Commentary / Opinion

The fine line

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

With a run of form like the Union have had, it is challenging not to look back on the last two months and observe the qualities and dualities of the prototypical Union supporter.

There is a fine line between criticism and disrespect. One doesn’t have to look much further than the comment section of any given Union match report from prior to May 2 to glean this.

The form was poor. The expectations are high. Those two items are known quantities.


Whilst there is some definite overlap between the negative takes in the comment sections on PSP and the echo chambers that are social media, one thing is clear: the line between criticism and disrespect for Jim Curtin was and is all too fine.

And while that negativity has not been as prevalent as of late, it certainly was a “thing” and will always be a “thing” as long as the grass grows green and the Union start the season slow.

A Philadelphia problem

In the world of insurance and risk management, this fine city is cursed with a phenomenon, sometimes referred to as the “Philadelphia problem.” With some of the highest rates of uninsured drivers and insurance fraud per capita, car insurers charge exorbitant premiums to compensate for the frequency of the presence of fraud or lack of insurance.

A problem borne out of the spirit of negligence.

On the other hand, there is a problem blessing this city that I lovingly refer to as the “Philadelphia problem.” This iteration of the “problem” is overt criticism that becomes disrespectful to its own athletes and sports figures.

From journalists, to analysts, to radio personalities, to match report commenters, to fans—we all are guilty of this. It simply comes with the territory.

Though, this rendition of the Philadelphia problem is borne in the spirit of dedication, support, and loyalty.

The warm-up

To paint the full picture, let’s rewind nine years.

A recently appointed interim manager, following the firing of John Hackworth mid-season in 2014, found himself at the helm of his hometown team. Curtin’s first season as interim manager saw the bench boss advance the team to the US Open Cup final while only losing five of the 16 remaining MLS games. Something this club could build upon? Surely.

A now full-blown, non-interim, Curtin followed up that season with his team finishing ninth out of 10 in the Eastern Conference in 2015, posting a -13 goal differential and missing the playoffs for the third straight season. Though, the team made it to the US Open Cup final, yet again, coming out second best. No worse than the preceding campaign, yet not exactly any improvement.

T’was a different time. The expectations for the team and its manager aligned with this notion.

The need for urgent results just was not requisite.

The come up

In the time since, Curtin has figured it out—achieving milestone after milestone, including a first playoff win, a full-scale and top-ranked academy pipeline to Europe, and even some hardware to the Union’s bare trophy case.

A roster that has turned over in full since Curtin’s first match in charge. From names like Brian Carroll, Michael Lahoud, and Andrew Wenger to José Martinez, Alejandro Bedoya, and Mikael Uhre. Record signings. Record sales of academy kids.

The works.

All accomplished at the persistent consistency of Jim Curtin.

The doorstep

Fast forward to seven months ago.

This team was on the precipice of achieving what once seemed like a pipe dream marinated in LSD.

If you asked any Union supporter in that 2014-2015 timeframe whether they thought Big Jim would have this club on the doorstep of winning the most exhilarating MLS Cup final ever played, they would be in a fit of laughter-induced hysterics.

And, oh, by the way, the thought of Jim Curtin also receiving justified shouts to be the next tap for USMNT manager? That same supporter would be struggling to keep their jaw from dropping to the gravel in Lot G.

The present

The reality is that Jim Curtin ultimately found success. Like rungs on a ladder, or the steps at Chichen Itza, Curtin’s success is an imperfect, yet ascending slope. Rung by rung, step by step, the club has achieved some form of equivalent or greater success each year he has been in the saddle as Union manager.

Considering Curtin came in when the Union were in a pit of inevitable perennial despair, this resolute upward trajectory has garnered a reputation that requires perpetuating.

Especially in a city where the only way to endear yourself to the fan base is to win. Curtin has said that himself. Let the crowd on Saturday night be an example of what can happen when this team is tallying it up in the win column.

But reality is reality, and in this reality, the Union underachieved early in the MLS campaign yet again. Criticism was warranted.

All eyes were on Jim to make a change from what had been a historically and unwaveringly successful system. He found success under a different defensive and midfield structure out of the 3-5-2. Albeit, without their captain and key young budding midfielder through a demanding stretch of games against tough competition.

Curtin constructed a way to get his best players in the XI, without deviating from his core values.

Jim deserves credit.


The Union have built their identity on the back of Jim Curtin. It is his inherent willingness to instill his direct tactics and unrelenting press. It is blue-collar. It is industrial, just like the city to which Curtin traces his beginnings.

Though, if there is anything that is true, it is that Jim Curtin deserved our patience. He deserved time to right the ship just like he was given early in his tenure.

Curtin himself said it best in that the difference between him and a lot of other “one-and-done” managers is that he was given the time to figure things out. Time to fail, to learn, and to tinker.

This season is no different.

He now has this team humming: unbeaten in their last nine games, a +50 goal differential in its last 20 home matches, and points in the standings virtually equivalent to the same match week last season.

Is he absolved from criticism? Absolutely not. Nor is he exempt from dealing with the Philadelphia problem. Like all of us, Curtin has his flaws. His tactical brain and in-game adjustments can at times be puzzling. But with his contract up at the end of this year, and the USMNT rumors growing louder, what is your perfect alternative? Is there a better alternative than Jim Curtin for this team? For this city? I sure as heck don’t think so.

In his ninth year in charge, Curtin is still climbing the rungs on the ladder. Here’s hoping that the top of the ladder is one rung higher than the ladder climbed last season.


  1. Gotta agree with this article. Jim ain’t perfect, and deserves criticism when appropriate (personally, I think he often waits too long to make substitutions), but to be level with their record last season at this point is almost miraculous.

    He’d be a fool to take the USMNT job, if offered, with snakes like Reyna and his parents hanging around there—no upside whatsoever. Here the upside of MLS Cup beckons. He’ll be a Union legend when he wins that.

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    One question that needs to be asked when any discussion of firing Curtin comes up is who should he be replaced with? How many managers could have done what’s he’s done over the last 3 seasons with a team that has a mid-level salary base? They won the Supporters Shield in 2020, came a COVID outbreak away from making MLS Cup in 2021, and came a ridiculous MLS tiebreaker away from hosting MLS Cup in 2022.
    Yes, they started slowly this season but some of that was due to Blake being injured. Plus MLS making them play during an international break. And squad rotation due to CCL.
    And now they have as many points after 16 games this season as they did after 18 games last year. Of course we all remember the fireworks during and after game 19 last year against DC…

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Ryan Richter will be the replacement.

      • Tim Jones says:

        Curious to read an explanation of your thinking, el P.
        Richter’s not been in place all that long with the first team. He does come out of the academy coaching ranks. He knows the Union way of doing things.
        But the current “starting twelve” has only two Americans among it, granted the bench has several more.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Tim. He’s been groomed from the beginning for it.

  3. santo bevacqua says:

    I ask the author how the Philadelphia problem as stated relates to Curtin coaching abilities. The biggest strength and contribution in my opinion has been the way he handles the youngsters development. The players transfers enabled to replenish the cash coffers of the club. His work in the Union is a work in progress and unless a super offer comes along he will stay with the club. The Union although has its name Phila the fan base is mostly suburban, new jersey, Delaware.

  4. Jim Curtin in a word? Winner. He’s a winner.

  5. Jesse Marsch appears to be out of the running, and the current manager (3rd since WC) might be appropriate, but Curtin is a slam dunk for that role BECAUSE of the work he has done with Academy players. They’d be foolish not to offer the USMNT HC job to him.
    My sincere hope is he stays… wins the MLS Cup a couple of times, and like LeToux and eventually Blake, join them in the Ring of Honor, retire like Jay did and become our Studio Announcer!

    It’s fate….. DOOP!

  6. John P. O'Donnell says:

    Who could replace Jim Curtin? That guy in Cincinnati is off to a good start and he was an assistant here. LAFC beat us in the final with a first year coach I believe.
    Ernie Stewart turned this franchise in the right direction and when he left one could easily argue Ernst Tanner took it to another level.
    The guy in the helicopter found all the pieces to put together a successful franchise. Yes, it took him longer than Atlanta United and LAFC to some extent but he went out and got the right people from business partners to the coach at the academies to buy into the Union way.
    I like Curtin but I have plenty of faith that an organization that prides itself on youth development is doing the same thing with coaching and front office personnel. Hell one could even argue media personalities as plenty worked here before moving on.
    Winning a Championship in Philadelphia is the standard to when you get the pass but not for long…..

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Richter lays in wait. He’s been groomed since the last penalty kick for New York Cosmos 7 years ago. I’m not a fan of the guy. But it is what it is.

  7. Atomic Spartan says:

    Yep. JC, Earnie and Herr Tanner should share near equal credit. But Sugarman’s rep has arisen like the mythical Phoenix from the ashes. Give credit to all who have earned it.

    • Atomic Spartan says:

      But I still miss Danny “Suicide Run” Cruz.

      • If Jim leaves….Danny Cruz has been doing a good job leading Louisville City in USL…..

      • Tim Jones says:

        The organization’s style when hiring has tended to be slow and sure for the most part. Philosophically they would lean towards promoting from within.

  8. Winner? Hasn’t won shit. 3 cup finals, mls final, 2 CCL quarterfinals… losses. slow start of every season and usual mid season faltering and whimpering home (including the one supporters shield).
    Never should have hired him, as interim or permanent. We had much more qualified assist coaches at the time. He’s a yes man, who’s hands are in his pockets most of the game. Late subs, never uses all subs, doesn’t manage yellows/suspensions, forget about rotations, etc… Might be good in training, but not match day.
    The credit should go to the organization, particularly the sporting directors for choices, moves, trades. Any good manager we’d have at least a couple, if not few, more trophies.

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