In the first 15 matches of his MLS coaching career (the 16th was the 2014 US Open Cup final) Philadelphia Union went 9-2-4 in all competitions.
Jim Curtin’s record over the 15 matches that recently culminated in his 53rd win, a 2-0 shutout over Sporting Kansas City? 10-4-1. Also: Over half those wins came on the road and only one loss — against Zlatan and the LA Galaxy — was to a team below the playoff line.
Also very not bad.
And, in his fifth season in charge, Curtin has the Union back in the US Open Cup final for the third time since he took over midway through 2014.
The journey from Curtin’s hot start as a head coach to the Union’s recent run of good form has been over hilly terrain. A ninth place finish in 2015 and a hot start in 2016. Slow out of the gates in 2017 and then a thrilling run into playoff position this season following the strange ejection and suspension of two key players in Atlanta.
Through it all, Curtin has been adaptable and, at times, maligned. He is currently guiding the Union through a second significant leadership transition on the club’s technical side while ushering a big wave of youth talent — some of whom started at the academy when Curtin was still there learning the coaching ropes — into the first team. There is plenty to criticize; there is a lot to like.
There is a 14-4 record in the US Open Cup, including three finals appearances. There was a 3-7-6 team in 2014 that went 7-5-6 the rest of the way after Curtin took over, with Andrew Wenger somehow morphing into a target winger. A year later, with Wenger ice cold, there was still a trip back to the US Open Cup final with Mo Edu barely fighting off injuries in pursuit of the club’s first trophy.
There was 2016, with Tranquillo Barnetta fully adjusted to MLS. Curtin spoke before the season — and this will sound familiar if you’ve been paying attention this year — of owning the center of the park with a talented, match-controlling midfield trio. Of the three key men expected to carry that team (Edu and Vincent Nogueira were the other two), only Barnetta ended up starting more than eight games. Yet, in what once again echoes 2018, a young back line and some surprising goalscorers (12 for Chris Pontius!) helped the Union into the playoffs.
Although the way they entered the postseason — an extended winless run — is the clearest memory, the fact that a defense with rookies across the right side and only one of its three top midfielders available after June 1 got there at all is at least notable in hindsight.
Last season: No consistent attacking midfielder. I was writing for The Philly Soccer Page at the time and the issue was impossible to ignore. Particularly with Borek Dockal now in the fold, one cannot talk around the simple fact that Roland Alberg and Ilsinho did not provide what was necessary at the position for the Union’s system to function well. (Alberg has since moved on and Ilsinho has returned to the wing and resumed his filthy magic show).
Now, for the 2018 season, the Union have the pieces they want in all three key positions in the center of the park. They have unleashed Cory Burke on MLS, Keegan Rosenberry has shaken off a sophomore slump to become a key part of the attack up the right, and, perhaps most importantly, top academy players are filling out the roster.
Also, the team is playing fun soccer: It’s expansive, energetic, aggressive, and blue collar; a mix of Jim Curtin the player and Jim Curtin the coach.
But no accounting of Curtin’s tenure can ignore that he has yet to bring Union fans the one thing they crave most: A playoff win.
While Curtin has been head coach in Philadelphia, his Union team, New York City, Chicago, Atlanta, and Orlando City have gone without a postseason victory. Obviously, some of those franchises have had fewer opportunities than others: Orlando and NYCFC entered the league in 2015 and Atlanta joined in 2017. Two clubs — DC United and New England — have a single playoff win over the same stretch; only Columbus, Montreal, Red Bulls, and Toronto have more than one. Of those, the Crew have their system, Toronto has their money, and Red Bulls have a bit of both. Montreal? Well, they had Didier Drogba.
Right now, with Jim Curtin as head coach, the Union are in year three of a new philosophical approach designed to build sustainable success, and they are very likely going to get that chance at a postseason victory.
They also have one of the league’s top academies, midfielders so strong that opponents are trying to man-mark them out of the game, and unexpected (to perhaps everyone but the club’s coaching staff and the men themselves) goalscoring heroes in Cory Burke and Fafa Picault. And, again, they have another shot at an Open Cup title.
When Curtin was named coach of the Union, he implemented a system that got the ball out of the back quickly and up to Wenger and Sebastien Le Toux. “That’s why our possession stats stink he said at the time, “But I am a counterattacking guy.”
The game as a whole has evolved since then, and so has the Union head coach. A couple years later, when Earnie Stewart asked what kind of soccer he wanted to play, Curtin wanted to dominate the ball. This season, with the pieces in place, the Union have done just that.
And off the pitch, the Union as an organization has undeniably evolved since instituting a Sporting Director structure, embracing and implementing a philosophy and style of play that has led to impressive results at the youth levels and has pushed top young performers through to the first team.
All of that led to majority owner Jay Sugarman’s response at incoming Sporting Director Ernst Tanner’s press conference. When asked about the club’s next steps, Sugarman said, “And now, bringing in Ernst, I think you'll see us focus more and more on how to make this first team sustainably successful. We felt like we needed all of those foundational pieces [an academy, capital investment around Talen Energy Stadium] to be able to go into the transfer market with the highest probability of success. But I think when you have the foundational pieces and you have the elements that Ernst talked about, the academy's helped put us in place, the investments we've made. I think you're at the point where this team should start to attract talent and really be able to put it into the first team in a way that we get the full benefit of it.”
Both coach and organization are at a far different place after 53 MLS (and 67 overall) wins. But there is one thing about Jim Curtin that, through the highs and lows, the finals appearances and the heartbreaking finals losses that followed, has never wavered. “...I want to be involved in this team winning a trophy, I mean that,” Curtin said back when he was first named head coach. “I don't care whether I'm in fourth command or first command. I just want to win in Philly.
“It's what our fans deserve."