A View from Afar / Commentary

Wenger, Curtin, and the virtue of patience

Photo: Earl Gardner

The world of soccer is not a patient world. It’s a land of win now or be relegated, win now or lose boatloads of money, win now or be fired. Triggers are quick. Firings are swift.

Major League Soccer exists as an exception to this. It’s an oasis to some, an abomination against the European soccer traditions to others. Whichever side of the promotion-relegation debate you come down on, MLS clearly offers respite and refuge from the fears of relegation for those who recognize that building a winning club and tradition can take some time.

Jim Curtin and Andrew Wenger have been given more time this season than they would get in other places. In Italy, where I moved last year, Curtin would already have been fired, and Wenger would have been consigned to oblivion on the bench. In Germany, where I’m sitting right now, Wenger would have been banished to the reserves, while the coach played mind games with the team, his chairman, and anyone required to keep him employed. In England, Curtin and Wenger would be tabloid punching bags. In Spain, the local sports rag would have done one thing or another, but whatever it was, it would have been based on personal and political loyalties.

Fortunately for Philadelphia Union, they play in MLS, north of the Rio Grande, where there is no relegation and therefore no danger of the financial catastrophe that awaits relegated clubs on the wrong side of the safety zone. So each gets a shot to turn out well, and both may be making good on it.

Philadelphia is 5-3-1 in their last nine games. To put that in perspective, that rate of 1.78 points per game surpasses every team in the league on the year. Granted, two of those wins were against Seattle and Portland bringing B squads to PPL Park, but hey, that happens.

Photo by Earl Gardner

Jim Curtin greets Andrew Wenger after Wenger was substituted on Saturday. (Photo: Earl Gardner)

Meanwhile, Andrew Wenger smashed that egg in his goal column with an absolute beauty of a goal that was months in coming and, in almost any other week (i.e. when Marco Donadel doesn’t do this), is an MLS Goal of the Week.

The turnarounds demonstrate once again the virtue of patience in a professional sport not known for it, thanks to the constant threat of relegation.

The other major American sports are known for it though. We’ve all seen American teams go through rebuilding phases that typically last a few years. Without a worldwide pool of talent to draw upon, worst-to-first turnarounds like the one D.C. United pulled off last year are difficult to replicate.

But the fact that United did it doesn’t mean that other clubs should expect it. Progress can be slow, particularly when trying to build with youth and smart Moneyball signings, as is necessary for clubs in MLS.

Are Philadelphia suddenly a good team that has nothing to do with the franchise-worst 1-7-3 start that began the season? The full season will reveal that. New England had a monstrous losing streak last year too before going on to the MLS Cup final, but on the other hand, even Chivas USA had winning streaks now and again.

Likewise, is one goal an indication that Wenger’s epic slump is over? Again, we’ll find out soon enough whether it’s a one-off or the proverbial cracking of the seal.

But they say something for patience.

Even if the cynics among you think that Philadelphia did not fire Curtin solely because they didn’t want to pay someone else or because they were too diffident to pull off that bold move a year after similarly jettisoning John Hackworth, it doesn’t matter. The decision-making process is irrelevant to the key point here, that it’s worth being patient.

Curtin has always deserved the full season to show what he can do, from the moment he was announced as team manager, and he should get it. Likewise, Wenger has continued to hustle and play hard, and now he could reward Curtin’s prudence in dealing with him.

For everyone who cries for promotion and relegation in MLS, there’s something to be said for the patience and sanity that the North American sports model can grant clubs.

The best local soccer event of the year is on Wednesday

The Casa Soccer League’s Kelly Cup final kicks off Wednesday night at 8 p.m. at PPL Park. Admission is free.

You should go. If I wasn’t kind of far away, I definitely would.

Casa is a much-loved league — and the region’s largest adult amateur league. The tournament is named after a much-loved friend of Philly soccer, Shane Kelly, who was murdered in Fishtown in 2011. The final was played last year at PPL Park for the first time.

For more details on the match, click here.

And just because …


  1. 1) Curtin is scarcely solely responsible for the Union’s epically bad start, but he did make a number of truly head-scratching decisions early on this season — leaving Chaco off the starting XI in game 1, subbing far too late, subbing inappropriately to close out games. He gave little indication that he was even up to the task of team management. I personally did not advocate for his firing, since I think it would have been counterproductive, but it was certainly understandable that people didn’t think he fit into the organization’s future. He appears to have learned on the job somewhat and has made some decisions that have worked out nicely of late. Patience with him seems to have been rewarded, though it’s probably more difficult to assess this with a coach than with a player.

    2) Eli wrote in a game analysis several weeks ago that the Union need to show some patience with younger players like Ayuk and Pfeffer. I commented, “Then why do you advocate for banishing Andrew Wenger? Couldn’t you make the same argument?” The issue isn’t just showing patience — it’s choosing WHEN and WITH WHOM to show that patience. Perhaps Wenger is coming untracked now, but it may also be true that Curtin’s patience with him may have cost us points. Or maybe not. It’s very hard to tell.

    3) As a longtime American sports fan, relatively new to soccer (about 5 years), and mainly focused on MLS, not the European leagues, I have no idea why people even bother talking about promotion/relegation. Whether it would be beneficial for American soccer or not, it is so completely antithetical to American sports culture, and so completely antithetical to the financial model upon which MLS is built, that it will never, ever, EVER happen. It’s like talking about whether the US should move to a Parliamentary system of government. There might be hypothetical benefits, and maybe downsides, but other than as an academic discussion it is a completely irrelevant topic.

  2. Hold the parade son, we have been here before. Thee midseason upswing of false hope is a Union tradition. While we did look good against Portland we were going against a depleted side on the road after a long rest.
    Come back in a month and lets see where we are at.

    • +1. Curtin is being realistic too. I forget the quote from the Portland post-game. Something like “the fans can be happy for one week.” Yup, one week. That’s it. Keep it rolling boys, let’s make it two.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      No doubt. Like I wrote above, “The full season will reveal that.”

  3. The Chopper says:

    Curtin is also responsible for keeping Brian Carrol and Fabhino on the roster. None of the current good form happens without them.

    His patience wth Fabhino appears to have paid off.

    • yeah, he definitely deserves credit for this. i would say about 90% of comments i read (myself included) weren’t very happy about their inclusion in this year’s roster

  4. Great One says:

    I definitely get the point here, but I think there’s been a lot on one side of the ledger and a small amount on the other side. Curtin should always have received the year at least to see how he does. He’s a great guy, open and honest and tough. I just don’t like many of the tactical moves, especially ones that are easily fixed. The continued late subs is just so easily remedied, it doesn’t make sense.
    however, no way should Wenger have started all those games. That goal was awesome no doubt, but there were way too many bad minutes before this. Patience is a good thing, but you have to be smart when to use it.

    • The Chopper says:

      I think a lot of that patience was Wenger was also do to a lack of viable alternatives. Every time you wanted to sit him out, two other guys were hurt or suspended.

  5. The thing we need to accept is that Curtin has been learning on the job. I think he’s gotten a lot better at making subs in recent games, I think, and he’s handled the depth at fullback well. I think he’s learning fast.

  6. I think Wenger is showing real improvement, and it’s not just the goal. It seems that he’s thinking less with the ball at his feet. He is allowing instincts to choose again. He had two nice plays before his goal where his first touch was intended to set up for a second touch shot. Exactly what he needs to be doing. I’m more encouraged about that than by the actual goal. If he keeps instinctively being a little selfish, he has the ability to make plays on his own. Perhaps a bit like Gareth Bale at Tottenham (obviously in lesser degrees) – not always the greatest tactical movements or creativity in cooperation with others, but give him a few feet of space and you could be in trouble.

  7. I recognize the premise of the article….and I am glad patience may be rewarded in the long term….but professional sports in America is littered with franchises willing to be interested more in money than winning which can yield a shit product for decades and decades….only the absolute best should be playing a professional sport at the highest level. The faster this country gets a functioning promotion relegation system the better.

    Devil’s Advocate

  8. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Dear Scottso and Mighty Elephant, I agree with both of you, which is intellectually possible because mighty Elephants discusses what should be, and Scottso discusses what is.

  9. This is not the most educated assessment, but I believe that promo/regulation could happen. Nothing about pro soccer in the US is sacred cow. Most of this money that franchise are worth is drawn from TV deals. The excitement-return on relegation games can be as high as trophy games, so why wouldn’t TV be interested in turning an end of season Saturday exclusive Union vs NYFC from a clunker to a game that actually matters? I have noticed that MLS is being distributed in at least England…promo/reg would go a long way to at least stopping people’s eyes from rolling before they have ever seen a game. Get rid of the 100 million buy in and instead invest that money in the product. I know revenue for a relegated team would nose dive, and maybe this is just my innate philly tough bullshit, but I think your avg MLS fan would stick by their teams: I mean is MLS really top tier anyway who are we kidding

    • The Chopper says:

      Relegation could only happend with approval of the owners. There is not an ownership group out there that would support relegation. They have invested too much in their teams and stadiums to allow for the possibility of playing in a second division and losing their first division TV Money and the chance to sell tickets when Clint Dempsey or Frank Lamalard or some other big name comes to town.

      While the relegation games might create a bump in television numbers, mo American TV exec wants an MLS with lets say Rochester as a league market and no Philadelphia (just an example). They prefer having e larger metropolitan population centers guaranteed she they sell ads.

      • Yea you are def right about no sane MLS owner going out of their way for that kind of risk. Good point about Curtin really getting amazing returns on BC and Fabs. Also seems like he always had CJs back during his rough patch.

    • Excitement about games where teams are trying to stave of relegation? Seriously?

      I don’t think your average American is going to give a flying flip about a game between two sucky teams to see which team sucks the most.

      • The best games on TV are the championship league promotion playoffs. The average soccer fan would definitely care. But you are correct that the average American sports viewer would care less

  10. To me, it is about opportunity cost. Even if Wenger catches fire for the last third of the season, the price paid (getting nothing out of the left wing/forward position for 19 games or so) is pretty steep. How many more points might we already have had if Curtain played Ayuk, etc., at that spot for all those games?

  11. Far and away the strongest example anyone can point to so far of the benefits of no promotion/relegation and the patience it can engender would be D.C. United and Ben Olsen. There’s no way that team would have allowed him to stay the course, or even kept him in charge, through the 2013 season anywhere in the world outside of MLS. And look at how that turned out eventually.

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