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Assessing the Curtin hire

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Jim Curtin’s hire as Philadelphia Union manager comes as no surprise.

He is affordable, local and available.

He’s also a pretty good coach.

No, it’s not the most ambitious hire. It’s conservative and fairly predictable given the Union’s financial state.

But it’s perfectly defensible, provided the Union ownership group does not set him up to fail.

There is a lot to like about Curtin. He understands Philadelphia as a sports market. He is direct, pragmatic, and utterly lacking in BS. He played in MLS for nine years and did it at a high level, making the all-star team and winning two U.S. Open Cups, so he understands what’s required for success in this league. Curtin made significant coaching adjustments that panned out well, such as the innovative move of Andrew Wenger to target winger and the repositioning of Sebastien Le Toux as the right forward that he truly is. And of course, he led the Union to their first final and nearly reached the playoffs.

Critics may say the Union are being unambitious by hiring another interim manager from within, particularly after the team’s late season collapse.

But Curtin is spot on correct by saying that common front office decisions don’t mean Curtin and his predecessor, John Hackworth, are the same.

“I think it’s disrespectful to John  Hackworth, and I think it’s disrespectful to me,” Curtin said Friday. “We’re two different people, we came up two different ways, our relationships are different. If you want to compare me to somebody, you can compare me to other coaches in the league, young coaches that have been through some things. There’s good ones, and there’s situations where it hasn’t worked out. So, again, I’ll sit up here and I’ll take criticism, but that one for me is one that needs to stop.”

Setting Curtin up to succeed, not fail

Now, the Union must avoid setting Curtin up for failure.

“He will lead our first team in all aspects,” Union chief executive Nick Sakiewicz said, “and, along with his staff, he will be fully responsible for all player identification, recruiting, signings, transfers, and trades.”

That is an awful lot of responsibility to place on a 35-year-old man who has never held a job with that much responsibility. It’s more than was required of any of the recent crop of former MLS players who succeeded as managers.

All those success stories have something in common: A good supporting cast that includes a dedicated general manager.

Jason Kreis had general manager Garth Lagerwey in Salt Lake. Jay Heaps has Mike Burns in New England. Ben Olsen has Dave Kasper in D.C. While it’s debatable how good a GM Andy Roxburgh is for New York, he at least takes the responsibilities off Mike Petke, who also has one of the league’s most highly regarded assistant coaches in former Chivas head man Robin Fraser.

Who does Curtin have? Good buddy Chris Albright, who is one year removed from his playing career, as technical director, whatever that title means for the Union. And there’s assistant coach Mike Sorber, who probably can’t be too pleased that he got passed over for the interim job in the first place.

Curtin and the Union need more than that. They need a general manager with experience in the international transfer market and preferably familiar with the arcane roster rules of MLS.

Sakiewicz danced around a direct question Friday on whether he’d hire a general manager by saying, “Well, I said we’re constantly evaluating our structure, and today is about adding a very important piece, which is our first team manager. We continue to look at making heavy investments in this club.”

For once, that’s a fair dodge of a fair question, because it reveals an open-mindedness to the idea without committing to a hire that the Union may not be able to pull off financially. It sounds like the Union are still gauging whether they can get someone qualified and affordable.

Rene Meulensteen’s name continues to be bandied about, and while it’s fair to note that foreign managers often fail in MLS because of their lack of familiarity with MLS roster rules and the American player development model, it’s equally fair to presume that a fairly intelligent person of any nationality could adequately learn all that if it was their primary job. In other words, Meulensteen might fare far better as a GM in MLS if he didn’t have to also worry about running the team in the locker room and on the field.

An unambitious hire?

For those who criticize Curtin’s hire as unambitious — and I’m not one of them, though I obviously offered a more ambitious (and riskier) alternative — there is simply this response: Wait and see.

The Curtin of hire is low risk, high reward. If the job is too big for him, it may be clear by mid-season next year. Chances are that Curtin doesn’t have a long contract the Union can’t easily extricate themselves from, if they learned anything from the Peter Nowak fiasco.

If Curtin fares well, however, the Union will have the ideal man for the job: A young, affordable former player who is a reflection of their fan base and who could be expected to stay in the job for quite some time.

They’ll also have someone with the stones to man up, take the heat, and give clear-eyed and fair assessments of his club and, more importantly, himself.

“If every game ended in the 75th minute this year, [our record would be] 16-12-6; that puts you in the elite,” Curtin said. “That’s three things from me. One is maybe fitness, with guys who can improve so you’re not having to go to the bench. A little depth, depth would be No. 2 — maybe you can improve guys you’re bringing out. And the third is, I raise my hand and I say, ‘Can my adjustments be better at that time of the game?’ That’s something that I’ll learn.”

That’s the sort of thing you want to hear from a manager, particularly with the Nowak years not yet forgotten.

It’s hard not like to Jim Curtin. But everyone liked John Hackworth too, and he still got fired. So Curtin will face no less pressure.

Fortunately for Curtin, he appears to be up for it. Like Philadelphians at their best, Curtin seems to be saying, “Bring it on.”

23 Comments

  1. Ellis Carver says:

    54 points is not elite. Never has been, never will be. That’s a middle of the road playoff team.

  2. Historically 54 points is anywhere from 1st through 5th place in the Supporters Shield race and top 3 in either conference. That is top of the table, the elite level.

    • Ellis Carver says:

      Elite means MLS Cup contender. Is Columbus a title contender?

      Put it this way: in the last 3 years 54 points has never been better than 3rd in the East and 5th overall. And that’s not going to increase now that more clubs are joining MLS. If that’s elite to you you’d fit in just fine in the Union front office, bastion of mediocrity,

  3. The Realist Brian says:

    I disagree. When he commented that he doesn’t have a system other than getting bigger, faster and stronger, he lost me. The league has to stop bringing up former players as coaches and teaching them on the job. This is not the place for it. What are his thoughts on tactics, what is the system we are going to run from first team all the way down through the Academy to the Union juniors? That is the system that he needs to install, and his naivete here was telling. Will we be possession with purpose, counterattacking, direct, etc? Bigger, stronger and faster are attributes, not Systems.
    Also, has he attended coaching courses like the USSF Coaching courses or UEFA Coaching courses? Or is going on instinct? Because at this level it isn’t instinct and motivation, it is in-game decisions that he showed with Hackworth type substitutions.
    Will he develop younger players, or will the HGP continue to be black holes for our team? What are his views of player development? Questions, folks. I will give him the benefit of the doubt for this season, but if we miss the playoffs yet again, I will put it on the cheapskate Sak.

    • Man Brian. This is it. Dead solid perfect. I shudder when considering half of the questions you asked. May we hope there is a vision and plan and philosophy. Absolutely imperative at all levels of play and most notably from the MLS club in the neighborhood that permeates down through to the youth levels. I am terrified that the club is flying by the seat of their pants- it is and has been my biggest concern since Nowak left and it has been shown again and again and again.
      .
      I argued in another spot that hopefully bringing in Horst Wien and realigning the youth system at YSC is the first steps in raising the soccer IQ of young players because it is all about raising the IQ. Once that IQ is showing steady improvement in players- hopefully then a style and philosophy of play is being incorporated at the U16 and U18 levels. I can assure you JC has absolutely no say in that which is why this club needs a SuperBrain to be directing everything. Jim Curtin is going to be so busy navigating the top team there is no time for all the other bedrock fundamental ideas to seed and germinate. If a team has unity through all ranks, a kid like Pfeffer or McLaughlin or Hernandez should acclimate to the first team play as they are comfortable already with what is happening on the field.
      .
      This is why I fear more of the same. Time and discernment will tell. I recognize we are now only 6 years in, but in todays game these are markers of excellence and I just don’t see it. This is the Union that I want:: Vision. Plan. Philosophy. Results.
      .

      • Brian and Joel,
        Extremely well put. I couldn’t have said it any better and I won’t try to. The decisions the FO make should very well be for the long term from youth to pro.

    • Check out this quote from Jay Heaps about making tactically changes…

      “Around the 30th minute we had to a make a switch between Kelyn and Teal just because we felt Kelyn could pinch a little bit more,” said Heaps. “I felt like they were dropping [Justin] Meram in and putting him more as a midfielder, creating more of a 3-5-2. That was the talk right before half on the field.”

      I don’t think Curtin (or Hackworth even) have demonstrated such understanding…

      (from http://www.mlssoccer.com/mlscup/2014/news/article/2014/11/09/teal-bunbury-delivers-game-tactical-adjustment-works-wonders-new-england-rev)

  4. What he said was that he doesn’t have the team that can commit to an identity and style. He needs better players to do that.

    I think this is a safe, low risk move by the Union and practical. And I think it’s the right move for the team now. Curtin is more than capable of guiding a good team into the playoffs. The question for me is what this roster will look like next year. Can he rebuild without a GM? I hope so.

  5. On the whole l like Curtin as coach. JUST COACH! Again this is where Sakiewicz shows short sightedness from the outset. This team needs a GM who knows talent, skill, has a soccer IQ and business acumen. They need someone to oversee Albright and Curtin. Otherwise this all smells like more Sakiewicz non-involvement/ involvement. If the Union want to boost sales then Sakiewicz needs to step aside.

  6. Jim Curtin's Tight, Sexy Pants says:

    I’m absolutely ecstatic to be back for another season, roaming the sideline, strutting my stuff.

  7. We didn’t lose all those leads because of fitness. See opening loss to Portland. Nogs & Carlos had no offseason. Casey cannot play 90 minutes. It was a potent cocktail of the drop off of talent on the bench plus the failures of both coaches to adjust tactics (here’s where, JC, you must accept the comparison to Hack). Let’s face it, gang: Curtin is being set up to fail by giving him overwhelming responsibility and – undoubtedly – not enough budget to sign top talent. Unless he can wring quality performance next year from the Pfeffers, McLaughlins & Marquezes plus breakout years from Brown, Ribeiro & Wenger, the Union will continue to frustrate its fanbase. When standing in the path of an avalanche with Sak at the top of the mountain, the proper response may not be “Bring it on.”

  8. In 6/12/18 months I look forward to the future announcement of Mike Sorber as (interim) head coach. “THIS time we’ll get it right.”

  9. I felt Hack was a stopgap coach….a guy who was the anit-Nowacck. I don’t think JC is looked at the same way…I hope his learning curve is a short one.he had a different view of the on field talent… And seemed to make better use of his sub’s. I will take the measured “wait and see” approach. My sincere hope is the off season “wait” will produce soccer we want to “see” !!

  10. Man I know there’s nothing we can do, but I am just so sick of hearing “affordable” attached to everything we do. This is a professional franchise, you gotta pay to compete with the big boys. As the salary cap increases, and teams with more money come in, we will be left behind.

  11. How is this a safe hire? You saw what he could do, which is against middling MLS talent, play a conservative style that got points. Against better teams, we lost. When it counted. Does “safe” mean “striving for mediocrity”?

    I see comments like “Curtin can guide a good team into the playoffs”, really? Based on what? Did you think they were ‘good’ this season? Do you think they’ll be better than DCU/RBNY/NER/CMB next season? What will you think when NYCFC and OCFC draw us at home? Curtin still the right guy then? You’ve got a FO consisting of 2 guys in their first ever jobs and another assistant. That’s it. I guess you could count the trainers and that out of shape dude with the tattoos who gives the players water bottles. That’s your FO. There are 4 drafts in the next 60 days. Decisions on Okugo/Edu/MacMath coming up. An aging striker corps that this blog still thinks is one of the best. I’d love to feel hopeful too, but I look around and see this team behind the 8ball for 2015 in 2014. Who is doing the scouting for the SuperDraft? Who is looking for players to bring in January? Curtin? GTFO.

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