Jim Curtin

Why Curtin deserved his Coach of the Year votes

Major League Soccer's coach of the year voting involves input from players, media, and each club. Last season, Toronto FC's Greg Vanney was the straightforward choice, and this year Atlanta's Tata Martino was similarly the clear favorite and deserving winner. Martino won both the player and club votes, with the media preferring to overlook both coaches that made a run at the 70 point mark in favor of Bob Bradley, the coach of the team that finished just below the one that set the modern league record for wins in a row.

 

Jim Curtin finished fourth in 2018 coach of the year voting. The Union coach's work taking a team in the third year of a philosophical shift into the top half of the Eastern Conference while reaching a third US Open Cup final was recognized as one of the more laudable feats performed by a MLS head coach. Martino, along with Peter Vermes, and Bob Bradley, form a strong top tier for coach of the year. What Curtin produced, while perhaps one step (or one Open Cup final) away from those three, places him solidly within a strong group that includes Chris Armas, Gregg Berhalter, Brian Schmetzer, and Gio Savarese.

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Martino took an expensively assembled team and turned it into a highly-efficient machine that charged forward after turnovers like calvary at disorganized infantry. Vermes, meanwhile, continued to tune his hot rod, adding small pieces, tweaking — somewhat quietly turning Graham Zusi into one of the more dominant attacking fullbacks the league has seen — and building. Bradley got buy-in from his superstar, rotated strikers brilliantly, and built a system that somehow fit what often felt like a zillion attacking pieces on the pitch without becoming DOA defensively.

 

Curtin? He took a roster without any superstars -- and a back line with big question marks at every spot -- and turned it into a team that locked in a playoff spot with two matches remaining in the season and didn't fall below the playoff line after August 11.

At the start of the season, Union beat writer Matt De George wrote that fans had been waiting a decade for a roster that could claim to be playoff-worthy, "not one that maybe, possibly, potentially could be." Jim Curtin's achievement in 2018 was to take the potential of his roster and make it manifest. When the team's 16-goal scorer never got off the mark, Curtin managed what could have been an uncomfortable situation by rotating strikers and giving CJ Sapong every chance to recover his form. When David Accam scuffled out of the starting blocks, the Union coach managed the same feat, finding time for a high-ceiling player to look for his confidence without breaking the team. Not every move worked -- Matt Real's brief tenure in back produced mixed results -- but the unifying theme was that Curtin took a roster packed full of possibilities and potential and turned it into a team that spent the last three months of the season in playoff position. And he did it without England's all-time leading goalscorer and without signing the league's most expensive defender, gambits used by two direct competitors.

 

Along the way, a curious thing happened, or rather, a curious type of thing occurred multiple times in different forms. Some MLS coach would make some tactical tweak or insightful personnel move and, quite deservedly, receive recognition and praise. Meanwhile, Curtin's tinkering was subsumed by a narrative of tactical inflexibility built around the team's shape.

 

For instance, Bob Bradley managed to fit a platoon of creative, attack-minded midfielders onto the field together, abjuring a defensive midfielder in the process. People noticed. Meanwhile, the Union consistently put out one of the more effective midfield trios in Major League Soccer with Haris Medunjanin (exactly nobody's image of a defensive midfielder) in the deepest role.

Similarly, Mike Petke brilliantly turned Damir Kreilach, a misfiring midfielder when RSL visited Philly, into a dangerous striker. He was praised for thinking outside of the positional box and finding a match between role and player ability. Curtin also performed such a feat when he returned CJ Sapong to the wing to allow the Union to play over teams that sought to disrupt their buildup play. Sapong had been a winger in days of yore with Kansas City, so it is less the ah-ha of finding the opening day striker another spot on the pitch than the tactical logic required to make a marriage of skill set and role that stands out. The Sapong move finalized a long, complex pivot from a speed-based vertical attack to a quick-combining right-sided offensive setup to a more flexible strategy that could spotlight combination play or longer balls to Sapong depending on the situation. This adjustment occurred at the start of a four-match win streak that distanced Philly from the rest of the playoff-chasing pack.

 

Curtin (and his staff, of course) also recognized that Auston Trusty was at a point where the benefits of including him in the first eleven outweighed the risks of using a teenager in back; then he did it again with Mark McKenzie. He didn't push against it when an injury to Fabinho began inexorably turning the Union into a team that built primarily up the right, and he filled the hole left by Accam's struggles with 10 goals from Fafa Picault, and filled the hole on the right left by Picault's move across the formation by playing the hot hand until Sapong's move out wide.

 

And, in what is, somewhat ironically, both support for his placement on the Coach of the Year list and a strong argument against his case to finish first, he returned the Union to the US Open Cup final for the third time in his tenure but fell just short of the trophy for, again, the third time.    

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All of this is to say that Curtin's fourth place finish in Coach of the Year voting seems fair. It is recognition that he did what a good coach does: Take possibility and potential and turn it into production.

 

In writing about why Martino deserved his win, Bobby Warshaw suggested that while the Atlanta head man would receive plaudits for his club's style and relentlessness, it was the man-management required to both maximize individual player performance while keeping the entire squad focused throughout the season that constituted the secret ingredient to the Five Stripes' success.

 

Notably, man-management is the exact quality that led Earnie Stewart retain Jim Curtin as head coach, and if Ernst Tanner has admired Curtin's work in 2018 for the same reason.

 

After Peter Vermes was appointed technical director in Kansas City prior to the 2007 season, the club's highest point total over the next four seasons was 42; since those were 30 game seasons, it's important to translate that to 1.4 points per game in an era before the Designated Player rule revved up, and TAM significantly changed how rosters were built. With a good sense of both what he had in his vets and what he could expect from his youth ranks (Graham Zusi and Matt Besler, for example), Vermes took over as head coach in the middle of the 2009 season. “At the beginning I can very specifically remember him when he took over, that he really didn’t care about getting wins initially," Zusi said of Vermes. Instead, it was all about culture and forcing the players to recognize that they had the ability to compete with the best in the league.

 

In other words, Vermes spent about four years, first as technical director, then later also as head coach, teaching his team that they didn't suck. It's year three since Philly's philosophical reboot began and Jim Curtin has already gotten that message across to his team. Does that mean the Union will undoubtedly emulate KC's success under Vermes? Of course not. But it does suggest that Curtin deserved the votes he received in the Coach of the Year poll. The former academy coach and Villanova Wildcat defender has often been maligned — both fairly and not — during his tenure helming the Union. This year, his handling of the roster was a big reason it developed into one that was clearly playoff-worthy long before the stretch run of the season; he found a lot of answers where others may not have thought to look. He also took his team to a final.

 

You don’t have to believe Curtin has always been a good coach to admit that he coached well in 2018. Next season will bring a new system (and likely a new shape), and new challenges; Jim Curtin will coach his team to play, in Ernst Tanner’s words, completely different without the ball. It will be hard, and it won’t be perfect. But after being honored for one of the better coaching performances in the league this year, Curtin deserves the chance to build on it.

 


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