Commentary / Union

On flying, whining, and Concacafing

Photo by Marjorie Elzy

Your family has been planning this trip since November.

You clicked “Book it” when an email from a cheap fight website and the faint hope of a vaccinated future overlapped for a moment, a Venn Diagram of thin but possible optimism. That was a lifetime ago and yet somehow the day is here. So you’ve packed up, faced the logistics of an airport again, and found yourselves seated unbelievably in an exit row, vacation just a short flight away.

As you breathe, still not quite comprehending your good fortune, the pilot comes over the intercom. 

“Good afternoon folks, this is the captain speaking. We’re glad to have you flying with us today.”

He introduces his crew one by one, the eagerness in his voice so brights it’s coming though the speaker. 

Ending #1

“As for me, this is my first flight with Major League Airways. For the last fifteen years, I was part of a world class flight crew who made calls all over Europe and South America. I haven’t taken any flying classes and don’t have a pilot’s license yet, but I’ve always planned on being a pilot when I was done being part of the crew and I couldn’t be more excited to get started.”

You look across the aisle to your partner, eyes wide. 

Ending #2

“I grew up around here, always loved planes. I started flying as a crew member almost twenty years ago with an outfit just outside of the city. That took me to California and Chicago where I was part of some of the best crews in America. When I retired, I decided to get my pilot’s license and practice flying on some small props. I moved up to regional jets after a few years and these 777s after that, and last year was America’s Pilot of the Year. I couldn’t be more proud to be taking care of you today.”

You look across the aisle at your partner and smile. 

Reading between the lines

“I think there’s great American coaches in this league, there’s great foreign coaches in this league, and I don’t want to make anything more of it than that.” – Jim Curtin

The choice in pilots isn’t a choice at all: every sane person in the world would choose the experienced, licensed pilot over his eager but unqualified counterpart.

The choice in soccer coaches is decidedly less clear for those tasked with making it, as plenty of foreign players with no coaching experience receive the benefit of the doubt by their would-be employers based on their playing experience. This happens in every country (and there is a long list of dreadful English coaches who keep getting new gigs, for example) and the disparity is what Jim Curtin referenced last week when commenting on his interactions with Atlanta’s Gabriel Heinze.

When Heinze was ready to coach, a first division team in Argentina was willing to hire him. It didn’t matter that he had neither coaching experience nor a license, but they gave him a job straight away, one that went so poorly it ended with him leaving in just a few months (he subsequently got his professional coaching license).

When Curtin was ready to coach, his hometown team told him to go work with elementary school players, moved him to U-18s after that, then to an assistant coaching role, then one as an interim head coach, and then finally the full time job, but on a year to year basis until just recently (survive and advance, as it were).

There’s no question Heinze’s playing career is more illustrious than Curtin’s, the former starred at places like Manchester United while Jim Curtin was an MLS All-Star once in Chicago. There’s also no question that being the best flight attendant is very different than being a qualified pilot.

There’s no question Heinze has the ability to coach, absolutely smothering Miami’s build-up over the weekend thanks to his pre-game instructions. There’s also no question about Curtin’s chops: his teams have achieved more under his direction than they did the year before in every one of his seasons, culminating in 2020 when he was named the league’s Coach of the Year and his team hoisted the Supporter’s Shield.

There’s absolutely no question about who is the better coach right now.

When the sides met over two legs in the Concacaf Champion’s League this year, it was Heinze whose expensive roster was aggressive but naive against Curtin’s organized, similarly aggressive, but transition-focused eleven. Over two legs, the only thing Atlanta had to show for their efforts was a lot of possession and a sack full of errant shots. The Union had plenty more goals, booked tickets to the next round, and a profound psychological edge.

All Curtin is suggesting here is that there is a long list of American coaching prospects waiting in the wings for the next open job. They get overlooked too often in favor of lesser-qualified candidates who come from countries with a more historical soccer pedigree.

Earning respect

Jim Curtin is not one to stir up debate in the media.

Thus his choice to broach a topic as controversial as this one means it’s something that irritates him. That itch probably wouldn’t have needed to be scratched had Heinze not publicly tried to shame Curtin and his Union for seeing out both legs of their Champion’s League triumph in the traditional style: by wasting time at every turn, to the edge of a yellow card as often as possible.

Curtin scratched and scratched again because, though a coach should protect his team at every turn of course, Heinze was suggesting that Curtin’s team was doing something unruly, unorthodox, out of the scope of the match, and low class. He suggested that Curtin’s team and then Curtin himself weren’t worthy of him, that Curtin wasn’t a man: he was trying to use his pedigree as a player to one-up Curtin as a coach, and Curtin wasn’t having any of it.

The irony is that Heinze is himself a Concacaf-er, one who just recently said that “it would have been impossible for [him] to play these days… That mischief [is] lost, right? Pushing, grabbing hair, talking … it would have been very difficult.” The Argentinian legend would have found it impossible to play these days without the ability to subtly cheat along the way.

Then his team wasted time over the weekend while up a goal. Go figure.

Jim Curtin is the league’s reigning Coach of the Year. His team is the league’s reigning Supporter’s Shield winners and the only American side remaining in the region’s Champion’s League tournament. Gabriel Heinze is a first-year coach with an underperforming team, one who suffered his franchise’s worst home loss ever to Curtin just two weeks ago.

Until some of those tables turn, Heinze’s job should be to figure out a way for his team to win some matches instead of being angry about the manner in which his opponent do.


  1. el Pachyderm says:

    I like writers who ‘show me’ and ‘don’t tell me.’
    Well done, sir. Respect.

  2. Hope curtin reads this and smiles

  3. There was something about Heinze’s reaction that felt like a deeper jab but I couldn’t put my finger on it until your article. That is exactly what it was, a cheap little shot at an American coach in an American league that is beneath him (yet ironically finds himself out of the CCL and treading water in the Eastern Conference of said league).

  4. just a reminder

    Referees must caution players who delay the restart of play by:
    • appearing to take a throw-in but suddenly leaving it to a team-mate to take
    • delaying leaving the field of play when being substituted
    • excessively delaying a restart
    • kicking or carrying the ball away, or provoking a confrontation by
    deliberately touching the ball after the referee has stopped play
    • taking a free kick from the wrong position to force a retake

    take it up with the ref Gabby

    • Atomic Spartan says:

      #’s 1, 2 and 3 & 5 are carded in MLS once every blue moon. And players commit #4 once in a blue moon
      BTW, metaphor and Heinze’s motivation spot on. He did not get CONCACAF’d. He got embarrassed.

  5. Great article, Chris. I love the airplane pilot metaphor!!

  6. OneManWolfpack says:

    Well written. Great read

  7. While I know Curtin knew the CCL was basing game 2 and finals host on a points system, Heinze probably had no idea the Union were pushing for the win since if they won in the semis it would increase the chance to host the final.

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