For Pete's Sake

A coach grows in Philadelphia

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

A little over two years ago, after another defeat in the U.S. Open Cup Final and another unceremonious exit from the MLS Cup playoffs, I wrote a column called “With another collapse, Union hit the ceiling of the Jim Curtin era.”

In that piece, I argued that Ernst Tanner should move on from Curtin, who’d just completed his fourth full season as Union manager.

“We know that this is the best [Curtin] can do,” I concluded.

I was wrong.

Tanner, of course, didn’t listen to me, and it’s a good thing he didn’t. In 2019, Curtin managed the club to its first-ever playoff win. And this season was even better, with Curtin’s Union romping through the Eastern Conference en route to the club’s first-ever trophy: the Supporters’ Shield.

It’s a performance that should earn Curtin the MLS Coach of the Year award.

The growth of a coach

When Jim Curtin became the Union’s interim manager in 2014, he was in his mid-30s and entering his first-ever post as a professional manager.

The first few years were rocky, even if there were the occasional moments to remember. Even Curtin admits that he was in over his head at first. Supporters and analysts grew frustrated with Curtin’s tactical rigidity, tight approach to squad rotation, and inability to win big games.

By the end of 2018, I hadn’t seen enough growth from Curtin to think that those problems, which I viewed as holding back the Union, would ever be solved.

But Curtin has blossomed over these last two years, aided both by his long experience in the job and an increasingly talented roster. With Ernst Tanner eager to transition to a 4-4-2 diamond, Curtin’s teams over the past two years have been characterized by their ability to shift between the diamond and the 4-2-3-1 as the game dictated it. Curtin’s substitutions, once ineffectual, have become game-changers as the coach figured out the best way to use weapons like Ilsinho and Anthony Fontana off the bench. And he has made greater use of his squad depth this season, although Curtin still draws criticism for his heavy reliance on certain players. While the commentariat — myself included — may bristle at certain lineup decisions, it’s tough to argue with a regular season in which the Union earned more than two points per game.

The error I made two years ago was in assuming that Curtin had gone as far as he could with this club, and that the most the Union would ever be under his stewardship would be mediocre.

But, as stalwart right back Ray Gaddis observed on Sunday night, “learning is a never-ending process.”

The Union’s manager hasn’t stopped learning.

A year unlike any other

Winning the Supporters’ Shield would be a great accomplishment any year.

But, as we all know, this hasn’t been any year.

When the season began in Dallas in February, Curtin and his men had no way of knowing what would come in the months ahead: a three-month lockdown due to a deadly virus spreading around the world, a return-to-play in a sweltering bubble in the Florida, the streets filling with protesters for racial justice after we all saw the shocking video of George Floyd’s death, and a condensed remainder of the regular season scheduled in strange blocks of three, six, nine games at a time.

As Curtin said at one point over the summer, there is no handbook for how to handle what the Union faced this season. And yet Curtin dealt with each new obstacle with aplomb. He said all the right things in the media, constantly supporting his players and giving his honest thoughts on the world at large. While we don’t know exactly what he said within the locker room, it’s clear enough from the outside that this is a tight-knit squad, which is a credit to Curtin’s leadership. They stayed focused on each game, one at a time, and finished strong where previous iterations of the Union have collapsed entirely down the stretch.

Frankly, I don’t think there’s much debate about who should be the MLS Coach of the Year. While Caleb Porter and Oscar Pareja deserve credit for vaulting their teams up the Eastern Conference table, neither side has been as dominant as Curtin’s Union. When you couple that with the insane circumstances every team faced this season, it is a remarkable accomplishment by Curtin that he kept his team so consistent, game in and game out.

There is still, of course, work to be done. An early or meek exit from the playoffs will be disappointing after such a dominant regular season.

But, in this season unlike any other, Jim Curtin met the moment.

And Union fans are glad that he did.


  1. el Pachyderm says:

    I appreciate your intellectual honesty here Peter.
    I appreciate how one could watch this whole thing from the beginning and at multiple times question every single part of it, yet still believe in the Union. How one could watch and be unsatisfied with the methodology and philosophy of play yet still believe in the Union. I appreciate how someone could value the growth and development of players over ultimate results in the table yet still believe in the Union. I appreciate how the aesthetic could be the governing factor in ones enjoyment of the day in day out games and still believe and be happy with the Union.
    Still bleed the colors and come to this place of happiness for the Union yet continue to be critical of it.
    I appreciate the lack of condescension along the way Peter- by you and so many others who have come here to work out their feelings of something greater then themselves without a holier then thou attitude.
    …good stuff Peter and in the words of one of my favorite poets, Denise
    ….. “I believe with doubt. I doubt and interput my doubt with belief….”
    Carry on.

  2. “I was wrong”. Is it legal to say that during the current administration? Shouldn’t you be filing lawsuits to get Tanner to fire Curtin retroactively?
    That being said, it’s been great to see Curtin grow with the team. In my mind, even if they lose their first playoff game (especially if Monteiro and/or Martinez are stuck in quarantine), this has to be considered a successful season.

  3. I was right there with you Peter. Thought this team would never climb past mediocrity with Curtin in charge. Always thought he was a great guy and a good man-manager but wasn’t tactically “good enough.” I’m really happy to have been proven dead wrong. Curtin demonstrated that faith in his ever-improving abilities as a manager was the right call.

  4. I’ve already had my “I was wrong on Curtin” moment, but I don’t think it hurts to be reminded. I also think the total shit show that this organization was before truly committing to build by money ball and through the academy, can not be under sold. No practice field. No integrated path to the first team. No real practice facilities. This was Apple garage Inc. vs. IBM and all silicone valley could through at it. Where this team is now is light years ahead of where it was. We all expected them to be like they are now, with the tools they had then. Impossible task to ask.
    This was the growth of an organization, not just that of a manager. This was about investment and building the right way. About having patience and belief that they were doing things the right way despite all of us naysayers. Jim deserves a ton of credit. Some smack talk still too. It is Philly after all. Dammit Jim! We need more squad rotation! But Jim’s growth is retarded, if there isn’t investment in the youth academy, or scouting and metrics from the front office. This was an organization that grew up together, from a supporters group’s desire to have footy in a town where a majority of residents don’t care. This is fairy tail we got to live. May this story long continue.

  5. Yes Peter,There really is a Santa Claus! I have to say I was a bandwagon jumper with Curtin. At first I was a supporter. Then not….then back on the wagon! My knees and ankles were getting sore!
    Being wrong,and able to say so is why this spot is a great space to discuss our beloved Union! The readers of this site have come to trust the staff and commenters as a community of Philly soccer supporters who have the ability to have give and take discussions! Thanks to you all for helping me to improve my footie IQ along the way! So glad that Curtin has improved and Tanner saw what we missed

  6. Without the improvement in scouting Curtin would never had the success he has now. I remember being very critical of Union’s scouting department which was not really in existence several years ago. But then suddenly it really improved starting with Albright, then Tanner and now it seems they even have a Director of the Scouting Operations (Kyle McCarthy).

  7. it’s easy to root for a guy like Jim Curtin

  8. I had the same concerns as all mentioned here and still think that Jim should be favorite for Coach of the Year.
    That said, I think this year Ernst’s system/vision/acquisitions have played a very large part in the improvement.
    The players are good enough, play together well enough and are schooled enough in the system that they have mostly made teams play their way rather than having to adapt themselves.
    Curtin is part of Ernst’s system, and as with the rest of the team, Ernst has Jim playing to his strengths. While Curtin is no Klopp, Guardiola or Tata, he doesn’t have to be in order to be at the top of MLS. And, as observed above, he still has decades to keep learning.
    The U are on a nice roll. I hope that they can keep Ernst, Jim, Chris and the rest of the coaching crew together as long as possible. With all the young talent in the pipeline from the Academy, the sky is the limit for this club.
    Side note – love Aaronson and hate to see him go, but really looking forward to seeing what Ernst will do with those Brendan bucks!

  9. How many games did I stand in the river end with my fellow SoB’s chanting “Close the Curtin” as the team walked off the pitch after a lackluster performance?
    Glad they didn’t listen.
    Glad I get to go to my first in-person game on November 24.

  10. Curtin is a leader of Men rather than a tactics guy. Ernst deserves a lot of credit for what has happened to the Union. Peter, you were not wrong for how you felt.

    He still is married to medunjanin despite monteiro and martinez being perfect players under him. Sometimes building a culture us as important as building a team. Who knew?

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