Season Reviews

Season Reviews: Behind the Curtin — What we have seen and what to expect

Photo: Earl Gardner

The history of Philadelphia Union managers would not be a fun read. Peter Nowak’s precipitous rise to the playoffs was followed by an ignominious departure. John Hackworth’s winter splurge preceded such a sorry spring that the Union became the first club to fire a manager in 2014.

Hackworth’s replacement is another man with no head coaching experience. So after 18 league and five US Open Cup matches, where does Jim Curtin stand?

Curtin moved Amobi Okugo back into midfield and eventually placed Andrew Wenger as a wing-striker.

Figure 1. Curtin moved Amobi Okugo back into midfield and eventually placed Andrew Wenger as a wing-striker.

Initial changes

PSP published a roundtable when John Hackworth was fired. When asked what the Union should look for in a new manager, I said this: “Only two things matter: Experience and a clear tactical plan that fits the roster.”

The club got one out of two.

Jim Curtin inherited a Frankenstein’d roster: The Union spent heavily to create one of the most talented midfields in MLS, but they closed their eyes and pretended the wingers would get on board with a more possession-based offense. No dice.

Ironically, it was Columbus Crew — the team that would eventually break Philly’s heart in the final ten minutes of a must-win match in October — that first exposed the weakness that would come to be one of the major themes of the 2014 season.

The stats don’t tell the story of that road match in March: Columbus sat deep in the middle and used speed up the flanks. Philly’s central midfield was forced to pass wide to get forward, and it was clear that the wingers and middies were reading from different playbooks. Even as they sought to mount a late comeback, the Union were unable to hold possession in the Columbus half, resorting again and again to crossing into a crowded box.

The league noticed. Philly had a midfield that wanted to possess and wing players (and a striker in Jack McInerney) that were expecting a vertical game. No matter how much talent Philly put on the field, the tactics were so inscrutable that they simply could not hold a lead.

And here is where Jim Curtin deserves the most credit. Under his guidance, the Union were much better at finishing games if they scored first. Note that this does not mean they were great at holding leads: Only that when the Union were able to break down a defense, they were able to do it often enough to come away with points.

The big, glaring, statistical difference between the Union under Curtin and the Union under John Hackworth is first half performance. Under Hackworth, Philly went into halftime ahead or tied just over 56% of the time (9/16 league games). Under Curtin, the Union were ahead or tied at the interval 83% of the time (15/18 league games).

These numbers do not appear to be a fluke: Curtin’s teams scored 0.66 goals/game in the first half while Hackworth’s scored only 0.48. Curtin’s allowed only 0.28 goals/game in the first half while Hackworth’s allowed 0.69. Additionally, when the Union scored first under Curtin, they usually held on for points, going 7-2-2. Hackworth’s teams only held on to win half the time, going 3-1-2. In short, Curtin was able turn a slow starting team into one that flew out of the gates.

But how?

Shaping up

Shape. Shape. Shape. Jim Curtin simplified the team’s tactics and introduced a reliable defensive shape that the team executed with proficiency game after game. It is telling that Philadelphia was outshot in four of their seven league wins under Curtin. The game they were playing was about absorbing pressure and breaking with speed. The expensive midfield was deconstructed into a facilitatory structure that pushed the ball up and wide as fast as any team in MLS. The payoff was a stellar run of form from first Sebastien Le Toux, then Le Toux and newly minted wing-striker Andrew Wenger.

And wins. Jim Curtin’s teams won games that John Hackworth’s teams, quite simply, did not. Between June 17 and the US Open Cup final on September 16, the Union went 10-2-4 in all competitions. They scored more than one goal in 11 of 16 games. The allowed more than one goal only five times. Any way you twist it, that is a darn good record. See Figure 1 for a basic representation of how the Union set up during this period.


Well, it isn’t really a question. The results speak for themselves: The Union’s run of good form lasted right up until extra time of the USOC final. And it never returned.

Finger pointing is easy to do when a team suffers such a significant drop in form. How much of the team’s precipitous decline should fall on the shoulders of Jim Curtin? And how much was simply the function of Curtin having squeezed all he could out of a poorly constructed roster that only had one trick in its hat?

From the Union's match against San Jose: Opta's Devin Pleuler called Wenger a "target winger," but maybe he was just tired.

Figure 2. From the Union’s match against San Jose: Opta’s Devin Pleuler called Wenger a “target winger,” but maybe he was just tired.

Curtin’s big insight was that the Union needed to find a way to use the club’s vertically-inclined players without losing the influence of the central midfield. Combining Vincent Nogueira’s long passing with Cristian Maidana’s ability to spring runners from tight spaces, Curtin found a formula that let his best players contribute while the thoroughbreds wore out defenders with tireless runs. But tireless is not actually a thing; people — even Sebastien Le Toux — get tired. And when that happened, there was no fallback option that allowed the Union to scare opponents into holding extra men out of the attack.

Le Toux, Conor Casey, Danny Cruz, and Andrew Wenger were the main threats during Philly’s ascension. By mid-September, Casey was gassed, Le Toux was carrying injuries, Cruz was on the bench, and Wenger was a sixty minute player (and increasingly (see Figure 2) a defensive liability).

Instead of shrinking into a solid defensive shell, the Union were leaving Ray Gaddis on an island for most of the game and seeing only spurts of defense from Le Toux. The return of Cristian Maidana from injury, though helpful for ball retention, meant the high defensive workrate Vincent Nogueira exerted from an attacking role was absent. In short, the team abandoned the foundation on which they had built success. Goals per game dropped from 1.94 before the USOC final to 1.00 after. That. Is. Huge.

It is easy to blame Curtin’s inability to make adjustments for this offensive nosedive. But he was playing the only cards he had: Instead of bringing in attacking depth during the transfer window, the club took a flier on a young Jamaican and spent big on a goalie. If there was blame to be assigned for the Union’s late season decline, it should go to the front office. Conor Casey started 14 games between July and September. And he had to: The Union had traded their only other semi-proven striker for an unproven striker who turned out to, well, not be a striker at all.

Center Backs Games Record Notes
Williams/Edu 5 4-1-0 3W – USOC
White/Williams 1 0-0-1
White/Edu 8 4-1-3 1W – USOC
White/Valdes 5 2-2-1 1L – USOC
Valdes/Edu 4 1-2-1
Central defensive pairings under Jim Curtin
What could he have done?

This is the big question. Front office folly aside, did Jim Curtin whiff on tactics, substitutions, or adjustments down the stretch? Sometimes, yes.

And, unfortunately for Curtin, his biggest errors came in the team’s biggest games. In the US Open Cup final, Curtin moved Maurice Edu back to central midfield for only the third time since he took over as manager. This forced Amobi Okugo to the bench after a run of six starts in which the team went 4-1-1. Curtin’s decision is, of course, quite defensible; he’s the manager, he can play match ups. But it is a decision that can also be criticized.

Seattle USOC final shots (1st half on top)

Seattle USOC final shots (1st half on top)

Curtin opted for a midfield that had produced a grand total of four assists (three for Maidana, one (June 7) for Nogueira) and zero goals since May. The only central midfielder that had been getting into the box under Curtin, Okugo, watched as Philly put up a massive effort and fell just short. A different lineup may not have changed the outcome, but it clearly threw off the team’s balance. In the final six games, Curtin became a tinkerer: Moving Edu into midfield twice, into the back four times, and giving Okugo three different partners in the five matches he played.

The second lowlight came in the deflating loss to Columbus that ended Philly’s playoff dream. Sitting pretty after 75 minutes, Curtin asked for 15 more minutes of strong defense from Fabinho even though he had Sheanon Williams on the bench. Furthermore, he left Andrew Wenger in front of the Brazilian left back, essentially handing that wing to the Crew. The disastrous results need no further comment.

These two big question marks serve to highlight how difficult it is to grade Jim Curtin as a coach. Given two US Open Cup games to prep before facing a MLS opponent, he devised a remarkable effective system that played to his paltry roster’s strengths and saved an otherwise lost season. However, as players tired and ceased to execute that system, he was slow to react and had no answer to weaker teams that sat back and neutralized the Union’s counterattack.

But much like Hackworth in 2012, Curtin can point to the names at his disposal and ask what more he could have done. In acquiring Maurice Edu and Rais Mbolhi, the club spent heavy to reinforce positions of strength while glaring holes went unfilled. And say what you will about the McInerney-for-Wenger trade, but it is hard to argue that the Union lucked out when Wenger blossomed on the wing. Otherwise the only narrative would be about a team that had two strikers on the roster and traded one of them for a guy that never once looked the part as a professional.


The statistic that should give Curtin’s fans the biggest boost is that his teams earned points in 9 of the 11 games they scored first (7-2-2). So while they did not win a single match in which they gave up the first goal (0-3-3), Curtin may be able to build a team that can run over enough Eastern Conference opponents to make a playoff run.

The statistic that critics will point to is the club’s record against playoff teams. In regular season play, the Union beat New England without Jermaine Jones, New York before Petke switched to a system that actually, y’know, worked, and a defenseless Kansas City team as the season wound down. They went 0-4-2 against other playoff teams (though this leaves out the stunning USOC semi-final win at Dallas against a hot, hot, hot team).

The above numbers miss the bigger issue. The one that will truly provide the answer to the Big Question: Is Jim Curtin ready for Prime Time? Against non-playoff opponents, Philadelphia went 4-1-4 under Curtin. And remember: Two of those wins were over a Toronto team that had just fired its manager. And another required a desperate rally after giving up a two goal lead against San Jose. The fourth was a 2-1 win over Montreal, a.k.a., The Club Even Toronto Thinks Is Doing It Wrong.

That is a lot of points left on the table against teams a playoff club should beat (e.g, Houston, Chicago, Colorado). As mediocre as Philadelphia was last season, they should have been better than Chicago every single time.

In sum, Jim Curtin has shown that he can deal with adversity. He has shown that he can squeeze every available ounce of talent out of a mishmash of a roster. And he has shown that he is willing to make big, controversial lineup decisions. These things are necessary qualities of a good coach. But they are not sufficient. A good manager must also win the in-game battles, and Curtin lost some big ones in his first half-season. His adjustments were lacking and his willingness to embrace new ideas once his initial system worked was questionable at best. He is not a great coach yet, but he has potential. And what he has done has been accomplished under the most adverse of circumstances.

Other young Eastern Conference coaches were given time to develop their squads. Mike Petke tweaked an aging Red Bulls team over and over until the pieces fit into place. Jay Heaps gave young players chances to thrive, and made moves to fill clear needs. Curtin does not have the veterans or the young talent of those two managers. His task is much bigger and his time frame may be much shorter.

If Curtin can turn the Union into contenders in a much-improved Eastern Conference in 2015, he will be accomplishing a mighty feat. He deserves the support of the club and fans as he tries.


  1. Leaving Okugo on the bench of the USOC final is pretty indefensible. Especially if you factor in the fact that Carlos Valdes clearly(at least for me in the stands) injured himself in the game and wasn’t nearly 100%. He could have easily moved Edu to center back or if he really felt necessary e could have put Okugo in as a center back.
    Would that substitution meant we would have won the game? no. But it would have increased the odds of us going to penalties and in penalties anything could happen.

    • Frankly after they gave up the 2nd goal to Seattle in Extra Time he could’ve put Okugo anywhere on the field and he would’ve had an impact. Everyone was exhausted, he’d be playing 20+ minutes with fresh legs, and it didn’t really matter if they sacrificed defense since they needed a goal anyway. Sometimes managers need to think outside the box, not make a perfect position-for-position change. That was Hackworth’s issue a lot.

      • I think the point though is that he sealed their fate in that game leaving Okugo on the bench and then poured dirt over the casket by not recognizing Valdez was unable to properly perform in the 19th minute.
        Me screaming at the TV 2x in the first 30 minutes of the game: 1) for why #14 wasn’t holding a little persons hand when walking from the tunnel 2) for leaving a player (Valdez) on the field who from my vantage point 33 miles away was clearly struggling to keep pace.
        Ah but that was then…….

      • Yes, unforgivable omission of Okugo considering how hot MacMath was stopping PKs at the time. Just the psychological impact of a potential shoot-out against a hot keeper would’ve given Union a sizable edge in the stretch of that game.

        Curtin = proven failure in the big game

  2. My 2 cents:
    $0.01) If the Meulensteen hire does nothing except keep Sac out of player decisions (and thus gives it all to Curtain and Albright), then Curtain is smart enough to make meaningful personnel changes.
    $0.02) Curtain is practical enough to make a re-tooled lineup work over the course of a season, even if he were to struggle tactically. Those two items coupled together spell playoffs to me.

    • Is anyone else curious about Meulensteen’s input regarding the protected players? How much influence might he have had regarding the Fabinho vs Ribeiro debate

    • Both of those were meant to say that I think we had some playoff teams in the past if we could have just stayed out of our own way. Don’t play players out of position, don’t try any crazy philosophical soccer tactic overhauls, don’t make bad hires. Meulensteen removing Sac and Jim making practical player decisions gets us out of our own way. And that’s 80% of the problem fixed right there.

      • Except Curtin’s personnel decisions are limited by the other 20 % : our cheap ownership group. The only east coast teams with a lower total team salary than us last year were Columbus and Houston. Until the ownership group starts contributing financially proportional to the size of our sports market, this team is going nowhere.
        But since the ownership group isn’t going to pony up, the ‘don’t make bad hires’ part of your statement needs to be more like ‘only make good hires.’ Semantics, I know – but the only way we’re going to succeed is by finding the best deals on players, eliminating cap waste (like paying a DP salary to a ‘keeper), and making sure we utilize the players we have to the fullest extent. This means we cannot afford for Curtin to struggle tactically. Teams like RSL, Houston, and Kansas City have succeeded in the past because of their coaches. So in order for the U to be successful, Curtin needs to rise to the level of Kreis, Kinnear and Vermes. We’ll find out if he’s up to those standards come spring; but personally, I think he has long way to go before he gets there.

      • Old soccer coach says:

        See Dan Walsh’s amended piece from a couple of days ago that explains the intricacies of Mbohli’s status as a DP this year because a transfer fee was paid, but not a DP next year. Also as salaries are evaluated, remember that the league has formulae which help determine salaries. They are not necessarily freely negotiated if the rules for Graduating from Generation Adidas status back when Mwanga was a GA are any suggestion.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        +1 (The Duke). Now do we have the players to compete and do well. I will wait until the January window to judge that.

  3. Adam. This is really good work. It coalesces everything yet presents multiple points of view.
    Well done.

  4. This was a great read.

  5. Best PSP read in a long time. Well done and thank you.

  6. Only after a coach can prepare a team from the getgo, can any evaluation be made of his effectiveness. Young coaches usually have no leverage when it comes to personel decisions, so it is a catch 22, no input till you are established, but it is hard to succeed without getting your own players to fit into your vision. This guy deserves a shot.

    • Golf clap. I bitch a lot about coulda shoulda WTFs- but generally, your quite right about giving him the chance to get it right. Just hope its watchable.

      • Jimmy was a CB in his playing career………he was raised to give the opposition goose eggs! How do you think his playing philosophy is going to be? He has already stated he wants a bigger, stronger, and faster squad. Sapong was the first player picked up with this in mind….he is stronger and faster than anything we have had up top. Jimmy,I think is realistic about our league and what is needed to win. If he wants to go 4-5-1 and grind out results….aka…Stoke City style….than thats fine with me. Its a more realistic approach than any other coach we have had……Hack wanted to create Barca on the River….and that was never going to happen!

  7. This was the first article where I thought I was reading my FourFourTwo….not PSP. Good work. Thorough and well written.

    • Ed Farnsworth says:

      All of us at PSP are very sorry we don’t produce more “good work” that is “thorough and well written” to take your attention from your FourFourTwo. We’ll try harder.

      • no your not……stop with the snarky and aloof comments. Thats all your trying to be…… almost sound jealous. Why? Because I gave a writer a complement that wasn’t you? Thats how your coming off right now dude! And yes, I compared the article to a FourFourTwo one……thats a good thing!

      • Ed Farnsworth says:

        Snarky and aloof? Have you re-read any of the 57 comments you’ve made since Dec. 1? If not, why don’t you re-read the one I commented on. If that isn’t the definition of a backhanded compliment, I don’t know what is.

        Honestly, dude, that’s almost as hilarious as you thinking I’m jealous. Almost.

      • No I haven’t read any of them again, you obviously have if you know the frequency of my comments…..Its constructive criticism……not personal! You guys do a great job and give our sport coverage it never has had in the area…..for that Thanks. The next step is to have a thick skin when criticism comes your way.

      • Glad to see you sticking up to the biggest asshole on the site, Ed. He’s single handedly making the comment sections much worse with his contempt for both the writers and other commenters.

      • I never name call dude and I’ve never cursed at anyone………….your funny! Almost sound like a third grader who is getting picked on at school. Why do I make your comment experience so bad? Because I point out things that are highly debatable in the writing? You take it personally, thats your problem. Or do I just speak over your head?

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