something like that, keep Curtain through the end of the season. See if he makes the playoffs and how he does there. Then evaluate. I mean lets say the Union win on 9/16 and then go on to make a run in the playoffs and make it to the MLS Cup? Then he needs to stay. On the other hand, if they come down to earth and don’t make the playoffs, he should probably go (unless there are a bunch of injuries or something).
    The playoffs would be a good indicator of how he fares as a coach under pressure. After all, that’s where we so Nowak take his first step off the deep end.

    • Very true, it’s tough to judge how good a young first time manager is until he deals with the pressure of either righting the ship or getting a result under pressure. Curtin has passed all of the tests so far, but the bar gets raised as each week passes.

      I give credit for Curtin’s style in trying to dress like the head man and not being a track-suit manager. I guess that he subscribes to the old adage that “you dress for the job that you want, not the job that you currently have.”

      An interim guy wouldn’t wire a tie would he? 😉

  8. David Moyes is available. (No…that was not a realistic suggestion before anyone jumps down my throat!)

    He did a fine job at Everton! (Doesn’t hurt to dream about some of the top managers.)

  9. John O'Donnell says:

    I think the one thing that history has taught us from hiring Hackworth, is this shouldn’t be a question until December 8th at the earliest. The team is on a roll and bringing in a new coach now would make no sense.

    As a head coach, these are the things I like so far about him.
    Made Edu play CB for the good of the team and Maurice didn’t seem to have a problem with it.
    Understood that wins are more important than a system we can’t play right now.
    Dumb luck of Maidana playing in the middle and admitting it, but sticking with it.
    After the 2-1 win against Montreal said unacceptable not to shut that team out.
    These are all little things, but to me they’re the little things that make this team a winning team under Curtin.

    But we still haven’t seen him coach the team in big games, other than last night’s game.
    Can he get the team to finish out the season and make a run in the playoff?
    I get his resume is limited but I rather look at results now, than what a coach may or may not bring to the team. Right now the situation dictates to let Curtin finish out the season and evaluate his performance as head coach. December 10th is when you decide if you can do better.

    • Fully agree with what you state. Let him finish the season and then either remove the interim title and keep him or hire someone else.
      To those who have issues with young players not getting a chance: I have seen him many times how he worked with the youth at YSC and am convinced that he will introduce young players when he think the time is right. He will blend them in slowly and knows how to get the best out of his players, young and old.

      • Agreed. Jim admitted as much on ETR. He basically said it’s easy to say you would play a guy over somebody else until it’s your job on the line…

        I think we’d see a very different team and style if he was given the job from the start.

  10. I think Curtin should stay. I also think they have to watch for teams poaching Albright.

  11. Jim Curtin is the right Assistant coach for the job. Don’t forget the Rene Meulensteen was spotted with Sak during the away match to New England on June 28th.

    If the Union were to bring in Rene, he would need a #2 who was entrenched in the club, who knows the players, who can bridge the gap. Jim Curtin can do all of those things for any manager who were to come in.

    The Union have made great strides but need to have a solid manager with an actual resume. A man like Rene Meulensteen ticks a lot of boxes and would do wonders for the Union and bring in a philosophy with will shape the Union into more than what they currently are.

    Jim Curtin is the right fit as a #2 behind an experienced manager who brings a lot more to the table.

    • Sorry, Meulensteen is not a manager. He’s a great coach and assistant, just not a head man. His track record has shown this.

      • In all fairness, if you are judging Meulensteen for his tenure at Fulham is hardly a fair assessment. He took over to try and save a team from being relegated which is a totally different “pressure cooker” than starting with a team from the onset of the offseason and through preseason with a club. Not sure if you are or are not backing Curtin for the managers job, but if you feel Curtin is a better pick over say Meulensteen….then I would use your same argument against you.

        In either case, I still feel the Union need a manager and Curtin just isn’t it (in my opinion).

      • I’m not judging him on just his time at Fulham (that ship was headed downward long before he was hired). You can even excuse his tenure at Anzhi as that was bound to fail as well. He didn’t do well at Bronby either.

        For all of the success that he was involved with in his two stints at Manchester United, you would have thought that he would have gotten better offers to become a head man than those three. Doesn’t that tell us something about his managerial potential and how he is seen in the soccer world?

        I’m not advocating Curtin either. I think that you play this season out and evaluate things then.

    • Ian I admire your courage to write this….what team doesn’t want a top notch manage. Come folks we need masters of the trade here and greatness will follow.

  12. Which job? Or try this question: if Zac doesn’t save us last night and Saturday was a draw, would you even ask? The great record is too small a sample. The quality of play and lineup choices still too vexing (unless you’re happy picking Carroll or Lahoud) – especially the absent of HCI’s rising stars. If they don’t improve, the results won’t continue and the answer will be obvious.

    • I’m with philpill on this issue. While Curtin’s record to date has been impressive, it doesn’t seem to reflect the quality of play on the field. Saturday night is a great example: the Union got the win over Montreal, but it was all because of one man (Le Toux). Overall, the team did not play well against a weak opponent.

      Let’s see what Curtin and his squad can do the rest of the season before handing him the job on a permanent basis.

  13. Jean Jeannot says:

    I would love to see Jim get the HC position. Andy Reid used to say after every loss that as a coaching staff they need to put the players in a position to succeed. Jim has certainly done so with this group. I think he is still learning and he mentioned as much in a past interview.
    The FO has big plans for Jim and they will keep him around but it might be in a different role (?). You guys can correct me but if I remember correctly I think Sak mentioned they were looking to fill 2 positions (sporting director and coach)? Maybe Jim will be promoted to SD and one of his friends whom he has consistently mentioned who have been interviewing for the HC will be hired to work with him to build this team.

    • Sak said he would have to evaluate the need for a “Sporting Director,” but not that he’s looking for one.
      HE is the SD and too arrogant to step aside. Also, Albright is the Technical Director (GM basically). But he’s really more a face and learning entry level GM-stuff. Sak makes the player moves (see M’bholi). I think Albright does what Sak asks at this point until he’s ready to be on his own.
      Curtin is on a path to Manage/Coach.
      Albright is on a path to FO/Director/GM. If Jim stays, he’ll be an assistant.

  14. Great article. I’m all for letting Curtain have the reigns for the remainder of the season. He seams to know how to put the players in their ” natural ” positions. And it is hard to argue the results! I know my soccer chops are not at the same level as many responders to this site. It’s my opinion. So I’ll take my lumps. But so far he’s been at minimum better than the last guy!

  15. I think he could be the right manager, but you have to have a real appetite for risk to take that chance if you’re the Union FO. I don’t see it happening, though I agree with a few other comments that there really is no hurry to make a final decision. Personally, I still like what I’ve seen of him enough to keep him in consideration. I think he’s straightforward, authentic, and getting the most out of his roster thus far. Who else is available? I’d rather take a shot on a promising young coach than a MLS re-tread who’s been around the block a few times.

  16. There’s a main point that everyone (including the U seem to be missing here):
    Whether you hire Rene Maulensteen (blah), or any foreign manager, or Jim Curtin you would need an MLS experienced GM!
    YHou would have both Curtin and Albright learning on the job. Also, the two of them are good friends. Could be a good thing or bad thing.

    Personally, I think turning this over to Curtin and Albright would be the best move this club ever made and I could see those two building something amazing from the ground up. But if I was Sak, I wouldn’t have the balls to trust them now that I(Sak) have repeatedly destroyed any progress by this organizaton.

    I don’t want a coach w/out MLS experience, least of all, Maulentseen. I’d rather have Jesse Marsch. Though, I feel like he is Jim Curtin in 2-3 years.

  17. Earl: You give waaaaaay too much credit to Hackworth on style and really, not enough to Curtin.
    Hackworth literally gave the team no direction offensively or defensively other than to possess the ball and “push” the game…
    Any coach can do that with players at this level.
    And his backline included Wheeler, Fabinho, plus Carroll. Not exactly “beautiful game” material.

    Curtin’s syle is much more sophisticated than Hack’s. Team defense, movement, organization. A plan in attack…players playing their real positions…

    • correct!

    • That’s a subjective opinion, as far as which “style” is more or less sophisticated. I’d say Curtin’s is less sophisticated because it is a style that has proven again and again to work in MLS. It predicates itself on defending first and choosing your opportunities carefully. Defining roles allows players to not worry about other aspects, which simplifies their task at hand.

      But let’s be frank here: Hackworth may still have the job if a couple of breaks go the team’s way early in this season. The teams are so evenly matched that some luck here or there can change everything. Some would say that’s what’s happening on this good run with Curtin.

      Hackworth’s biggest fault was trying to hold onto Brian Carroll as the keystone too long…

      • Can’t say I disagree with a lot here.

      • The magnitude of Hackworth’s many personnel gaffes in 2014 is so great that the “biggest” is debatable, but I (no fan of Carroll or Fabinho starting) would hold up poor Aaron Wheeler as the worst – because it set back White & Berry, too. Had AW not lost months in the ill conceived CB experiment, he could have been a serviceable backup to Casey by now.

  18. The Black Hand says:


  19. A little late to the party but I am very hesitant about giving Curtin the job. He has done a great job coming in but you have to give Hackworth some credit for the mess he got us out of and the signings he brought in. This winter Id say he nailed all three aquisions. Edu, Maidana, and Nogueira. Not to mention bringing back Le Toux two years ago along with bringing in Casey. He essentially brought in the spine of the team and Curtin has definetly gotten the results out of the team that Hackworth couldnt. With that being said. Where was Curtin two years ago. The answer is coaching my brother with the U 18’s. We all know that being a head coach involves more than just coaching the team but also identifying talent. Something I think Hackworth did quite well, but lets be honest does Curtin have the extensive network that Hackworth had from his time with the national team? I doubt it. Overall Id much rather see the union bring in a coach with more experience. That would allow Curtin to be the 1st assistant with the goal of letting him grow into the roll and eventually let him take full control of the team

  20. I think it maybe a time to set a few things straight (as I understand them). Based in the UK I know a bit about Rene M. He took the Fulham position, strictly to work with Martin Jol, and then move to manager for this coming season. When someone then offers you a Premier League job, do you turn it down?? The ownership of Fulham need to take most of the blame. How can a club that was 13 years in the Premier League amass a squad of 30somethings?? No matter who was in charge, they were down. Prior to that he had been talking to at least one club in Germany, and a national association.
    Anzhi?? Well played Hiddink. He saw what was going on and jumped.
    Brondby? The club is still in a mess. Meulensteen did the right thing by all accounts, the club wouldn’t follow through on promises and he left.
    In a league where developing players is of paramount importance (out of college and the Academy) and with no threat of relegation. He may well be the right man. He has a reputation as a top coach. And in the MLS he can do that, the front office deals with the draft and such.
    Just my thoughts, but he could well take our playing squad to a different level

  21. I tend to agree with the comments about Rene Meulensteen made by SteveG. In the main I think that the future of our club has to be in producing our own players. Look who he has helped develop, I could list them, but Ronaldo and Rooney should be enough.
    Think of the best talent in the US, we may attract more to our Academy with the prospect of working with him.
    Let Curtin serve an apprenticeship with him, learn how to be a Top coach, and then move up

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