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Jim Curtin needs to learn to trust himself

Photo: Paul Rudderow

We have to assume that everyone watching last Wednesday’s game could see it; the Union’s starting lineup simply weren’t getting it done. And what changes were made in personnel and tactics failed to address that issue.

And “everyone” in this assumption really does mean everyone. Because if it was obvious to the most casual observer of soccer (which it obviously was if you followed anywhere the game was discussed) it certainly must be obvious to more experienced eyes as well. Going all the way up through seasoned Union fans, the Union- and MLS-focused media, snaking all the way to the top where presumably the entire coaching staff saw it as well.

But despite the obvious nature of this problem, head coach Jim Curtin failed to deviate from the plan he had set in motion before the Timbers kicked off the MLS is Back Tournament Semi-Final. Ilsinho came on two-thirds of the way through the game. His sole deviation from the norm, replacing el Brujo with Andrew Wooten, did earn the Union their lone goal of the game. But it was too little too late.

This steadfastness, this commitment to the players no matter what, is in many ways a good thing. It’s no doubt part of why he is by all accounts liked by the players he’s in charge of, and that in itself no doubt contributes to the team’s success. But what can be portrayed as staying the course in success is just as easily a sign he lacks the will to make hard decisions when it could effect the game.

In another example: playing a month-long tournament in Florida (in July) is going to be hard on players. It’s going to wear them out, especially when we’re talking about players like Alejandro Bedoya (33), Ilsinho (34), or even Raymon Gaddis (30). It’s hard to imagine it being an easy conversation to tell Alejandro Bedoya that he isn’t starting a game, but considering his role and play style it’s a conversation that would need to happen from time to time even if he wasn’t on the wrong side of thirty.

And that conversation needs to happen before the team heads into a semi-final. It is of course impossible to know now, but imagine a world in which Bedoya didn’t play against New England. Yes, it was a knockout game but the Union have never had difficulty quelling the Revolution. And Bedoya’s performance that night (no goals, no assists, no shots on goal) wasn’t essential to the Union’s victory. Instead of sweltering for ninety minutes in relative irrelevance, he could have been recovering and recharging, putting him in a better position to face SKC and eventually Portland.

Or consider Kacper Przybyłko. Striker Muffin is clearly suffering from a crisis of confidence, with his his touches being well off the standard we’ve come to expect from the Pole. And yet he started every single MLS is Back game for the Union. Playing out of a rut is one way to solve this kind of problem, but with so much on the line was the Union really in a position to wait for him? Is the Union’s purpose winning games or making Przybyłko a better player?

It doesn’t even have to be about specific players. When the Union faced SKC, they spent sixty six minutes in the lead. Sixty four of those minutes ahead by more than one goal. And yet despite having five substitutions available to him, no changes were made before starting the second half, and other than the traditional Ilsinho sub none of the substitutions meaningfully changed the texture of the game. In retrospect Matt Real and Anthony Fontana’s appearances at the eighty sixth minute appear to have been more about running down the clock than changing the game or even spelling the players they were replacing.

Of course these are not the only examples. Jim Curtin’s six-year tenure coaching the Union is littered with examples of him not making the tough decision for the good of the team. However it’s rarely the case that Curtin is wrong about a player or strategy decision. Rather it’s that he is right for a time, then is too slow to change course.

It could be he’s incompetent, and doesn’t know he needs to change course. But that doesn’t feel fair, as the team’s success shows he is at the very least a capable coach. So could it be that like all of us he knows what needs to be done, but the burden of responsibility prevents him from making the choice? We often talk about players as developing, but we’ve watched Jim Curtin develop as a coach over the last six years. He’s grown into the role, despite still being one of the youngest coaches in the league. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have growing left to do. Making hard, and potentially unpopular, decisions is never easy. But it’s something a leader must do. And until Jim Curtin is willing to make those decisions the Union may not be able to progress beyond what we have already seen.

12 Comments

  1. I agree 100%

    You would hope the upcoming large amount of games in a small amount of time is a good chance to get some back ups playing time, but I am not holding my breath.

  2. This has definitely been a factor in our playoff play for the last two years, and certainly has always been a Curtin weakness.
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    Fontana should have seen serious playing time in all of this. Real should have been in as a late sub for Kai in a few games – Wagner was gassed at the end of multiple games.
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    Energy issues aside, Glesnes absolutely should have come on for McKenzie in the last 10 min after he had that head collision. Mark did not look well when he was talking to the trainer.
    .
    Considering FIFA has mandated that 5 subs will be around through next year, Jim needs to adjust accordingly or we will be run off the pitch – especially if we want to press teams. Curtin has learned a lot over the last few years, he still needs work on sub management.

  3. This is so true. Jim is set in is way and we need to closed the Curtain now. We know what we are getting from Bedoya. He make the money but we not getting the product. Guys were so tired but yet still no change was made

  4. Forget the sub management. The issue is that Curtin doesn’t make a difference as a coach. Pareja does. That’s why a less talented team that’s played together for a shorter period of time like Orlando can get farther in this tournament than the Union. Oh yeah, and the Union suck at corner kicks and defending them. Which is also on the coaching staff.

  5. Had to argue. Watching the two finalists play each other tonight however shows- the players on the field choked last week and not the coach in my opinion. Simply were not good enough. Came up small. Too many errors of attention and passing. Had two full days more rest. Played like shit.
    .
    Not to mention santos missing that kick was so so penal as it gave Portland what it wanted. Sit back and defend. Control the transition game.
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    That loss was on the players -not the coach.

    • Could not understand why Kasper didn’t take that…seems a perfect time to jumpstart his confidence!

      Also agree they played like shit!

    • Well the players are the ones on the field and thus the only ones who can actually lose a game. But a coach, to use a horrible phrase from Andy Reid, “..has to put his players in better positions to succeed.” I argue the game was lost before it was played. Those extra two days rest did not make up for the accumulated strain the players went through prior to getting there. It’s not like they were in peak performance going into the tournament.

      • I agree with All4U that only players can win games. I disagree that only they can lose them.
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        Back in the dawn of time when dinosaurs were young and I got my first division-making gig as a soccer coach, I know I lost my team at least two games.
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        Both times I was trying to plan ahead and trying to get a key player who was tiring a five minute rest on the sidelines before going back in with enough in the tank to finish.
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        Didn’t work. Either time. I disrupted our rhythm and we did not manage to find it again when I re-inserted the rested starter.
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        I learned, by imitating our varsity coach, to make my rest breaks in the second part of the first half, so that if the second half is tight, you don’t disrupt your successes, if you are having them.
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        That’s high school with unlimited re-entry, not pro. But disrupting the chemistry is the same.

  6. I’ve lost count of how many times sitting in the stands either A. Screaming for him to make any kind of change or B. Hearing Ilsinho’s name as the first sub – whether down by 1, up by 3, or tied. That’s it. There’s been exceptions, but that’s the general trend. Sometimes any change is good, even if it means a good player has to leave the field.

  7. There have been a very few times when injuries and scheduling necessities have forced real squad rotation. Risky ones, ones where the bookies look at the lineup and say bet it all on the other team.
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    It may be that I only remember the successes, that is a very real phenomenon, but he bench has risen to the occasion more than once with actual wins.
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    If you tell then it’s coming well in advance so the panic can be controlled, and everybody on the squad knows well in advance so nobody’s nose is out of joint and they are all behind the alternative starters, and you prepare the hell out them, it can often work. but it is a big risk and the costs of failure can be high.
    .
    And remember that Lineup decisions at the lower level at least have been collective and heavily influenced by individuals higher up in the decision-making hierarchy than the coach on the field.

  8. Curtin appears to think like the defender he was/is. He has his formulas for what to do when. Mostly it has worked out OK, but he will never be the 12th man influencing the game like a Tata.
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    I am ok with that. What I am not ok with is him not finding his formula to break down the bunker. Just saying go get Ilson is not sufficient. And if Aaronson is really on his way out, that is one less creative player to help break it down. The Union need to figure this out otherwise it is the only defense we will see the rest of the season unless they manage to get the first goal.
    .
    As has been mentioned before, one possibility is to slide Bedoya into the right back position against the bunker to provide the creative and technical abilities Ray can’t. I am sure there are lots of other solutions too, but they need to find one that works and find it quickly.

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