Under Jim Curtin, Philadelphia Union have been to three US Open Cup finals and made the MLS Cup Playoffs in two of the past three seasons. And while coaching contemporaries like Peter Vermes and Berhalter were given full control of the soccer decisions at their clubs, Ernst Tanner is the third person brought in above Curtin to run the sporting side of the Union.
This is not a novel observation, but it remains underappreciated: When Earnie Stewart and Ernst Tanner — both experienced soccer men with histories full of success — were given the opportunity to move on from Curtin, they declined.
The aspects of coaching you can only learn from experience — in-game management, pacing a team over the course of a season, which tasks are worth your time and what should be passed on — the Union head man has soaked it all up since 2014. His handling of Ilsinho this season has turned the Brazilian into one of the most effective bench players in league history, and the innovative use of Haris Medunjanin in a deep-lying distributor role remains a tactical nuance that receives inordinate scorn when it fails and far too little admiration for the extent to which it has driven the club’s 2019 success. Curtin remains imperfect, but, for those willing to look, his growth as a leader and a tactician is undeniable. This is what those inside the soccer world see in the Union coach: That same natural leadership ability that was recognized at Princeton years ago paired with a relentless willingness to attack his own shortcomings and treat every failure as an opportunity.
“I think I'm constantly trying to evolve because the moment you get comfortable, this game will humble you,” the Curtin insists. “I'm a very organic coach, I learn on the fly, I take ideas from other sports, I take ideas from other leaders in other companies and businesses, and I try to make them my own by fitting them to my group. I want feedback and information from all of my coaches. I want to empower them and give them opportunities to grow and develop.”
And here is the final lesson that explains Jim Curtin as a coach, and why he was up to the challenge of instituting a new system following a playoff season. He works. Not to prove he is right, but to become better as a coach and a leader. You might think Curtin is a bad coach now, but the criticisms that ring true today are not the same as those that were levied a year ago, or a year before that. Because whether it is game management, tactics, training, trust, or delegating, Curtin has worked to improve. And that work has become a foundational pillar of the club’s culture; Curtin demands it of his players and staff, and it is why Ernst Tanner has suggested the head coach is in line for a new contract.
The Union culture is one of the club’s strongest assets. It creates teenagers ready to play at the top level and coaches ready to join national team staffs. It allows a team with an injured Designated Player and a top striker coming off an 18-month layoff to rise to the top of the Eastern Conference.
It is a culture of ambition and selflessness, of work and growth. It is a culture built in Philadelphia, for Philadelphia.
“I think it will be impossible for me to care about another club as much as this one,” Curtin admitted to KYW News Radio’s Matt Leon. “Because it's where I'm from and it's where I grew up.
It's where you walk around the street in the neighborhood and people love you, give you a pat on the back or buy you a beer when you win and they're honest and fair and hard on you when you lose.
That's what Philadelphia's about. That's what I get. For me, this is the pinnacle.”
On June 8, the Union sat in first place with defending Supporters’ Shield winners New York Red Bulls in town on a five match unbeaten streak. Talen Energy Stadium was packed and shaking even after the Union secured only two points from their previous three-game homestand. The fans knew more than points were on the line — this was a chance to show a club that steadfastly refused to take Philly seriously that reality was tired of being ignored.
Team captain Ale Bedoya and the rest of the players gathered in the locker room prior to the first whistle, focused and calm, all thoughts on the next two hours of their lives.
Curtin entered. All of the previous week’s work, the analysis, scouting, debates and discussions were over.
“Red Bull is in a good run of form right now,” he said. “But I can promise you one thing: They have not played a team like us.
“I want you to take the field and remember two things tonight,” he continued. “Number one: This is our house.
“And number two: This is now our conference.”
Players and staff huddled, intense but calm, hands piled in the center.
“Win on three!” Alejandro Bedoya called out.