Season Previews

Jim Curtin’s biggest test

Photo by Paul Rudderow

April 6 will be an historic day.

Philadelphia Union will host Western Conference contender FC Dallas that day, after which Union head coach Jim Curtin will have officially been at the helm of the Blue and Gold for half the team’s all-time matches.

This season is his most important one yet for a very different reason, however.

This is the year his team either makes the leap out of MLS’s third tier, or the (still) young coach will be out of a job come October.

Finally, a glimpse of Curtin’s potential

Curtin has been at the helm of the Good Ship Chester since the middle of 2014. His influence on the side has varied from year to year (depending on management, players, and his own maturation) but seemed to coalesce in 2018.

Union fans glimpsed their young coach’s full potential.

Fans finally got to see the fruits of the team’s other institutional labor, the 4-2-3-1 formation. Though the Union had trotted out this shape for years, not until 2018 did fans finally see long stretches of fluid and connected soccer, with the side playing as beautiful a version of the game as has ever been played at Talen Energy Stadium.

Sure, there were still signs of what has held Curtin back for years: tactical inflexibility, a maddening lack of regular squad rotation, and an unwavering commitment to players who had long since regressed to their means.

But take stock:

Beautiful soccer is rare, on these shores and abroad. Beautiful soccer by the Union had been all but nonexistent. Curtin’s team produced it.

That such a beautiful game existed at all for the Boys in Blue was miraculous, the end of a long and winding road which Curtin helped the organization navigate. Whether it was keeping his poker face while maneuvering Nick Sakiewicz and the Rais M’Bohli disaster, the injuries to Maurice Edu and the departure of Vincent Nogueira, or any other real or imagined roadblock, those who believe Curtin is a capable leader of this team (of which the author is one) also believe that circumstances have played an enormous role in the perception of his tenure.

The list of “what ifs” that were completely out of the coach’s control is an article unto itself:

  • What it Nogueira’s shot goes in at the end of the 2014 Open Cup?
  • What if Maurice Edu stays healthy?
  • What if the team’s academy and infrastructure were robust enough to have figured out what to do with young players like (among others) Michael Orozco, Amobi Okugo, Roger Torres, Austin Berry, and Zac Pfeffer?
  • And so on…

This isn’t a piece about that past, though steadying the ship was an accomplishment, as were the Open Cup runs. Votes of confidence from players and three CEO/Sporting Directors were certainly something upon which to hang a proverbial hat too. Curtin’s clear and universal strength is in people management, and that’s a valuable trait. (The recent failures of Jose Mourinho, Thierry Henry, and Maurizio Sarri speak to this point.)

However, Curtin’s time for peripheral accolades and moral victories has ended.

Find an identity… and quickly!

The Union were a known quantity in 2018.

They focused on possession, passing, and wearing down opponents in order to find the perfect goal. Though the team found several of these gem golazos en route to earning a record number of points (as well as the praise of many pundits in league circles for their work), in the end they fell flat because of their own predictability and several player’s personal regressions.

Given all that has changed for the team, the speed at which the Union rediscover their identity will go a long way in determining whether they succeed and specifically whether Jim Curtin stays. Managing a formation change, a smaller roster with obvious opportunities for rotation, and one of the (still) youngest back lines in the league will be his task, while taking advantage of the conference’s weaknesses will be his mandate. A 5-1-1 preseason record suggests the team might on the way toward this goal, however meaningless the matches.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Conference is ripe for the taking. Toronto FC lost a preseason match to Las Vegas Lights 5-1 and a CONCACAF Champions League match to a team with about 10 percent of Toronto’s payroll 4-0. NYCFC lost their talisman in David Villa and has a coach that hasn’t proven himself in the Bronx yet, Orlando has a gorgeous stadium and is otherwise just about ready for MLS 1.0, Columbus has a new coach and some aging playmakers, Montreal is always a year away and is also now a year older, New England has their regular list of problems to massage out, Chicago is the same team as last year but older and with Fabian Herbes and CJ Sapong, and on and on…

The fact of the matter is there can be no more excuses masquerading as unfortunate realities: Maurice Edu is retired, Vincent Nogueira isn’t coming back, Nick Sakiewicz can’t be fired again, there are no contractual albatrosses (a list too long to codify here), and Rais M’Bohli is in Saudi Arabia with Giovinco.

The time to win is now.

The long season starts with a bucket of water to the face that has the Union visiting Kansas City, Atlanta, and Cincinnati before the first month is over. There are no easy games in professional sports, and this particular gauntlet means the 2019 campaign opens with a must-win home match this weekend against Toronto.

A must-win in the first match of the season?

It’s Curtin’s most important season ever and his biggest test.


  1. el Pachyderm says:

    waiting til 79th minute to bring on Amobi Okugo in first cup final when the 60 minute sub of Obafemi Martins was just killing him…. still sits like a steamer in my drawers.
    beyond that I have stubbornly acquiesced, Jim is an improving manager and a perfect fit for a soccer structure like the one being run in Chester.

    • “and a perfect fit for a soccer structure like the one being run in Chester.”
      -This comment could be taken so many ways, but I agree with you. If we’re not going to spend to bring in Tata Martina or Pep Guardiola, then I doubt we will do much better than Jim.

  2. First off, I’m a big fan of Jim’s – both personally and professionally. He has a really difficult challenge this year bringing in a ton of new guys and an entirely new system. So maybe I’m biased, but I think he should be given some time this year and not put him on some sort of forced ultimatum to produce or perish. Here’s my main reasons:
    1) Off the field, he is the perfect manager. We’ve never heard of significant locker-room issues. We’ve never felt like the players didn’t trust him or fight for him. He is the consummate professional and a Philly guy and that means something to me as a fan. He cares. You never have to worry that he’s got his eyes set on some hidden agenda. He is the best kind of confident – more Pep than Jose, confidence without cockiness.
    2) Managers on the whole (with a few notable exceptions) do not largely influence win percentage over the influence of the quality of players (salary). In that light, Jim’s career performance has been at or above what you would predict given roster spending. Moreover, he’s shown signs of improvement and will only get better with time. His ceiling is still unknown. Unless you are bringing in Sir Alex Ferguson, changing a manager will only create another season of rebuilding. We’re already doing that, let’s keep some stability in the ship.

    • SilverRey says:

      “Managers on the whole do not largely influence win percentage”
      I’ve followed various MLS teams since ’96 and I would disagree on this one. The Union will have had Curtin at the helm for 1/2 of it’s existence, but when a good coach comes in to the team it’s like a breath of fresh air.
      When Sigi came to Columbus he turned the team around. When Pareja took over Dallas he changed the dynamic. You can see the difference when a good coach comes in.
      Unfortunately Union have been in the same rut as DC with Olsen – two very similar approaches. Yeah, it’s great to see their potential growth each year, but they are still miles behind.
      Curtin’s ceiling showed against NYCFC. We beat them handily earlier in the year (caveat at home), and 4 out of the last 5 teams to go to Yankee stadium had been able to get points. Instead of learning from what those teams did Curtin made the same exact mistakes two games in a row and he was absolutely outcoached.
      Either way, it’s up to Tanner now. We’ll where things stand at the All-Star break. Maybe Curtin can make it happen with Tanner’s vision.

      • The data disagrees with you. While there often can be an initial “bump,” without an increase in quality of the squad, the results typically regress to the mean. Check out Syzmanski’s book Soccernomics for a much better analysis than I can give.

  3. Responding in bits to both Pach and Spugger, and to the article:

    I’ve come to suspect that Jim would be a really good manager of a team of top talent — that he’s a very good man manager who would work well with bigger egos. Who knows if we’ll ever see that theory tested.

    This season is make or break for Curtin in Philadelphia. If I were to put money on it, I think it might be a break, which would be a shame, because I too think Jim appears to be a class act. But he’s going to face a significant challenge. Hope I’m wrong and he takes this squad into the playoffs OR finally nabs that Open Cup. I think Noguiera’s missed shot in that final against Seattle was the worst moment I’ve ever witnessed with this team. How different things might have been indeed.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      Worse than Edu and Wenger’s missed penalties and Johnny Mac guessing right on every single one of KS’s and still not making a save? Six of one, I suppose…

      • Chris,

        I can produce 4 witnesses to this: I called Edu missing that penalty. As soon as he stepped up. I stood up from where I was watching — had it on a TV — and said, “well that’s it. We’re forked” (keeping it clean, Good Place style). Before Nogueira’s miss, I had faith. Didn’t have it anymore by the time Edu stepped up to the spot.

    • Thanks guys. Now I’m depressed.

  4. Jim Curtin is a nice Philly guy. I don’t care one bit about that. It means absolutely nothing. If Ernst could coach I’d put him right on the field. Give me someone who is pragmatic who makes the tough decisions when needed and be damned about what people think. The coach is there to win games, period full stop.
    If Curtin does the things I’ve(we’ve) talked about ad nauseam, then I’ll be more than willing to change my tune about him. If it’s the same old weaknesses, then the boot can’t come quick enough.

  5. OneManWolfpack says:

    If he/they can find 3 wins in March, I will be beyond impressed. Not saying the Union can’t win 3 games, just saying I think it going to require Curtin to manage the best he ever has, since the opponents are of pretty high quality. Can’t start slow. Tanner will have no patience for it. I have come around a bit on Curtin, but for me he has always been a “show me” guy. Show us you can manage Jim. The leash is off. I think everyone likes Curtin personally and wants to see him succeed. But if everyone is healthy, and they aren’t very good, I think it will fall on Jim, and he’ll finally be let go.

  6. Very short leash for Curtin this season. I like the guy but need to see more from him in 2019. A good manager will have the team up to speed and playing well quickly. I get that the manager can’t make the team play well, but it’s his responsibility to put the plan and players on the pitch to win. Hope he can do it!!

  7. If mediocrity is your thing, the Jolly Red Idiot is your man.

    He is tactically inflexible; has all of the personality of a corpse; buries players he does not favor (see Rosenberry, Keegan 2017) and is slavishly devoted to his pets (see Gaddis, Ray).

    He may be a “Philly guy” but he is also a loser.

    As long as he is in charge, this club is mid-table mediocrity.

  8. “New England has their regular list of problems to massage out…”

  9. “…New England has their regular list of problems to massage out…”

    Nicely done.

  10. PaulContinuum says:

    He should’ve been fired 2 seasons ago, but we’re stuck with him. Sack him at midseason if the Union are out of the playoff hunt. The lack of a leash on this boob is the other reason why we have stagnated. Besides the owner treating his payroll like FC Cincinnati.

  11. Curtin gets my player of the match. Love that he went to 3-5-2 when behind with time to change things.
    Didn’t work out but was right move.
    Ref was worst since Giger. Someone should explain to him that soccer is contact sport. Should have been 9 min extra time.

    • UnionGoal says:

      While I was on fence last year and only moved over to the close the curtin movement after his comment explaining the loss to nycfc due to difference in transfer fees of the rosters, I was pleasantly surprised to see the gutsy move to 3 in back and bring in offensive options.
      Haris should have been subbed as 3rd sub.
      Credit where credit is due- he did attempt to adjust where he would not have done so in the past.
      Too short a preseason to get these guys all on same page in new formations and it showed. Fabian and Santos and Wagner too new, like dochal last year.
      I predict 1 win and a couple draws by may 1st then curtin’s annual may miracle kicks in with several wins or draws in a row. By August team run down and losing depth but maybe Tanner will have summer surprise striker.

  12. First off, this team is in trouble, not because of the result of the first game, but because Jim refuses to depart from his and Ernst’s favorite players. Jones HAS to at least be on the bench for this game. His preseason was much better that Warren’s. They refuse to give the younger players a chance, let me remind you MacKenzie was the 5th option opening day last year. It just goes to show you that if you put a little faith in the youngsters, the reward can be great.

    I’m predicting a lot of those youngsters see this and don’t be surprised to see an exodus of young players not given a chance.

    Real never given a chance, same with Fontana, but everyone of Ernst’s signing, minis Collin was dressed.

    A German taking over with an iron fist, Klinsman 2.0…

    God I hope I’m wrong!

  13. Curtin’s Biggest test would be spelling CAT after being spotted the C and the A

  14. Scottymac says:

    The Curtin Apologists are out in force here. Good for you guys, applauding mediocrity.
    This site used to lament firing Hackworth too.

  15. UnionGoal says:

    Actually I was disappointed in the 1 year signing and hoped for new coach. Curtin not bad coach by mls standards but when complacency sinks in time to shake things up. Sometimes it works or when it doesn’t it still leads to the successful guy after the rebound ala the eagles.
    But I also recognize curtin appeared shackled with Stewart and noticed small attempts to change formation and lineups post August 1st but too little too late. Yesterday surprise was adding accam and Santos. Not saying they are great subs but decision to shift formations midgame and roll the dice on more offense is new.
    Curtin test much more difficult- be curious how he responds but at end of the season, no matter what he accomplishes short of cup final or supporters shield, he and Tanner should realize curtin hit a ceiling with union. He may have more success elsewhere and he is too nice a guy to wish him otherwise but still he’d have to go.

  16. If Mark McKennzie doesn’t start the next game, you have your answer. Rosenberry’s 2nd season all over again. If you like Jack Elliot that much go to 3 in the back

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