Commentary / Union

How to define a successful 2020 for Jim Curtin

Photo by Earl Gardner

Somehow, a brand new Philadelphia Union season is already upon us. It seems like just yesterday that the curse was lifted and the Red Bulls were triumphed in the playoffs. Surely it hasn’t been four months since the Union were on national television in the conference semifinals.

There are plenty of storylines heading into Saturday evening’s match in Dallas (6pm). A handful of familiar faces gone, some new ones in, and the general expectation that Philly will be good again. For maybe the first time in a number of years, however, coach Jim Curtin isn’t really one of those talking points. He delivered last season what everyone said he couldn’t, and with a home playoff win on his resume, he’s seemingly off the hook — at least for now.

Few have criticized Curtin more than I have. I repeatedly pointed at his mediocre record, claimed the Union would never move forward unless they made a change, and had a “The Union should fire Jim Curtin” column swirling around in my head for months on end. I even once, albeit incorrectly and distastefully, attempted to compare his refusal to change formation to being insane. Thankfully, I’m not the one in charge of deeming his worth to the franchise. That’s Ernst Tanner, who has brought him back for more.

The question is: What does he expect of Curtin now?

In a lot of ways it will be difficult to match 2019. It wasn’t just that the Union finally gave the supporters a playoff victory, it was that for weeks and weeks, it reigned the Eastern Conference. Unprecedentedly, it was “the first place Philadelphia Union” for a really long time. Obviously, Curtin deserves some credit for that. He took his team to new heights and, on a personal level, got his coaching record above the .500 mark.

Though, I highly doubt Tanner cares much for his Major League Soccer record. At this point it’s pretty clear that Tanner has a distinct plan in place and he doesn’t beat around the bush. He makes things happen and it’s exactly why he was hired. He believes in Curtin and that outweighs any kind of pressure the media could re-apply from the outside. It doesn’t mean he won’t expect certain outcomes from his coach, but it does mean Curtin’s seat is cool for the fist time in a while. Maybe that’s exactly what he wanted.

One thing you have to give Curtin credit for: He works well under pressure. He was mostly unbothered by the hot seat  and got himself a contract extension. Now that he has a bit more freedom, what will it look like? Specifically, what will be considered good enough?

“I am confident he is the right person to continue toward achieving our club’s objectives, which include both winning trophies and being the MLS leader in the development of young players.”

That was Tanner regarding his extension. Clearly, winning is a priority and Curtin is expected to do a good amount of it. Does that mean another playoff appearance? Another home playoff win? The Eastern Conference Final? The one problem with a season like 2019 is many people will consider 2020 a failure if it doesn’t end the same way or better. Hypothetically, if the Union fail to make the playoffs this season, many would be calling for Curtin’s sacking again. If it loses another U.S. Open Cup final, things won’t be pretty.

Even with a guy like Tanner, the reality is the Union can’t compete with the likes of Atlanta United and LA Galaxy in terms of spending and revenue. It’s not far-fetched to think Philly can win MLS cup, but it’s certainly not likely to happen in today’s landscape. Tanner clearly thinks it is possible, but also isn’t going to fire Curtin if he doesn’t get there this season. The owners at Everton have different expectations than the owners at Liverpool.

Technically speaking, Curtin’s extension was for two years. Maybe that gives him a free pass this season after what he’s proven, but we all know the business doesn’t always work that way. If Curtin loses in the first round of the playoffs this season, it will mean four trips in five seasons, but it would also be a step back. Is Tanner willing to take one with this kind of progress?

It will always be difficult to define success for a coach because it is inherently subjective. Curtin begins this season in a place he really hasn’t been before. Fans will yearn for another fighter’s chance at Atlanta or another playoff run, but Tanner may see progress in a different light.


  1. I, too, was very much in the fire Curtin camp the two or so years prior to last season. I’m very happy he turned it around and proved me and many others wrong. He clearly has a skill for keeping a team cohesive, believing in each other and minimizing distractions. I think anything he may lack in tactical acumen he makes up for in man management. That said, he was a young coach and still learning. He’s become more flexible and sharp. I’m glad he got a chance and he’s rewarded the team’s patience.

    All I really expect from him this season is more of the same. This team should be competing for a top 4 finish and must be a lock for a playoff spot. Not sure we can really expect more from him or this team.

    • Agree with your statements and I too was ready to see him go early on mostly over his inflexibility. I still think he is slow at making changes or giving players rest but he has improved and in fairness, didn’t always have a lot of options to work with. I think that if they continue to play an entertaining form of soccer as they have been doing and at least stay in games I’m fine with him as coach. I think their biggest risk of problems this year is going to be injuries. Some of the players Ernst has been bringing in are here because they have potential but are injury prone so seen as too great a risk at other places. With a run of luck we could go far but with a bad run it will be a bit of a slog.

  2. I’ve been all over the Curtin train. Started off in defense of giving him a chance. Moved to absolute belief he should be gone. I’ve now arrived at support and belief station. It would take a monumental collapse for me to move from this belief now.
    I expect the Union to finish anywhere from 4th to 1st with a modest playoff run.

  3. As an ex-devotee of the CurtinOUT movement, I am fully impressed with his growth. For too long I felt he was in the Ben Olsen camp, a player who got thrown into an oversized coaching role with no time to develop; and being to hampered with the role TO develop. Where Olsen has remained stagnant at times, using some of his old tactics as a crutch too often, Curtin has been freed up in the last two years and really grown into the role. I’ve been swayed by his burgeoning command of tactics.
    Even though we are returning most of our starters this year, with a strong addition at CB, it still feels like things are a little in flux at the moment. I have a feeling we will still have our typical Union slow start, but I have faith (definitely more-so than some previous years) that Curtin will have this team up and running towards the top again.

  4. Successful? Survive. That’s it. Same as every year.
    He has no worries in that regard though. Corch for Life-er…at least as long as the Investor reigns.

    Too messy to rummage for a successor anyway. Also; too expensive. Easier to remove Tanner if failure occurs and elevate Albright. Tail meet dog.

    Same as it ever was.

  5. How much of the Coach’s tactical inflexibility in the past came from :
    1. Dictat from Stewart (Everything Union must play 4-2-3-1)
    Has the academy changed from this ?
    2. Players on the roster (Because Stewart put together a roster to
    play 4-2-3-1)

    Was it growth or just formational shifts that were obvious (even to
    someone who had never played the game except in gym class) this past
    year when Jim shifted back to a 4-2-3-1 when seeing out a game, or went to 3 in the back when chasing.

    I’m hoping its growth, and we see more of that growth for example expecting the changes made by the opposition when Ilsinho comes in and taking advantage of them instead of having everyone standing around waiting to see how he will dribble through 3 players.

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