A View from Afar / Commentary

Jim Curtin comes into his own

Photo: Earl Gardner

Every coach looks better once he has better players, but some actually improve on their own. That may be happening with Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin.

One decision from Philadelphia’s 2-0 win Saturday over New York City FC illustrates the point nicely.

His team walked into halftime with a 2-0 lead but also with the knowledge that they have had two players ejected for second yellow cards yellow this year in just six games. The Union would come out for the second half with a different strategy, needing to preserve a lead at home rather than gain a lead. That meant defense (and probably possession) was more important than attack, and keeping all 11 players on the field was crucial.

Meanwhile, left back Fabinho had picked up a yellow in the 36th minute, which ensured he would be suspended for at least the next game due to yellow card accumulation. Considering Fabinho’s penchant for picking up cards — he has five this year, in just seven games — he was undoubtedly a risk to pick up another, particularly considering NYC’s Khiry Shelton and Steven Mendoza were consistently causing trouble for the Union fullbacks.

So Curtin looked down his list of substitutes and called on former starting fullback Ray Gaddis to replace Fabinho in the second half. Gaddis answered with a solid game on both sides of the ball. He played lockdown defense and, while he didn’t add much to the attack, he didn’t surrender any key giveaways either.

Curtin’s substitution was an extraordinarily smart, if common sense, move on a few levels.

  1. Curtin removed the threat of ejection. In 109 MLS starts, Gaddis has never been red carded.
  2. Gaddis is by far the best defender among the Union fullbacks.
  3. Gaddis is a more conservative attacking presence than Fabinho, leaving him less likely to be caught out of position on a counterattack.
  4. Gaddis had yet to see the field in the regular season and hasn’t played left back in an MLS game in a year, so this gave him 45 minutes to get his game legs at left back before starting Saturday at home against San Jose.

In retrospect, it was such an obviously smart decision, but it’s also a decision you could easily see many coaches not making.

“Shelton and Mendoza gave us fits in the first half,” Curtin said after the game. “It was actually in some ways similar to the Dallas first half when you have two speedy wingers. I think we got caught trying to get a little bit too tight to them and they were able to one-two. They have speed. I said at halftime to Fabinho, ‘Shelton is faster than you, that’s not changing.’ Keegan [Rosenberry], ‘Mendoza is faster than you, but there’s ways you can play it and not be so over aggressive and fly over the line, and just play it in a different way.’ So, I think we adjusted in the second half a little bit. I thought Ray [Gaddis] came in a did a very good job on Shelton. Ray can run with Shelton, so there’s a difference there.”

We may be seeing Curtin come into his own as a coach, not just because he made one good decision, but because that decision is illustrative of so many others.

Other Union thoughts
  • The Union are in first place! They have looked good, but don’t go crazy about that yet. If they were in the Western Conference, they would be in sixth place. Meanwhile, Toronto is one point off the pace without having played a home game yet this year.
  • If Tranquillo Barnetta can stay healthy the rest of the season — that’s a big IF — he is worth every penny. Captain, playmaker, and a player who sets the tone.
  • Imagine what the Union will look like when if everyone gets healthy. It hasn’t happened yet this season, but it helps that they probably have the deepest roster they’ve ever had.
  • Did Ken Tribbett just pull a Wally Pipp? Josh Yaro has looked pretty good. Not as good as Tribbett yet, but after just two professional games, pretty good and getting better.
  • Fabinho takes a lot of heat, including (particularly?) from me, but you have to give him credit for his improvement arc. Yes, his gambling tendencies produce at least one horror show every few months, but he has generally flourished in the Union’s all-out wingback system this year.


  1. John P O'Donnell says:

    I think it had more to do with the last point of getting him some minutes for the next match. He stated in the last press conference that you have to trust the player. So getting Ray some game minutes was probably top of the list.

    • I dunno. Watching Fabi get torched the entire first half by Shelton, I don’t think anyone was surprised to see him come off at halftime. I totally agree with Dan. Part of this more proactive Curtin may be due to having a deeper bench, but it is nice to see him trust his subs.

  2. The Copa looms like the Ides of March.
    Looks like he rightfully will survive… for now.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Was is the name of the soothsayer next to the Senate building’s square in The Bard’s Julius Caesar? :-).
      The personal style of EarnIe Stewart may have something to do with it. He sits in the stands at Lehigh, blue jeans and a sweater, I tipped my hat and he smiled. When he moved lower down at halftime, someone in front of me called out to him and they shook hands.
      Also, something no one at PSP with press access has yet addressed is the effect of more technical staff, both soccer people and sports science people.

  3. Not sure I’m savvy enough to evaluate Curtin’s effectiveness as a coach this year, but do believe he comes across as someone not burdened by too big of an ego – the kind of guy who’s willing to accept input from others, learn from mistakes, and adjust accordingly.

    • The thing that made me like Curtin last year is hat even though we were bad and went though a lot of garbage (previous gm, previous gk), he never seemed to lose the locker room. That spoke to me that the players respected him and could rally behind him. To me that is the first requirement of a coach.

      • to this point i’ll add that the turnover at the end of last and into the offseason could’ve hurt the team’s perception of him. talk of purging, better/younger talent than you (the player) coming in, coach might not be here long — thing like that. he weathered a lot and still has it.

  4. One thing I really liked from Curtin when he took over is that he never pretends like he should have all the answers. He has always admitted to anyone, likely even himself, that he is new to coaching and has a lot to learn. And most importantly, it does seem like this learning is taking place.
    Compare this with Vieira…

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      To be fair to Viera, his organization would never have hired a Jim Curtin. Their style is entirely different. They think they know what they are doing; Jay Sugarman knows he is learning, Curtin knows the same.

      • Fair about NYCFC but Sugarman was not pulling the strings himself until Sak was let go.
        And he knew what he was doing at all times (sarcasm).

    • I was positively baffled that Viera left Pirlo, Diskerud, AND McNamara out of the XI. I mean, I understand they had 3 games in 8 days, and they have to rotate the squad. But you rest ALL THREE of your central midfielders in one match???

      • You do if you’re afraid your traveling supporters might throw stuff at them.

      • Jim Presti says:

        It’s possible he thought they could be rested and the XI could pull out the away draw.

      • It’s also possible that he thought the other 2 matches were better opportunities for results. It’s hard for us to think of the Union as a good team, but their record is pretty good.

      • Read Adam cann’s analysis for the stratest behind that decision. In some ways, it actually worked. The toothless offense was not one of them.

      • It worked so well , they couldnt score against a mediocre defense. The game analysis was kind of funny, waxing rhapsodic about about defenders doing baisic stuff. Funny clip of the right fullback getting beat because he wasnt taught not to close someone down unless they have the ball. Maybe it is not smart to overanylize random events.

  5. While Curtin may in fact be improving I do not see this as any staggering impressive move. It was the obvious and needed move (yes at least he did it), but to me the ability to make a sub at half that is obvious is not improvement. When he actually adjust tactics in game to counteract opposing managers I will say he is improving. To many time there is an utter shift in the other teams approach and Curtin makes no adjustments whatsoever. Also, if you ask me its clear the Union is a team that can’t handle two speed wingers. I’ll say it again any time the Union face at team with 2 wingers of speed on the edge Gaddis should be in the lineup. I said it versus Dallas and I agree with it on all points. Sure Fabi and Rosenberry have done pretty well. But they get torched for speed.

    • It’s not a “staggering impressive” move, but it’s something he would not have done even at the beginning of this season. So, it shows some growth in the role. That’s Dan’s point.

  6. I was in the camp of making sure we, and by “we” of course I mean the entire Union organization, took a step forward this year. Obviously this included Curtain. He isn’t perfect, but he has grown and gotten better. Even if he did have to be talked into the Gaddis / Fabi swap, he still allowed someone to do that… and then, smartly, heeded that advice. I also really can’t complain about his starting XI choices so far either.

  7. The opening sentence is the thesis that we hope will be tested: how well does JC manage a deeper, better team when we are match fit and healthy playing against one of the better teams that require adjustments. TBD.

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