For Pete's Sake / Union

With another collapse, Union hit the ceiling of the Jim Curtin era

Photo: Paul Rudderow

They never had a chance.

The Philadelphia Union’s 2018 season — by some metrics the best season in franchise history — came to a crashing end on Wednesday night on a baseball field in the Bronx.

A far superior New York City FC team tore the Union to shreds from the opening kickoff, with the final scoreline flattering the Union.

For the second time in three years, the Union scraped into the playoffs with the sixth seed, and became the first team eliminated with a 3-1 blowout.

There is plenty of blame to go around, and plenty that the new sporting director, Ernst Tanner, will need to do with an ungainly roster in the offseason.

But one thing is evident after yet another big-game collapse.

The Union cannot bring Jim Curtin back as their manager.

A tactical mess

The problem with never changing your tactics is that if you absolutely need to change them, you have no experience playing any other way.

For the entire year, Jim Curtin played Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin exclusively as deep-lying midfielders. The squad played exclusively a 4-2-3-1, a formation that allowed them to use ball control and width to squeeze opponents into submission — when they had a willing opponent.

When the going got tough, though, teams began to adjust, and the Union had no tactical answer.

The first worrying signs should have been seen when Montreal Impact came to Talen Energy Stadium and sliced through the Union on the counter-attack in September.

If the lesson wasn’t learned then, it should have by the time Houston Dynamo ended the Union’s dream of hoisting the U.S. Open Cup title within twenty minutes in late September.

By the time Sunday rolled around, it seemed like madness that the Union would be unprepared for a team that they couldn’t break down or box in. And yet, there they were, rolling out the same set-up letting the goal of a home playoff match predictably slip away.

Last night, to his credit, Curtin realized that using the same lineup that lost to City would be suicide. He inserted Warren Creavalle in the midfield, pushing Alejandro Bedoya up to right wing and dropping C.J. Sapong to the bench.

And yet that approach was doomed from the start. How many times had the Union started Creavalle with Medunjanin in the midfield this year? (Once, at Columbus.) How many times had Bedoya played the wing? (Zero, to the best of my recollection.)

With everything on the line, Curtin had no choice but to put the team in an unfamiliar position — because he refused to try anything different until he had no other choice.

That’s a recurring problem with Curtin, of course. There’s a decent argument to be made that the catalyst for the Union’s hot streak over the summer was Cory Burke replacing C.J. Sapong at striker. Curtin didn’t make that change proactively. He waited as long as he possibly could, until it was literal insanity not to start the lively Burke over the ice-cold Sapong, so wedded was he to whatever Sapong does off the ball to make up for his goal-scoring woes.

Curtin has never understood that sometimes a coach needs to be proactive, rather than reactive, with lineup decisions.

On Wednesday night, it cost the Union dearly.

When the lights go on, Curtin’s men get small

Jim Curtin is now 0-5 as a manager in MLS playoff games and U.S. Open Cup finals.

When the Union have found success under his watch, it’s been early in the season. In 2016, the club got off to a hot start. 2017 and 2018 saw winning streaks under starry summer skies.

But when the calendar turns to fall, Curtin’s teams inevitably collapse. The 2016 and 2017 teams faded into irrelevance as the season reached their conclusion.

This year, the Union finished with four losses in six matches. Needing just one point from two matches to secure a vital home playoff game, the Union earned zero — and looked bad doing it.

The problems on Wednesday night were familiar to anyone who watched the U.S. Open Cup final. There was the early goal that took the wind out of the team’s sails. There was the listless, unfocused attempt to execute a gameplan in response, only to see the other side double their advantage easily. There was the meek acceptance of the inevitable, of a team deciding that all hope was long lost.

To be clear, the Union’s players were individually putrid on Wednesday night. The defense looked their age, and got no help from the supposedly veteran midfield. Borek Dockal played, according to the box score. So did Bedoya. Medunjanin popped up long enough to point at his man repeatedly and pick up a stupid yellow card for dissent. Fafa Picault spent the game in a state of pent-up rage. Only Ilsinho, who came on at halftime, seemed eager to make things happen — he did create the consolation goal.

It’s clear that there’s a leadership gulf on this team. That implicates those veteran midfielders, sure.

But when a team fails to turn up for big game after big game, that must fall on the manager.

Whatever Curtin is doing, it’s not enough to get this team past a six seed and an early exit.

Ambition or mediocrity

There are plenty of other things I could say (and have said) about Jim Curtin’s performance as Union manager over the last 4.5 seasons.

But I think it all boils down to one simple question.

After another failure on the big stage, how can the Union look their fans in the eye and send Jim Curtin out on the touchline to start the 2019 season?

And this season was a failure — a failure to earn a home playoff game, a failure to win the U.S. Open Cup, a failure to look remotely competitive in the playoffs, a failure to develop any young players other than Trusty and McKenzie, and above all else a failure to prove to the devoted masses why they should be devoted to this club.

Not all of the blame belongs to Curtin. But there’s little evidence that he deserves credit.

After five years as the club’s manager, we know that this is the best he can do.

If the Union have any ambition at all, they’ll bring in a new voice and try to do better.

36 Comments

  1. 100% disagree with the tone and content. The mistake yesterday was changing from a 4-2-3-1 and trying something different. Jim Curtin (and Earnie Stewart) has focused the system on the 4-2-3-1 and is making everyone in the system excel in that formation. They may not be excelling yet, but this year the Union had a really good and fun to watch system, the Steel made it into the playoffs pretty deep, and the Academy has played well in cup action. I say bring him back, keep pursuing the 4-2-3-1 across the system, get Jones and other system players more time, and buy a striker. Final thing, 18-20 year olds make mistakes. We can’t blast Jim Curtin for not playing youth, then blasting him because they make mistakes.

    • Jim’s a good guy, but I’m over having to watch him learn on the job. He’s had 5 seasons. I think it would be best for the club and manager to go their own respective ways at this point.

    • 100% the problem is accepting mediocrity

    • I’m sorry Drew but what season/seasons have you been watching? We need a coach with a decent record and who has experience. Jim’s subbing tactics have been horrible all year and prior to this year. One huge example ? Medujanin was almost never subbed off when it was clear that he was playing like shit and it happened a lot this year. We need a new coach that can create a team who can change formations on a dime. I’ll say it again , every team is a counter attacking team. To create the identity that a team is just a counterattacking team and that alone is a fallacy. #droptheCurtin!!!!!

    • I have no problem if a sporting director / GM / manager want to play the same formation at all levels (though a good manager and team should be able to play in more than one formation), but please, *please* stop it with the Steel made it deep into the playoffs. I love soccer, I love the Union, but I could care less about the Steel. Love the Phillies, don’t mind going to minor league ball, but if the Iron Pigs win AAA it matters not one bit if the Phils fail to make the playoffs. And the Steel going deep is not a predictor by any means of future Union success.

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    ….long slow whistle.

  3. Good points, Peter. I think it’s time to move on from Curtin, much like a national team moves on from their coach after a World Cup cycle. I can’t come out to a Curtin team next year and expect anything better than 6th place again…

  4. OneManWolfpack says:

    Another comment on another story said it succinctly: If you aren’t going to spend money on the players, please spend it on a manager. Curtin has to go. That alone will earn you a couple points more and this game is played at Talon.

    • Change does not always mean better. I’m not saying they should 100% keep Curtin, but lets not just assume another coach would get us more points. It’s impossible to tell.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      Actually, the research says otherwise: there’s no point in changing coaches unless you’ll also change players. Teams don’t get better because of a coaching change, on average.

  5. I’m going to question whether Peter Andrews was the best option to write this article. When I read that he considered the season a failure, I went and checked the preseason round table to see where he stood back then.
    .
    https://phillysoccerpage.net/2018/02/27/psp-roundtable-chat-on-philadelphia-union/
    .
    He didn’t make a specific prediction as to their finish but he did say their “ceiling” was 4th place. They missed that by 1 point (including 3 points lost to 2 highly questionable VAR calls in the last 4 games). He also said that the Union’s biggest weakness going into the season was their manager.
    .
    So while I generally respect Peter’s opinions, I’m thinking that if an article was coming with this theme (and based on the various comments after last night’s game, I figured it probably was), it probably should have come from someone else.
    .
    That being said, I’m not as convinced as everyone else that Curtin has hit his ceiling. This was a team that most of us weren’t expecting to do much better than this (and as I’ve said, the difference between 4th and 6th was as small as some questionable calls) and many thought they would do much worse. And that was with the expectation that Accam wouldn’t have been a complete bust.
    .
    Curtin has shown the ability to improve. He has rotated the squad more than in the past. People were calling for a lineup change last night and he made one. He lost 3 Open Cup finals, but what about the wins that got them there? Every one of those games was do or die.
    .
    I for one do not have a problem keeping Curtin and watching the team continue to improve.

    • Agreed, JC has not hit his ceiling. That’s obvious. So how much longer will it take till he does? And how many of us will still be in the stadium then?

      • Darth Harvey says:

        Right…. I mean if it took me an hour and a half to run a mile, you can commend me for making it a mile away from where I started, but can you compliment my speed? Especially when I am competing in a 5k? Would you watch me take 4.5 hours to run 3 miles?

    • I do want to respond briefly to this, because I don’t think it’s totally fair.

      When I wrote before the season that the team’s ceiling was fourth place, that assumed that the manager was Jim Curtin. I thought then (as I do now) that their ceiling would be higher with a better manager. They ended up finishing sixth, which is about what they deserve. (Whatever VAR calls may have gone against them in the last few days even out some lucky wins over the course of the season.) That’s the very point of the column — this team hit the ceiling of what it can do given Curtin’s management, and it wasn’t enough to be any more than a failure.

      As to who at PSP would write “this column” – I had the assignment to write the post-match column regardless of the result. If they had won, I would have praised the team, because there would be something to praise. I could not watch last night’s match and come to any conclusion other than that this team has come as far as it can go under Curtin. I cannot agree that the Union have continued to improve when, two years after they were a 6 seed and lost 3-1, they once again were a 6 seed and lost 3-1 (with an older roster than they had in 2016).

      I appreciate you continuing to read and comment on the site. We’ll have more end-of-season coverage from our full stable of writers beginning next week.

      • Although both years were 6th place finishes, in 2016 they had 8 points in their last 10 games and finished with 43 points. This year they had 17 points over their last 10 games and finished with 50 points. I think that is a significant improvement.
        .
        And I do want to reiterate that I do usually appreciate your opinions.

    • Great points.

  6. For several years, I have argued that the team didn’t have the talent to compete, and changing managers would just be scapegoating.

    For several years I have also pointed to evidence that, believe it or not, managers don’t actually make that much difference in club performance, for the most part. There are maybe some exceptional ones who do (e.g. Sir Alex), but most don’t.

    But now it has finally become apparent that Curtin is simply too slow to learn, too inflexible, and not enough of a motivator. I don’t know if another coach will do better, but — barring a Piotr Nowak-esque monster — I’m pretty sure another coach will not do worse. Or, to use the fancy sport analysis lingo that’s hip these days, Curtin is surely not giving us any wins-over-replacement. It’s time for somebody new.

  7. It’s obviously the media’s fault. If all the morning-after analysts did not keep pointing out facts like these, it would be obvious that this was the best season this woebegone team has ever had. The coach says he could not be prouder of his players’ achievements this year. Unprecedented success! Can’t we all just accept that fact and be satisfied with a team that will, most likely, achieve the heights of one-and-done success every other year?

  8. John O'Donnell Jr says:

    0-7 in big games and it seems they play from behind early in almost every game. Is Curtin to blame, yes. Is the rest of the organization to blame….so much more. Day one this team talked about building a brand that wasn’t only known in Philadelphia and the United States but worldwide. To say the bar has been lowered since is a drastic understatement. I don’t think a new coach will make much of a difference and looking at Toronto last year and D.C. United this year, suggest that to be true. Can a coach win you a few more games….maybe but that’s not winning a Cup and that’s on ownership and the GM.

    Thanks Jim for your service but 0-7 was your chance and it’s time to move on. Ernie good luck with the USMNT but the Cup was never your goal…your new job was. Sugarman, it’s on you to get Ernest the infrastructure to compete for the Cup. Money for Dp’s, new scouts for the academy, especially if they get rid of territory rights and the commitment to win a cup and not just compete to make the playoffs.

    So who do they hire?

  9. In the age of sail on a British Navy warship, a captain sailing independently of higher command authority — no commodores or admirals immediately present — was as close to “God on earth” as it gets.
    .
    He held literal power of life or death over anyone in his crew.
    .
    So, the Admiralty (administration in London) put a rule into its Articles of War. If I ever knew, I no longer remember its number. Informally, it was called the 24-hour rule.
    .
    Unless it were mutiny in the face of the enemy in battle, a captain had to wait 24 hours before having someone killed or doing it himself.
    .
    It is a principle of meaningful utility.

  10. Curtin will get better. Definitely deserves to be a coach. But when you see what tata viera arena schmid have done in this league you want the best.

  11. Fully agree with this piece. I like Jim Curtin a lot, but this playoff game really should be his last chance. I don’t understand how anyone can make excuses for him any more. It stinks that he failed, and he certainly doesn’t deserve all the blame, probably not even the majority of it, but he, along with many players on this squad, need to go. If he has yet to reach his ceiling as a manager, I’m sure he’ll find another opportunity soon.

  12. Section 114 (former) says:

    Completely agree with the piece. Curtin is not the manager for the future.
    .
    He’s also not responsible for the failings of this team. Stewart paid for a rental #10 (finally), and completely whiffed on his other offensive acquisitions. Accam was a bust and the pieces in place were insufficient. Burke was useful, but wasn’t good enough to open up space for others. Sapong regressed to the mean, Fafa is a nice piece but not polished enough to be a goal scoring anchor and everyone else (Epps, Herbers, etc.) had holes. And Ilsinho was known to be a role player.
    .
    Curtin does get blame for stacking Bedoya and Haris on top of two MLS quality guys that didn’t get to play (Jones and Creavalle) instead of finding ways to get them all on the field. We’ve all known that you could push Bedoya wide, and make space for Jones. I suspect Kinkead has tweeted about it something like 3000 times. But he finally does it in a game played on the one pitch where width is useless?
    .
    We have hit adequacy. To move past it, we have to find a couple of bona fide offensive players (three if we lose Dockal) and get a manager that will put our best 11 for the night out there, not the same 11 who played the game before.
    .
    Will that happen? Of course not. Why?
    .
    Ownership.
    .
    Ownership.
    .
    Ownership.
    .
    Jay — sell the damn team.

  13. Scott Ellis says:

    It’s time to move on. 4.5 years is a big enough sample to read. I think he’s a decent coach, but bringing him back again says to players and fans that the org is mostly cool with (possibly) landing in the back end of the playoffs. Collapsing so hard after making the open cup final, again collapsing when 1 point out of 2 games earned a home playoff game, and then being steamrolled in the playoff opener really dulls the shine on what looked to be a pretty good season. I don’t think all is lost, but we need to make incremental steps to build off of this year, and I think the manager spot can be strengthened.

  14. Alice the Eagle says:

    Is the Union running the Academy or the Academy runnng the Union with Richie Graham’s increasing investmenst If you watched training at all you would realise that there were many better players, than the Academy boys, who were never given an opportunity because it was all about the brand and not about winning games? Earnie Stuart was obviously padding his C.V. for the USMNT job and I suspect used Jim as his patsy. Little coaching, no motivation, no man management and obviously weak if Jim just followed orders from above. I’m not sure Philadelphia owners are interested at all in a soccer club, but only what they can make out of it so to them it is irrelevant if the team wins or loses hence keep trotting out the poster boys into the shop window. However I think that has backfired as they are a long way off being able to play anything like what is required in Europe. Trusty is a reasonable defender but shocking on the ball and McKenzie whilst better on the ball needs to learn positioning skills and not trot behind an opponent heading for goal but to tackle him or bust a gut to defend the goal. Several times this season he apears to be doing the safe passing to get his passing percentage up, but when you do five and ten yards passes sideways and backwards, how is this contributing to playing offensive football from the “young American Back Line”

  15. Alice the Eagle says:

    Is the Union running the Academy or the Academy runnng the Union with Richie Graham’s increasing investmenst If you watched training at all you would realise that there were many better players, than the Academy boys, who were never given an opportunity because it was all about the brand and not about winning games? Earnie Stuart was obviously padding his C.V. for the USMNT job and I suspect used Jim as his patsy. Little coaching, no motivation, no man management and obviously weak if Jim just followed orders from above. I’m not sure Philadelphia owners are interested at all in a soccer club, but only what they can make keep trotting out the poster boys into the shop window.

  16. You glossed over the most important point. He thinks Warren Creavalle is good enough to start a game let alone start a must win playoff game. That alone, no wait, having him on this team is grounds for dismissal.

  17. Phil in Wilmington says:

    This was the best Union season since Nowak left. And by best I mean a squad that was a real XI that could compete on an MLS level every week. As nice as it is to have such a strong midfield, young promising center back pairing and a consistently goal dangerous player in Picault and a spark off the bench in Ilsinho, this was the best roster the U has put forth in a good long while.

    But on their best night, are they as talented as a healthy NYCFC roster? No.

    I am satisfied with what the Union did this season, and if the next five seasons are blooding more academy players and getting steady more competitive, I can live with a slow build. And for that strategy, Curtain fits that role.

    But I get why others aren’t interested in that kind of progress. In which case Curtain should go.

  18. The easiest way to think of this is looking at what Curtin defenders say. It’s never about high tactical acumen, or key subs, or game changing switches to formation, or big game results, etc.
    .
    All we ever hear is that it’s not all his fault. He could definitely learn more and get better. If he only had better players etc.
    .
    Not saying Jim is terrible, but his time has run its course.

  19. Constant State of Mediocrity……. Formula for Success …In Curtins defense this was the best season and the best team they put together since they started. They finishedthe season on the worst possible small field in the nation. To quote Ed Grimley The Union were” doomed as doomed can be ” in that respecet . However due to ownership/ management lack of cash we always take 1 obvious step to improve the team but the never take other possibilities into account like is has player A hit the wall for improvement or are his skills about to go south, or did player B have the season of his life or is player C returning to his native home next season ? That is why we are in the constant state of Mediocrity. Better managed teams with deeper pockets take this into account every year . We don’t or cant because of cash flow. The only real solution is to get another partner with deeper pockets who can hire a professional coach and acquire at least 2 feature DP players at key positions. A sporting director who can find hidden gems outside the US to fill out the core and a coach who can actually make a difference in critical games against equal or better opponents. Sugarman needs to be out there scouring the WORLD for new partners and cash flow. I don’t care if we become the VIAGRA union or the DEPENDS Union if we can get better players and a professional coach.

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