Commentary

What if coaching isn’t the problem?

Photo by Earl Gardner

We’re in the eighth year of Philadelphia Union soccer, and for what feels like the eighth time we’re having a crisis. Results aren’t meeting expectations, and everyone wants to know what can be done to change that. Some blame goes to the players, as it should, but this time around a healthy dose of it is being aimed at head coach Jim Curtin.

Before taking that any further, let’s consider the quality of coaching that has passed through Chester, because I think I’ve found a significant pattern.

Piotr Nowak (2009-2012, 22-32-24)

Let’s get one thing straight: this discussion has nothing to do with the well-documented non-soccer problems during Nowak’s tenure. Getting rid of him was the right choice regardless of how well the team performed on the field. But even though his record with the Union wasn’t awful, it was nothing special, and very few fans were sorry to see him go after the trades of favorites like Sebastien LeToux and Danny Califf.

Since leaving Philadelphia, he spent some time as the head coach for the national team of Antigua and Barbuda, but the real news here is his return home to Poland. He is currently in his second year coaching Lechia Gdańsk, raising them to fifth place last season and sitting comfortably at fourth this year. There are a few similarities between the Polish Ekstraklasa and MLS, specifically the fact that neither is a top flight league with the financial backing to allow coaches the freedom to build “dream” rosters. In fact, MLS might have an edge on the Ekstraklasa there, as the average revenue per team is around $28 Million here in North America, while Poland only averages about $5.2 Million.

So there are limits to comparisons between Lechia and the Union, and Nowak is certainly benefiting from facing less steep competition than he was in MLS.

But however you slice it, you can’t say he is bad at his job. He is capable of putting together a team of less-than-ideal players and getting results, something he failed to do reliably while working in Philadelphia.

John Hackworth (2012-2014, 26-32-19)

Even though his average 1.43 points per game are the best of any Union coach so far, it became clear pretty quickly in 2014 that Hackworth simply wasn’t going to get the Union the results they needed. He was famously liked by the players, who went so far as to organize a group hug after a home match shortly before his firing. But fans and team ownership clearly had a different opinion, and he was ousted as the team began a “global” talent search for his replacement.

Since that low point, he’s been named head coach for the USMNT U-17s, a position for which he would seem to be well suited considering his reputation for player development. The results support that assumption as well, as he’s achieved an outrageous 21-7-5 record in just a little over a year. Granted, U-17 wins aren’t the same as first team wins, and coaching a national team is a completely different animal from a club team. But a record like that doesn’t happen if a coach is bad at his job.

Jim Curtin (2014-present, 32-22-43)

Which brings us to today.

A lot of blame has been put on Curtin for the fact that the team has gone winless since August. And there is certainly a case to be made for that blame. Even Curtin himself acknowledges that.

Obviously we can’t yet know what Curtin will do when he is no longer coaching the Union, but we can look to the rest of his U.S. Soccer Pro License graduating class. These were the first people to meet US Soccer’s highest standard of coaching education, completing a year long course including online and in-person instruction, club assessment, and personal interviews. So it isn’t completely without meaning to say that Jim Curtin met the same standards as Sigi Schmid, Tab Ramos, and Jason Kreis. That isn’t to say he’s as good a coach as they are, but it is indisputable evidence that he isn’t a bad coach.

So despite the team’s established history of underperforming, they’ve always been led by coaches who are at least average in fulfillment of their duties. That doesn’t mean removing (or considering removing) any of them was a mistake. Sometimes even good coaches need to move on for a team to progress.

But if all three of these men have failed to make the Union a successful team, it would be unreasonable to expect a fourth to manage it, unless other significant changes happen as well.

45 Comments

  1. I think it’s hard to fully evaluate the coach. They had a good run early last year, with better pieces in place. Roster construction this year is just a mess.

  2. This might be one of those moments in which separation can lead to growth for both groups. A new coach to shake the players out of complacency, and a new challenge for Curtin, wherever that is.

  3. I made this comment somewhere yesterday, but I’ll say it again: I don’t think this roster is particularly good, but I think it’s better than its results. We can try to sift through the many mysteries here about how much say Curtin has in the roster building and player selection or how much influence Stewart has in the formation, but there are facts that can’t be disputed: Curtin is a young and inexperienced coach.

    I think he has the ability to understand a tactical approach and how to lecture on it to his players, but he doesn’t have the experience to adjust in a game or how to really get his players to buy in. He doesn’t have years of adversity and learning to get through it at his disposal. This roster right now needs craft, gumption and guile. Mauro Biello is a good example. Do what it takes to get results.

    When I watch that Piatti goal video, the more I watch it, the more I see nearly every player without a clue as to where they should be or what they should do. I see example after example in defense and on the attack of missed cues, poor decisions and fumbled set piece plans that should rest squarely on the coach. On nearly any other pro team in any other sport, Curtin would have been gone and we would have a hard time finding fault in the decision.

    • Mauro Beillo, the coach of 7 points this year is a good example of what? Give the Union Piatti instead of Ilsinho and we are looking better than we do. We also have started out every game (except Orlando) pretty well but can sustain it. Probably because we have a bunch of pathetically poor stamina players brought in to play a high press system. Honestly, we should have cut Alberg when he showed up to camp so outta shape just to send a message.
      .
      I agree Curtin needs to get better at his adjustments, but lets not pretend he never makes them even if they haven’t resulted in points yet.

      • Outside of Piatti who has quality and Oyongo who is 25, Montreal is wall to wall old guys who are lucky they’re not rolling around the pitch in wheel chairs. (I say that with the affection of someone a few years the senior of their oldest player). Biello is a coach who has taken that group to a CONCACAF final and gave Club America a scare — this prior to Drogba joining the team. He’s battled deep into the playoffs the last two seasons, first with Drogba and a second time with Drogba somewhat actively trying to sabotage the whole club. And he’s a guy who saw the Union’s weakness and coached his club back from a 3 goal deficit to a draw. Interestingly, his first team head coaching career is a bit shorter than Curtin’s, but he was the team’s assistant for three or four years. He’s tactically and results-wise, Curtin’s superior. He straight up outcoached Curtin. Probably helps that he’s 7 years older than Curtin.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        I’d gladly have Anthony Jackson-Hamels on my 18.
        .
        Dominic Oduro’s wheelchair has a rocket for a motor.

      • Well tactically Curtin outcoached the crap outta him in the first half. And the first goal had nothing to do with Biello and everything to do with Piatti. Plus just because a lot of those guys are old doesn’t mean they are bad. I mean I’d take a bunch of those players. Not that I want an old team but position by position they are better than the Union in most places.

      • The one reason I’m tempted to hang on to Curtain is that his game plans seem to be very, very solid. We always seem to be on the front foot to start off.
        .
        We’re not going to be great this season regardless, it may make sense to hang on to Jim to see if he can improve his ability to make in game adjustments to counter his opponent.

      • But there’s two halves in a game. I don’t think Curtin is a bad coach as much as he’s just not experienced. He’s a really intelligent and honest guy, but his green is showing. This club is his job training for better and mostly for worse.

      • Fair. I completely agree. Hopefully the better comes soon.

  4. He isn’t perfect but he seems to be honest with himself about how he is doing. If someone is capable of honest self reflection they have one up on a lot of other people in their capability to learn and improve.
    .
    I don’t think he has ever really had complete team to manage so it is difficult to place most of the responsibility on him. To me it seems like the closest he had to a full roster was early last season when the team was doing well but it was so shallow that the loss of one player made the whole thing fall apart. I don’t think that replacing him is going to make the team improve

  5. el Pachyderm says:

    What if coaching is the problem.

    • I don’t think the is “the” problem. Everything is a problem so far.

    • +1

      .

      Union can have more than one problem at once. Coach hasn’t showed anything over 3 years, ES has more misses than hits with his pick ups, and Union continue to spend poorly and less than the rest of the league.

      • We were first in the conference last year a decent way into the season. That’s showing something even though it did all come crashing down.

  6. JediLos117 says:

    Yes coaching education matters but doesn’t it matter more so how I apply that education to real world situations?
    .
    In my opinion…Curtin just doesn’t have what it takes as evident by pre-game and in-game decision making.

  7. Adam Schorr says:

    “That isn’t to say he’s as good a coach as they are, but it is indisputable evidence that he isn’t a bad coach.”
    .
    I mean, no? I’m a lawyer. The Bar Exam is a hard test and only a limited number of people pass it every year. There are good lawyers and bad lawyers. Passing a test (or being granted a license, whether it be coaching or driving or something else) doesn’t mean you’re good at it, it means you’ve met the bare minimum requirement. Curtin has met the bare minimum qualifications for being called a Certified Head Coach. That doesn’t change the fact that he is an absolutely terrible one.
    .
    And yet I still don’t think coaching is the biggest problem, because as I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t think the best coach in the world could turn this group into more than an average-at-best team.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      What if average at best was the goal by the sporting director (and owner TBH) and therefore the coach is woefully not meeting that standard Adam?
      .
      .
      What if mid table IS the expectation.

      • Adam Schorr says:

        Then it would be a helluva lot cheaper to just bring in better players than it would be to bring in the class of coach it would take to get this hodgepodge group there.

  8. What if it is the problem, and we simply have had 3 bad coaches in a row?

    • Jim O'Leary says:

      Did you read the article?

      • I’m sory but if the argument for having good coaches is a good year in Poland and a good cycle with a U17 team that has upper tier talent in it’s federation, we have very very very, very low standards.

  9. Old Soccer Coach says:

    The guy who handed me my first actual game to Coach/manage fifty years ago gave be one major instruction, and I quote,” match ups.”
    .
    The corollary is identify your advantageous ones and figure out how best to use them, you opposite ones and figure out how to protect them.
    .
    I understand there are substantial, meaningful benefits to an institution wide single philosophy that provides a single template to all teams for all practices and all games.
    .
    At the same time, if it is enforced too rigidly, or applied too rigidly it denies sufficient creative flexibility to respond to the situation developing on the ground.
    .
    Whether it is the charge of the Scits Greys at Waterloo, the improvisational remount and charge by cavalry that won for the Black Prince at Poitiers, or Alexander the Great’s timing of the heavy cavalry charge at Chaeronea, individual judgment on the ground can be key, as it was in those three cases.
    .
    The theory of the German General Staff as created by Von Moltke the Elder was that any trained officer would solve the problem the same way.
    .
    At the same time later on within that same military institution, I believe I know that it survived badly outnumbered for three years on the Russian front in WW2 because its sergeants had the training and flexibility to make major decisions.
    .
    Everybody being on the same page, yes.
    .
    Giving command authority to those actually in the forward positions fighting on the ground, also yes.
    .
    Part of the reason they survived the Red Army so long against the numerical odds was the rigidity of the Soviet command structure. To give you the most sublimely idiotic example I know, twenty-four hours after the Germans had invaded shooting, central Command HQ — Stavka — had not issued orders allowing its army to shoot back! A bit over centralized and micromanaged.
    .
    My point is that the Vision, Philosophy and Plan has to be there, but the flexibility and trust to allow the people most acquainted with the immediate tactical problem (the guy actually up to his ass in the alligators) the freedom and resources to solve it must be there as well.
    .
    Sometimes the template seems to be applied overly rigidly.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Incidentally, Alexander was 18 when he made the Chaeronea decision. The decision was his alone to make.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Interesting thoughts… and I once again refer to Eat Grass the documentary on Antonio Conte which at one point boils down to the Italian Coaching Federation’s belief that single formation rigidity is nonsensical… and has nothing to do with individual coaching or club philosophy. Conte is but an example of the overarching principal.
      .
      A PhilosophY of play come first. The FormatioN(s) bend(s) and move(s) according to assets, match ups, player movement, injuries, advantages and disadvantages.
      .
      JSNTTR.
      .
      Just
      Say
      NO
      To
      Tactical
      Rigidity

      • We have formational rigidity. Not sure if the tactical rigidity is as prevalent as is made out to be. Yes we are not switching things up like crazy every single week, but there have been many different wrinkles thrown in each game depending on the opponent. Of course the adjustments have not been good enough, but we have dominated the first 30 minutes of most games, including Toronto, NYCFC, and Montreal.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Apologies. Your are correct sir. JSNTFR.
        .
        I fully recognize also the manager has altered the formation at terminus points in game (pretty sure I saw 9 forwards at one point, I jest) but that was the effect of a cause… namely, getting out coached, out played or chasing some result any result.

    • I guess you could call Curtin the Russians in this instance. Stalin had purged most, if not all his top brass, and were basically starting from the ground up.

    • As a big military history buff, hat’s off with this analogy!

    • Pretty good OSC, ………I’ll add one major piece to your coaching advice……..hide your weakness. Every team has one and the best coaches mask it wonderfully!

  10. OneManWolfpack says:

    So if the roster sucks and it’s not all Curtin’s fault… what has he (or to an extent – ES) done to compensate for this? Nothing. With the exception of Montreal… They trot the same lineup out, in the same formation, with the same subs, and get the same results.
    .
    A better manager and we have maybe 2 wins… but that’s 2 more than we currently have. The problems are layered for sure… but while you’re in this mess, you need to change and adapt to maximize what you have… so if what you have gets you 6 wins at year’s end… you have 6 wins, not 3.
    .
    Curtin has to go if the winless streak continues past next week at home vs NYRB – especially if both games are losses… not draws. Just for the sheer optics of showing the fans you still give a shit about the rest of this season and that you are actually trying.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      100%. IMO. Please see above.

    • +1.

      Hell, how many times did we have a lead in this winless streak only to lose it?

    • The lineup has not even remotely been the same this year. That’s nonsense. The subs haven’t even been the same. Unfortunately when you have Ilsinho, Alberg, and Pontius starting you know you have to burn subs on each guy because you’re lucky if they go 60 minutes.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Then stop high pressing?

      • I keep on hearing how we are a ‘pressing’ team. We don’t press.
        .
        CJ and Pontius press and everybody else watches.
        .
        Alberg doesn’t press. Ilsihno doesn’t press. Bedoya was pressing, but now he’s back too far and doesn’t press any more.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Fair. I use the language to parallel the manager’s use of pressing, which I believe has come up a few times.

      • I am 100% on board with stopping the high press. It doesn’t fit too many starters.

  11. Your statistics are wrong for all 3 coaches. Did you include exhibitions and friendlies and Cup matches? Hackworth earned 1.22 PPG not 1.46
    .
    If he had hit those kind of numbers we would have hit 49.64 points on average. Jim Curtin hasn’t won 30 games, much less 32 unless you’re giving him credit for the Suncoast Invitational.
    .
    So if the basis of the thesis were these stats, I’d say coaching has/is and probably will be part of the problem. The rest is lack of FO infrastructure that has been missing since Day Zolo.

    • Jim O'Leary says:

      It’s all contests, not just league play. Which does make ppg a bit of a foggy stat to use, but the stats are far from the thesis of what I’m trying to say. I’d say the point I’m trying to make is that changing coaches won’t change results, the Union have had two not-terrible coaches in the past yet still failed to meet expectations.

      • That’s stretching it. All things being relative, how do they perform against other coaches and the answer is “poorly”.

        .
        While I long for the halcyon days of Piotr and his TWO playoff games and not coddling players with luxuries like water, he obviously had some limitations.
        .
        Hackworth is not a pro coach. Full stop. That’s it. Not even sure he’s NCAA D1 material.
        .
        Curtin seems to bump his ginger noggin on his own ceiling. In parts of four seasons here he has yet to show he can adapt tactically in game. That’s the death knell, career suicide. I’m glad he took some classes and got a certificate. It hasn’t translated into results here.
        .
        MLS results are like 1.20 PPG for Jim, 1.22 Hack and like 1.17 for Piotr. Off the top of my head as wifi is intermittent on this flight. Those are the numbers to judge them by. In which case, as is our tradition “, coaching is a/the/one of problem.

  12. The Chopper says:

    I think the abilities of the Union coaches (sans Nowak’s mental state) have been adequate. Perhaps the biggest problem is that until this season, I have always sensed that a large portion of the fanbase has grossly overestimated the abilities of many of the players on the Union roster. Thus they think with better coaching these inadequate players would be performing at a higher level than they are capable of.

    Most of these departed Union players have failed to find meaningful minutes at the MLS or better level elsewhere. Yet, Union fans tend to say the Union ruined them as opposed to accepting the fact that they just aren’t that good. Yes superior coaches get more out of inadequate rosters, but those coaches are rare. It is easier to acquire good players if the right people are running your club.

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