Commentary / Union

Maybe Jim Curtin isn’t insane after all

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Is that a bit much? I don’t mean to say that Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin has lost his mind or should be locked up somewhere. It’s not that he’s lost a grip on reality — not quite.

I’m more referring to the widely spread definition of insanity, which can be found here. It’s a concept that most Union supporters should be familiar with — does the 4-2-3-1 ring any bells? It should actually ring all the bells because it’s the formation Curtin has been putting out there since the beginning of time. Now, as it turns out, Einstein never defined insanity that way and the actual definition is much different, but for the sake of this argument, let’s pretend it rings true. Let’s also pretend that, up to this point in his tenure, calling Curtin insane isn’t at all outlandish.

There have been many home matches the last few seasons — many road trips, many losing streaks and even a few crucial cup matches. Different players have come and gone, but a lot of them have stayed in that 4-2-3-1 setup through all of it. A lot of them have gotten Curtin’s blessing despite struggling mightily. Change has been minimal.

There have been times when a tactical switch seemed obvious or a player swap seemed inevitable and nothing happened. With seemingly nothing to lose, the same starting lineup was tweeted out and fans groaned collectively. Curtin isn’t known for making any drastic changes in the middle of the season and, in fact, it’s become one of this biggest criticisms. It’s part of why slumping players like C.J. Sapong get thrown under the spotlight, but it’s also part of why last week’s 4-3 win over Chicago was so surprising.

Scoring four goals is shocking enough, but Curtin actually rolled the dice in this one — more like, we found out Curtin actually has dice to roll. He did the unthinkable and benched Sapong at striker. He benched the team’s leading goal-scorer last season and you know what, Jim? It worked. Cory Burke scored twice and your team won on the road for the first time in two months. Say what you will about the goals and mock Richard Sanchez all you want, but the fact is Burke was put in the game to score and he scored. That’s it.

People are now claiming Harry Kane had a subpar World Cup and doesn’t deserve the Golden Boot, but it’s not about deserving it. He scored the most goals and won the award. It’s really a very simple science. Sapong is paid to score goals and he hasn’t scored since May. He’s scored twice in the league. In a recent match against Atlanta United, I gave him a 2/10 rating and someone called it generous — that tells you all you need to know. He deserved to be benched because Major League soccer doesn’t care about who you are or how many times you scored last year. It demands consistent production and if you can’t provide it, on to the next guy. At least, that’s the way it is at most clubs.

Honestly, Burke’s brace doesn’t look all that great right now. He’s a promising young forward, but it just looks like Curtin should have made the switch sooner. He’s beyond the point of praise for lineup changes or tactical tweaks. If he doesn’t use all three substitutes in a loss, people answer “because Curtin” to the obvious questions. At the end of the day, that’s on him. It’s not solely his responsibility to evaluate players and make the appropriate moves, but he’s getting paid more than the other coaches for a reason.

As jubilant as the late winner from David Accam was, it was also a reminder in disguise — a reminder that positive changes are often rotting on the bench.

But I’m willing to give Curtin another chance here. He made the right call at striker and it paid off. Fine. Do it again. If Sapong belongs on the bench, keep him there. If, over the next few weeks, his role needs to be to come on the pitch late and preserve a lead instead of build one, do what’s best for the squad.

Right now, Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie look flustered in the back. They’re playing like the teenagers they are, which ultimately can help them, but it’s leading to conceded goals. Mix things up. Throw Jack Elliott back in there and see what happens. Don’t keep starting them and expecting the results to suddenly change because, as a mysterious novelist once said, that would be insane.

And by the way, that goes for all positions. If the 1-0 win over Frankfurt displayed anything in the middle of the campaign, it’s that Curtin has a large pool of talent to work with. Not all guys are MLS ready, but not all guys have gotten a proper chance. Inevitably a few more starters will struggle this season and inevitably there will be a backup itching to prove a point. Give them that chance and don’t hesitate to do it.

From my perspective, I don’t understand why Curtin hasn’t changed the formation recently. I can’t quite grasp why the tactics are always the same if the team isn’t winning. Can’t Sapong play next to another striker? I don’t want to bother with those questions because, like many involving the club, they’re recycled. I’d just like to point out that if Curtin doesn’t make available changes that are on the table, he’s failing to do what a lot of other coaches would.

A lot of other coaches wouldn’t flirt with being…insane.


  1. I don’t think Curtin is insane. Rather, he’s just a bad coach that fails to maximize his talent and adjust to his opponent.


    Honestly, it doesn’t matter. He’s on his fifth season and I expect he’ll be back for his sixth. Results don’t matter here.

  2. Part of the difficulty with truly evaluating Curtin has been the spectre of Earnie, and his influences and limitations.

    To wit: there’s been discussion about whether the fixation on the formation really comes from Curtin, or from Earnie. And with regard to not using his bench: some of that has been from just not having the right pieces, and that too is on Earnie. But Earnie is just about out the door, so these will no longer be issues.

    Also, there is no question that his inclination to stick with players through slumps has been rather ridiculous. It is certainly the case that Curtin no longer deserves any benefit of the doubt; just like Sapong, he’s got to produce at this point, or he should be out.

    • Tim Jones says:

      I would suggest that perhaps the longevity of the 4-2-3-1 shape comes not from either the head coach or the sporting Director per se but from the decision adopted informally nearly three years ago and formally 2 and 1/2 to play a single system throughout the entire organization, so players could more easily slot up and down in the same positions for the various teams.
      There are costs to the idea, but also benefits. The benefits are especially easy to see between the U-18/19s and Steel FC. Players move seamlessly between practice with one and practice with the other.
      It has the benefit of removing a change of system from the equation when evaluating a player who is newly playing up, and the fundamental bottom line of this business organization is talent identification.
      The biggest job for the talent new to this organization brought in in January, April and July is to learn the specific roles in the overall system. Michee Ngalina and Prosper Chiluya had to learn that. Brenden Aaronson and Ben Ofiemu already knew that from the academy.
      I do not observe Jim Curtin as carefully as a fan as I do Brendan Burke as a writer. But both make tactical tweaks within the underlying shape regularly.
      if you consider the defensive responsibilities of the striker and the attacking center midfielder, pressure on the enemy back line ball carrier comes from whomever is closer between the two of them.
      it is still a 4-2-3-1 but look at the differences between the way Cory Burke plays it and Sapong does.
      The red constant is four across the back, and that’s defensively.

  3. Zizouisgod says:

    TBH, I’m not really sure what the point of this article is.

    Curtin made one change to his starting XI for a midweek road match and it was for an underperforming striker who hadn’t scored in a league match since April 28th. Making that change is hardly doing “the unthinkable”.

  4. The Chopper says:

    The sticking with slumping C.J. is a Curtin thing. The adherence to formation, I’m not sure. As Earnie is the builder of the long term plan and vision it very well maybe his call to sacrifice short term gains (a few points here and there) to continue to build the structure he wants and repeat it. Since we likely won’t have a new vision in place until next season, we won’t find out before the end of this campaign.

  5. The Truth says:

    Curtin will have a job as long as he doesn’t rock the boat (or get too experimental and draw attention). Results are not expected here and people will still buy tickets to the lackluster, [mostly] unchanging crap. Sugarman doesn’t expect much and Jimbo doesn’t provide much.

  6. scottymac says:

    I’ve read this twice, mostly because I’m still jet lagged and doubted my own faculties. Nonetheless, I’ve no idea what your point is. Is he crazy for sticking with to his “knives to a gunfight” or is he crazy because he made one switch and it paid off?
    Or are we crazy because as much as we don’t want to care anymore, we still do?

  7. Atomic Spartan says:

    For my own sanity, I’ve adopted Darth Harvey’s viewpoint, to wit: “Nothing the Union do or achieve happens on purpose.”
    Curtin had to start Burke or face utter humiliation and a hail of derision the next time he walked into a Talen homegame. He had to put Accam in because Ilsinho got hurt. Both moves were forced, not intentional. The rest of his personnel decisions were pretty much same-old same-old.
    Curtin has yet to demonstrate an ability to mold player skill or tactics to the formation. 4231 may make sense long term for the organization, but he has yet to master the ability to coach to it on the first team. While he continues his OJT, nothing really happens on purpose.

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