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Question to answer: Can Jim Curtin get the most out of his players?

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Editor’s note: To read each post in the Questions to Answer series, click here.

The 2017 Philadelphia Union have talent.

The question now is whether head coach Jim Curtin and his staff can get the most out of these players and fashion them into a winning team.

In the club’s eight years of play, the Union have achieved a winning record just once and made the playoffs only twice, a level of futility nearly unmatched in MLS. In truth, they have never really fully recovered from former head coach Peter Nowak’s implosion of the team after that lone winning season in 2011, cycling through former assistant coaches in the head role and struggling to repair a roster damaged by poor financial decisions after the Union gave Nowak full control of the club.

Now, finally, they appear to be moving past that under the direction of sporting director Earnie Stewart.

A lingering question is Curtin, a legacy and postscript of that period.

Curtin is well-regarded and liked as an individual, and few would be so short-sighted not to recognize at least his potential to be a successful head coach one day. Everyone, including Curtin, acknowledges that he was tossed into the deep end before he was ready to swim as a head coach in MLS, but he had to swim nonetheless.

He has two U.S. Open Cup finals, one playoff appearance, and more career losses than wins to show for it. He may be the winningest head coach in Union history, but he has also coached more games than his predecessors and has a similar, if slightly better, points per games rate. It’s a mixed record, clearly.

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This is likely the year that Curtin either shows he belongs at this level or moves on to other, less blue and gold pastures.

It may be a tough thing to admit about a likable guy with local roots who in some ways makes an ideal front man for the club, but the reality in MLS 3.0 is that you win or you leave. Fans no longer have patience for mediocrity.

The arrival of Gerardo Martino at Atlanta United changes the perception and credibility of MLS in the world market. If a club is willing to pay and demonstrate it will seriously invest in a winning team, then you don’t need to scrape the bottom of the barrel for coaches. Further, more and more former MLS players are developing into successful managers. The pool of coaching possibilities can be deeper than ever for a team willing to pay a manager his worth.

This year, Curtin has depth, quality veterans, and rising youngsters. He has a superstar goalkeeper who earns his team points with his own personal highlight reel. His staff of assistants may be light in quantity, but it has quality, with assistant B.J. Callahan’s creative set pieces showing a tangible contribution from a team that includes Mike Sorber, Oka Nikolov, and technical director Chris Albright.

Can Curtin and his team put it all together this year?

Possible answers

Yes, this is the year Curtin puts it together. 

A team is only as good as its players, and Curtin has good ones now. Ilsinho looks poised for a big year, appearing to have dropped 15 to 20 pounds from when he arrived in Pennsylvania last year. The forward corps is deep, and while there may not be a superstar among them, there could be 15 to 20 goals spread among a few players. Keegan Rosenberry, Andre Blake, Fabian Herbers, and Richie Marquez will likely continue to improve, Derrick Jones looks like he could be ready to make the leap, and Haris Medunjanin may be the Vincent Nogueira replacement this team has been seeking.

For the coach, it could be straightforward: Pick the right lineups, keep your tactics simple but sharp, use your substitutions intelligently, rest your players when necessary to keep them fresh and healthy, and you should see wins and a team playing in November.

No, because some people don’t change. 

All the depth in the world doesn’t matter if you don’t use it. If Curtin deploys personnel the way he has in the past, the fact that he has four or five MLS-quality strikers will mean nothing.

As a whole, the Union haven’t added superstars. They haven’t increased the top level of their talent with their additions. There is no Sebastian Giovinco or Ignacio Piatti among the bunch.

What they did was add quantity of quality. They may not feature greatness, but they may have more good players than ever before.

Curtin has to cycle through and use enough of his talent to keep players fresh for the long haul, whether that haul is a full 90 minutes or a full 34 games. If Chris Pontius starts 32 games this season or Rosenberry plays every minute again, it’s a sign that Curtin hasn’t changed, and you’ll probably see it reflected with a mediocre record.

Variables

If Curtin has demonstrated a fatal flaw, it’s his hesitance to trust his bench, as alluded to above. He has outright said he doesn’t believe in squad rotation, and we’ve seen too many games in which he didn’t even use all three subs.

True, there’s something to be said for continuity, and it’s true he hasn’t always had the deepest roster, but without fresh legs, you’re going nowhere.

Last year, Rosenberry played every minute of every game. By season’s end, he looked half the player he had been in mid-season, while former starter Ray Gaddis collected dust on the sidelines. C.J. Sapong’s confidence was spent after a goalless streak, but Curtin never committed to another option. And so it went.

This year, there is no such excuse. The Union go two deep with quality at nearly every position – more at some, such as attacking midfield. If Sapong can’t score, maybe Jay Simpson, Charlie Davies or a healthy Fafa Picault can. When the Union hit those three-games-in-eight-days stretch – their first is in mid-May – Gaddis has shown he can start in this league and can give Rosenberry a break. And so forth.

The roster and overall talent level have changed. Can Curtin?

Outlook

Curtin has shown he can be a decent coach in MLS 2.0, but decent doesn’t cut it anymore as the league transitions to a new level of quality. His team has a solid level of talent. More is expected and demanded by fans.

The 37-year-old Pennsylvania native may still be the league’s youngest coach, but at this point, Union fans are tired of being the league’s most consistently mediocre club and want to see a winning team.

Nobody looks at Bruce Arena and says, “Wow, what an innovative tactical genius this guy is.” Rather, they see a guy who manages people well and finds ways to get the best out of them, and that’s how he wins games.

That is the type of winning coach Curtin can be. The question is not whether he can do it, but whether he will. 

It’s time for him to answer that question.

21 Comments

  1. el Pachyderm says:

    Wait til Bob Bradley is hired at LAFC.

  2. This is why I love PSP. I woke up This morning planning to comment about Curtin and you write an article that fully articulates my thoughts.
    .
    I like Jim, the players like Jim. The atmosphere seems to be excellent, which is no small feat. I don’t get the sense he has full control over whether he can change the formation and broad view tactics, so I almost can’t blame him for that totally.
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    My real quandary is that I just don’t know if I believe in him to be that kick ass, winning, pushing coach who have full respect from players and opponents. It’s a tough spot bc you can’t really want to fire a guy for that. But at the same time can you ever really expect to be a dominant force?

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Agree on the PSP love… I have been commenting all week about Curtin, and my shaky faith in him, that he can take the necessary step forward. I just flat out don’t know. In my heart of hearts, I don’t think he can. I really don’t want to be having a Curtin conversation in June, about how he doesn’t use his bench, and we lost or were tied late, because he didn’t use the 3rd sub.
      .
      ES gave Curtin a bench, and ZERO excuses. He needs to be better this year.
      .
      Excellent article, as always, by the way 🙂

    • Paul Hanlin Jr says:

      4-4-10 in their last 18 games. This tells you all you need to know about Curtin. We should’ve gotten Sigi Schmid when we had the chance.

  3. Adam Schorr says:

    I do not think Jim Curtin is qualified to be a head coach in MLS. Nobody is surprised when I say this. But honestly, there’s not a ton I can really judge him on this year. Earnie Stewart has royally screwed him.
    .
    By all accounts, the 4-2-3-1 is by Stewart’s bidding. But Stewart simply hasn’t given Curtin the players he needs to pull it off. Claudio Ranieri was a legend with N’Golo Kante and fired in less than a season without him. Give the Union the best coach in the world, and I don’t think they can make this mess more than a mid-table team. Even if he gets the best out of all his players, no coach is going to make Medunjanin fast, Creavalle talented, or Onyewu a decade younger. Especially when they are told that they must play a specific formation.
    .
    I keep hearing about the Union’s depth, but I don’t see it. I see that we have a whole lot of CMs and wings, yet no quality striker, no clear CAM, no quality CDM, no quality second CB. Sure, we can survive if Rosenberry goes down, and probably if Fabinho goes down, and the LM/RM/CM positions we have like 10 guys for. But to really have tactical flexibility, you need depth at more than 3 positions. I’d like to know what lineup/formation can hide that we’re going to be starting a back 3 triangle of Medunjanin, Creavalle/Jones, and Onyewu. I don’t think it exists..
    .
    So this year, I’m not judging Curtin by whether he wins or loses. That’s largely going to come down to how many headstands Blake pulls off each game. I’m judging him on his substitution patterns, his in-game plan tweaks. His lineup rotations from game to game. But he’s going to finish below .500 this year, and that’s not his fault. But he’s gotta show that he’s learned from his previous mistakes.

    • Adam, how is the formation Stewart’s bidding when J.C. has repeatedly said when Stewart came in he asked Jim how he wanted the Union to play? The way this team is structured (formation, tactics[made myself laugh]) is on Curtin. Now as to how badly the holes were filled is on Stewart, no doubt.
      .
      I wouldn’t go so far as to say Jim isn’t an MLS coach, he is. He is because there are/have been worse coaches. He’s just not a good one. I’m still not sure what their record will be, and I’m not feeling positive about it.
      .
      Besides those things I’m mostly in agreement with you.

    • Zizouisgod says:

      “I do not think Jim Curtin is qualified to be a head coach in MLS.”

      Poor choice of words. He’s clearly qualified to be a MLS head coach. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t be able to actually have the job.

      You may think that he doesn’t have all of the attributes to be a successful manager in MLS and that being an entirely subjective analysis, only time will tell if he is or not.

    • Adam,

      I respect your commitment to pessimism, but I don’t understand how you can discount the credits to Curtin’s tenure that Dan does such a good job of describing above. Curtin is clearly a good man manager — look at Medunjanin’s comments in Kinkead’s piece this a.m. He is clearly liked and respected by his players. Also, he is committed to playing young talent and has demonstrated he’s capable of choosing that talent over loyalty to vets — just look at his main man Gaddis who was promptly buried in the fullback depth charts.

      That doesn’t mean he’s a great manager, but I think it counts for something. At the very least he has the temperament and is in possession of qualities that show he can be a great manager.

      That said, even though I think games are won and lost by players more than the manager, this squad is no longer, in my opinion, cover for poor performance. This team should be able to compete in this league. I’m going to hold them all accountable and not let them off the hook if they don’t demonstrate the quality to win.

  4. A few weeks ago, casually at a Steel practice indoors at YSC Sports, I asked Brendan Burke what the direct effects of the USL’s promotion to Division 2 status might be.
    .
    His immediate response was better referees assigned by PRO.
    .
    His second thought that came out casually as a matter of course was that the asset value of the roster would climb.
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    I was a little surprised at the matter-of-factness of Player as commodity, particularly since I think Burke cares about the well-being of his people. It was a high school coach talking to a professional one.
    .
    I share the vignette in this conversation because that is another way in which Jim Curtin’s evaluators in the organization will judge him. Did he increase the asset value of the roster? Has he made player X or player Y worth more in the marketplace?
    .
    it is a profit-or-loss business. As we all have fun trying to guess what they are thinking, or should be thinking, or should not have been thinking, we have to remember that Mr. Sugarman wants to see that asset value grow.
    .
    Never forget, Nicky Sak’s shares converted to meaningful ones only if the overall valuation of the enterprise as an asset reached a specific threshold. It did not and he was gone.
    .
    Does Jim Curtin’s coaching increase the value of the assets entrusted to him?
    .
    We won’t know till Earnie sells them, but it is a criterion against which he will be judged, an important one.

    • Tough metric. He’s certainly increased the values of Roesnberry, Marquez and Herbers. Only player I think who has clearly been hurt is Alberg. Can’t think of anyone else on the current roster who may have seen a slip in value based on playing time. Of course, much of the credit and blame should rest with the players, too.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Stellar.

    • “Does Jim Curtin’s coaching increase the value of the assts entrusted to him?”
      .
      First response, no. I get the idea of being willing to play young players is important. I agree. But I think there’s a difference between willingness to play younger players and actually making them better. Even putting them in a position to succeed, is not being willing to play them. I have trouble seeing where Jim has actually made someone better. It’s possible I’m blind or prejudiced. I just don’t see it.
      .
      You can dress up a pile of shit and it looks better than just a pile. Is that really increasing the value?

      • pragmatist says:

        Without citing a specific example, the truth is, they don’t need to actually be better. They simply need to appear better to a team in need.
        .
        Was Sam Bradford worth a first round draft pick? Not remotely. But there was a desperate team that needed him.
        .
        Basically, if you are looking to flip assets, you do that with young players and being able to sell the theory “they haven’t played to their potential yet.” There are plenty of egomaniacs who believe they can get the best out of anyone.

      • Point made. I guess I’m looking at it from the wrong perspective. I want a coach who makes the players better for the Union, not the appearance of it.

      • pragmatist says:

        Yeah, it sucks when you are a fan of the team flipping players. There are a host of “feeder clubs” in Europe where winning trophies is secondary to turning a profit on players. Hopefully that’s not us. I have little interest in becoming a stateside version of Southampton.

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