A View from Afar / Commentary

The latest Union coach speculation

Photo: Earl Gardner

There has been some chatter lately about alternatives to Jim Curtin as Union head coach. It was bound to happen once New York City FC cut loose Jason Kreis, one of the most respected coaches in the league.

Union chairman Jay Sugarman has gone on record as definitively stating that Curtin will be the Union’s coach next year. It’s a defensible move. Curtin may have been elevated to his position too soon and has shown clear weaknesses, but he has also demonstrated potential in certain areas and, if he can come good on it like Ben Olsen did, could be an ideal front man for the team in the long run. Confirming Curtin’s return added stability for the off-season.

Should Sugarman change his mind, he puts himself in a difficult position. He has only spoken publicly about the team three times in his entire tenure as Union chairman, all within the last year. The last thing he needs to establish early on that his word means nothing.

So don’t expect Curtin to get bumped at this point.

Paunovic to Philadelphia?

A report claimed last week that Veljko Paunovic would return to Philadelphia as a coach.

Even if you don’t trust the report, with its general lack of sourcing and misleading use of a very old quote, don’t put away the notion of the one-time Union attacking midfielder as a future Union coach.

As an assistant, Paunovic would be a coup. He would bring attacking instincts that may be missing from the current Union staff — and a lot more.

As head coach of Serbia’s U20 national team, Paunovic led them to victory in the U20 World Cup in 2015 in what was a stunning win for a country that is not one of the world’s top soccer powers. It was the first time that Serbia had qualified for the tournament since the dissolution of Yugoslavia.

Paunovic was a top candidate for the lead job with Getafe in Spain’s first division earlier this year.

He is fluent in English, Spanish, Serbian and Macedonian, and while the latter two languages probably won’t matter much in MLS, every MLS coaching staff should have at least one member fluent in Spanish.

He was a successful player, having been capped for Serbia’s national team and playing professionally in Europe, notably in Spain’s top division, and also for a season in MLS with Philadelphia Union. He was popular with Union fans and demonstrated excellent media skills.

Should Curtin slip up, Paunovic could be a head coaching in waiting.

If you ask me who the two best, realistically attainable alternatives to Curtin as head coach would be, one of them is Paunovic.

The other is Guillermo Barros Schelotto, the head coach of Lanus and former MLS all-star, who has kept his club in the top five of Argentina’s table during his time in charge there. Schelotto is reportedly interviewing for Chicago’s job, but if he doesn’t get it, Atlanta United would be smart to consider hiring him as their coach in waiting.

Profile of a successful MLS coach

If you were laying out the traits you would want in an ideal MLS head coach, they would look something like this:

  • Bilingual in English and Spanish or Portuguese.
  • Understand the nature of MLS, notably the travel demands on players, limitations of playing under a salary cap, league’s current talent levels and American player development model.
  • Deploy a philosophical approach leaning toward a dynamic, attacking model that creates more goals and corresponding fan excitement.
  • Proven ability to evaluate and develop talent.
  • Media savvy.
  • Able to work with a dedicated general manager/sporting director, preferably in the Moneyball/Soccernomics-influenced player acquisition model — i.e. buy low, sell high, and identify and acquire undervalued assets for sales at profit to grow the club while still competing for titles.
  • A track record as a successful player is nice but not required, as sometimes the most successful managers have limited or nonexistent professional playing careers. (For example, Jose Mourinho and Arrigo Sacchi.)

Curtin hits most of those bullets, and based on the way he’s talking, he’s going to aim to hit the attacking soccer bulletpoint this year. He has something to prove on the talent evaluation front. And while he might not be fluent in Spanish, Curtin can address that by hiring an assistant who is.

Paunovic and Schelotto hit all those bullets, which makes them good candidates.

But nobody has a home field advantage quite like Curtin does, with the local ties and intangibles that are probably what convinced Sugarman to give him another season at the helm.

Jason Kreis isn’t coming to Philadelphia

Let’s bring Captain Obvious in to put this speculation to rest. Kreis will not be joining Philadelphia.

He also is very unlikely to go to Chicago or Montreal. Mauro Biello has probably earned the job in Montreal, where he has been the coach-in-waiting since he first joined the club. Needless to say, Kreis would be foolish to join that outfit given their track record with head coaches. Chicago could be a better situation with Nelson Rodriguez on board as general manager, but there’s a lot of baggage there.

Put money on Kreis as the next head coach in Seattle. His good friend and former running mate at Salt Lake, Garth Lagerwey is there. Sigi Schmid should be headed to the door after yet another playoff collapse, and that is the best soccer environment in the country. Kreis could complete their transformation into the juggernaut they should be.


  1. This seems about right to me. Curtin isn’t perfect but he has the potential, it seems, to be great. If he can develop a knack for evaluating talent and employing winning tactics, combined with those home-town intangibles, it would be a nice thing. But it’s now or never time. He has to succeed. If 2016 even starts to smell like this season, I think he’s toast.
    I like the perspective on Paunovic…. makes one wonder what the deal is to the rumor. If he is indeed being sought for an assistant’s job and would actually consider doing it, that would be great. It sure would put Curtin on notice. If he fails, he would be replaced capably in an instant.

    • Boy…there are some really important if’s in your opening argument.

      • True, but we’ve had some good luck with conditional statements in the last month…
        If only we could get rid of Sak…
        If only we could get a good Sporting Director.
        What if we actually did get Ernie Stewart?
        I appreciate many of the arguments I’ve read for and against Curtin. And ultimately, I think it’s safe to say he has yet to really earn his position. I think he knows this. I’m willing to see how he does with an actual support system in place and an honest to god institutional foundation in the forming. If he gets off to the same start next season and Stewart cans him in 8 or 0 games, I’m good.
        Ultimately, the big conditional for me is whether or not we Union fans can put some faith in Stewart. I hope so. IF we are proven wrong, woe be to us.

  2. One Veljko Paunovic flush beats a Jim Curtin full house EVERY time…just ask Joe McKeehen.
    I really wish Mr. Sugarman had not given the verbal thumbs up regarding the coach. I wrote on the day it happened and still feel it was his one misstep with this and would have more liked to hear… “Every person associated with Philadelphia Union is being scrutinized at this moment….” which allows more wiggle room for an exact instance like a Veljko Paunovic rumor…. even if you felt Jim Curtin was your guy.
    Jim Curtin did less with less we all agree and to argue otherwise is useless … but less is still less unless less became more and less never did. One vote for Veljko Paunovic from me.

    • It is odd that Jay didn’t give the stock answer when it came to Curtin. As the hand has been played, Stewart has one less immediate decision to make and he signed on with that bet made so he must be willing to let it ride. It’s Jim’s turn to raise. Earnie is covered if the team loses – fire Curtin. It may mean another lost season unless the ideal candidate can and will take his place beforehand. Patience.

  3. I like Paunovic in theory.
    If Ernie Stewart is serious about having a more Belgian style, And lets face it Total Football has been name checked here before, Old Serby Bastard may be the way to go. With international experience at the highest level along with his MLS experience it sure is tempting.
    But why take a risk on yet another recently retired player with little coaching experience who will be more expensive than the one you have.
    If you are Paunovic why take an assistant job when you can be a head coach in Europe?
    If they can come to terms do it. But it is probably not going to happen.

    • You ask, “But why take a risk on yet another recently retired player with little coaching experience…?”
      The answer: because Veljko Paunovic’s limited coaching experience includes concrete evidence of success, something that Jim Curtin lacked when named the Union head coach and is still lacking a year and a half later.

      • Didn’t Hackworth have some measure of success at a youth level before coaching the Union?

      • Perhaps, but I doubt that it was anywhere near the level of U-20 World Cup champions. THAT is a significant achievement.

    • Good question, but he may want to live in the United States. The coaching jobs are more stable, the quality of life is high, and the media pressure is much less insane. Paunovic seems like a smart guy. Also keep in mind that he sat out for 2 years or so and then came back with a trial with NYRB and then playing in Philly. I don’t think he evaluates things the same as many soccer players. I think he specifically wanted to try life in the US, and he liked it.

    • What exactly is a Belgian style? Like a Dubbel with hints of chocolate and waffles?

  4. By the way… the video is awesome above. What an important moment for a new nation. Cool to see such overwhelming support for a bunch of young men.

  5. I know I know too much posting from me… its nap time around the house though… the laundry just folded itself with an Elizabeth Montgomery (she was so hot) twitch of the nose, the homemade roasted tomato soup is simmering, ciabatta at the ready, its raining and can’t go outside to rake the leaves….
    …so….. what to make of Josh Harris buying in to Crystal Palace.
    Could this bode well for the local team and a future partnership?
    More importantly do you think Mr. Sugarman and Mr. Harris ever talked about a Union partnership… it is obvious Mr. Harris has desire. Does it seem odd that the 76ers owner is joining a professional football club abroad when there is a new one so close by. I’m sure there are countless considerations and iterations but it just leaves me….like
    … C+C Music Factory, “…things that make you go hmmm.”

    • I saw a valuation of CP around 100M pounds. Considering the Union are likely valued around $100M, it’s a roughly even investment for a man that like to be speculative buyer.
      Harris buying in on the Union has long made sense. With the new direction, sans-Sak, it makes even more sense.
      Won’t happen, but it would be welcome from all angles.

      • How have the Sixers done under Harris? And haven’t the Devils failed to make the playoffs since he bought the team? And now the helicopter fiasco? I can’t see selling to him as being the right move.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Let’s judge the 6ers in 3 more seasons. .
        I think the view will be entirely different.
        They have the right coach. They will be filling holes with a wealth of picks in the draft that the GM horn-swaggled and already have a certified stud in Okafor…. possibly another in Saric and a defensive presence in Noel and a gamble on Embiid everyone would have killed Hinkie for not making… which slowed down the progress of the whole thing.

    • +1001 on Liz…Whooo boy!

      • -1001 on Harris
        Any owner that can approve a strategy to TANK ENTIRE SEASONS ON PURPOSE to play “Draft Lottery Bingo Balls” is not welcome.
        Union fans were crowding the Cliff of Despair with an FO that was actually trying to WIN (despite their obvious Keystone Kop-ery). Can you imagine what this place looks like if the FO is so obviously NOT trying to win???.
        No. NO! A THOUSAND times….No.

      • NBA basketball is a different animal.
        I think your argument is a bit disingenuous. It is not the intention of the 6ers to lose on purpose ad infinitum…
        They have a plan to build through the draft and to acquire picks and assets. This is the NBA model when you either 1. suck or are 2. stuck in 8 seed purgatory forever.
        The 6ers, I have on good faith and word – have a long term vision of excellence and yes while it sucks these past 3 years and the Embiid injury has slowed down progress…
        …they ARE going to turn things around and they ARE going to be a team built similarly to the Spurs…. excellent year after year after year after year.
        My question to you is… when this happens will you then be complaining about the manner in which it occurred.
        Be a bit more patient with the 6ers…. I urge you.
        The Harris comment by me yesterday was precisely to stir up a discussion… So good deal.

    • And dueling helicopters…

  6. Dan, if you were in charge of hiring the “ideal” head coach for an MLS squad, wouldn’t “track record of success as a head coach” be one of the primary traits you’d be seeking?
    Although proven achievement as a head coach is not essential for future success, it would certainly be a major plus for any candidate, and it would also reduce the risk of a poor hire.

    • Yes, it would be, but you can’t develop that track record until you get a chance, so I don’t include it on my list.

      Take Jesse Marsch, for example. And Jason Kreis, when he first joined RSL. And Oscar Pareja, when he first joined Colorado. Those three are in the gold standard tier of coaches around the league right now, as I see it, and all of them required a club to take a chance on them.

  7. I can’t imagine Paunovic coming on board as an assistant coach. He’s much more qualified for MLS head coach job than Curtin, it’s not even close…

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Perhaps think beyond the strictly soccer dimensions of his situation? Where does he want to raise his family? Did his wife like living in the States? We lost our best potential head coach years ago when he wanted to return his family to Colombia at the end of his career. We have no insights into these non-soccer dimensions of personal decisions that are quite real.

    • I agree with you, K2. The only way I see him taking an assistant’s job is if it’s with an eye toward obtaining a head job within MLS. (Yes, it helps a lot that he clearly enjoyed his time in Philadelphia and wanted to live somewhere in the Philly/NY vicinity.) With that U20 World Cup on his resume, some time on an MLS staff would almost surely make him the most in-demand assistant in the league for a future head coach spot. The only knock someone could have against him is that he has never been part of a professional club’s coaching staff in any capacity.

      Believe it or not, much of what I wrote above stems from something I wrote in late September, just before Sakiewicz was fired. My top alternatives to Curtin were Paunovic and Schelotto. If starting from scratch, with all things being equal, you take one of them over Curtin. But they’re not equal, Curtin is in place, and there’s a valid enough argument to keep him for next season.

      • Dan/OSC, great points and I completely agree with both of you. I just think Paunovic would be a great asset to our team. Former Yugoslavia was always considered “Brazil of Europe”, just look at all the players from that region playing in the top leagues. His connections and understanding of that market would be extremely valuable. Also, since his native language is Serbian he can easily communicate with players from Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia but also Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic. When you combine it with fluent Spanish and English, you can communicate directly with most players.

  8. Long time reader first time commenting. I’ve read the comments for months and am jumping in for the first time! What better subject than Jimmy “Mens Warehouse” Curtin.

    Was not a fan of the hire from day one. Excited to see Stewart in action with his own coach! All I will say is in Curtin’s two biggest games he brought in Fred for the win in 14′ and McCarthy for the win in 15′ Nuff said!!!

    • The “Men’s Warehouse” gives you runner up award in only your first ever post. Well done.
      Somebody already won the award from my POV for Fabinho comment on a different thread. Stupendous.
      Come back and play again.

  9. Curtin should be head coach next year for one simple reason: this team will not benefit from any further instability. Period. It’s just that simple. I do not know if Jim Curtin will turn out to be a good coach, and I am not defending him per se — I think he made some major mistakes initially, and showed some clear learning later on.

    The latter leads me to believe that it is worth seeing what he can do with a team that has no giant salary burdens, and a better roster. The alternative, whoever it might be, adds instability that could well outweigh any prospective benefit. And it just doesn’t make sense at the present moment.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      This Friend speaks my mind.

    • Course if everything is already volatile…which it is with a new Sporting Director and a new USL team and the firing of your chief figure-head…one could argue that now would be the perfect time.
      Thereby bringing stability in one fell swoop instead of say – more volatility in June- when your team is settled in, yet struggling like it has through the entire tenure of the interim to head coach’s present tenure…

    • I disagree with scottso and OSC on this matter. IF Earnie Stewart comes to the conclusion that there is a better alternative to Jim Curtin as the Union head coach, why shouldn’t he make the call immediately? Would it really be better for the team to waste another half-season or full-season waiting for him to make the switch?
      IF Stewart decides that he likes what he’s seen/heard from Curtin, or that he needs more time to access the coaching situation, that’s fine. But refraining from upgrading the club’s coaching staff (or roster) simply for the sake of stability makes no sense to me.

      • I should have typed “assess” not “access”.

      • IMO Curtin starts in charge but is on a short leash. My guess is anything like the start to this season and he’s out sooner rather than later.

        The one thing which led me to this is, and correct me if I’m wrong, Stewart does not start until Jan 1. That gives barely a month for scouting, transfers, etc before training. I assume he still has work to do in Holland until then.

        It would probably make sense to just keep Curtin at this point. Rather than make a coaching change come Jan/Feb. But we shall see…in any case I’m excited for the new look team!

    • Jim deserves at least the first half of the season. The roster was putrid this year…no scorers, no speed, and a complete lack of depth. Goalkeeping was the worst in the league until Blake finally stepped up in the last 5-10 games.

      Let’s see what he can do with some real talent, especially if he is going to play a more attacking style. No downside here whatsoever, only really good upside if Jim turns out to be the real deal.

    • My first instinct is to stick with JC. I like him. I like what he says and how he says it. I think got a VERY poor hand to play from the start and it didn’t get better going into this year. I sincerely believe he is going to be a successful coach.
      I have to admit that 2 of my 5 brain cells have been mulling that perhaps Union players have gotten a little too “comfortable” with familiar locker room faces as coach.
      There’s a lot of turmoil happening in the team right now as it is, if there was ever a time to make an E-F-F-E-C-T-I-V-E switch to a very different style/approach, then give this team ONE more good “shake” while the players have a long off-season to REALLY get the message that the same old approaches/personal patterns/efforts aren’t going to be accepted here anymore.
      I just don’t know.

      • +1. As per my argument above… funny how you can agree with somebody on one thread of wonder and disagree on another.

      • Can’t say I like what Curtin says or how he says it. I mean do you real want to hear ” well that was a tough one, everyone just wasn’t at our best” or “We’re gonna be philly tough and grind out 1-0 games” (never happened) “everyone has to be good on the day for us to be a good team”. To me all these statements mean nothing I want to see some emotion some urgency and some tactics from this team not the same old information week after week about how they just didn’t do enough. While I don’t necessarily think Curtin should be fired with the better options coming up from coachings getting fired you certainly should consider other options if you want to improve this team. For example I don’t see Kries doing much with this roster and being successful, but Petke, Paunovic, or even someone else out there might have better tactical awareness to take this team to the next level in Earnie’s vision.

      • First, it’s very hard for us fans to know what is going on in the locker room, and whether it is too comfortable, not comfortable enough, or just right. You might WONDER about it, but that’s as close you’re gonna get.

        Second, what makes us think that the players need a good “shake”??? Maybe they just need a couple missing pieces, a good bench, and a clear vision/plan/philosophy to get behind?? I mean, I don’t know this for a fact — it remains to be seen exactly what will do the trick — but personally I think that’s exactly the wrong reason to do things.

        Finally, I think that judging Curtin from his post-game statements is a little silly. I mean, “That was a tough one…” blah blah blah is just standard-issue sports patter, and says nothing of interest one way or the other. I don’t really care much what Curtin (or any coach) says post-game — I care about what they DO in-game. For example, big minus for Curtin: terrible use of subs (though he improved much in this regard over the course of the season). Big plus for Curtin: exiling M’Bolhi at just the right time, which must’ve taken some stones, frankly. I think the jury is still out on Curtin, but the one thing the Union do not need right now is another spin on the coachy-go-round.

      • While my statement was just about what he says in response to the previous post that is not what I judge him on. However, what he says does have some effect as that is how we as fans get a chance to perceive him. The results are what I judge him on and they are not good. Personally I think he takes to long to react in every aspect of his coaching/managing. Making changes, exiling people from the team, changing up lineup (i.e. Wenger’s consistent bad play and Le Toux in the beginning of the season, playing young players, different formations, substitutions). He just lacks something to me he is not a top coach. He to me is a very good assistant right now I think this is his ceiling currently.

  10. Thanks Dan! All the comments and information from the readers is the best! Love that part of this coming from across the ocean! Thanks to everyone who joins in the fun of this site! “Men’s Wearhouse” !!! That made me laugh out loud! And I’ll give JC a bit of slack…I said 12/16 games on a different thead.Also a points per game increase is mandatory… Don’t know if that is the best way to judge improvement or not but its my thought. Thanks again everybody for making PSP my go to read !!

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