2017 MLS SEASON PREVIEW
You might not think of the position of head coach of the Philadelphia Union as dream job, but you couldn't really blame Jim Curtin if he feels like it is. The Philadelphia native and former longtime MLS defender always planned on settling down in his hometown, and being able to do that while coaching the city's team has been a dream come true. It has also given Curtin a just reward for a tough decision he made seven years ago.
Curtin was at a crossroads after the 2009 MLS season, his ninth as a player in the league. He was hoping to be able to sign with the Union as a player during the club's inaugural season, but when that opportunity didn't present itself, Curtin made the tough decision to give up his playing career at the age of 30 and begin his quest to become a coach.
"You could go two ways there. I could have probably chased it, and went around the country and been a guy who signed with different MLS teams for different salaries, chasing it a couple more years," Curtin told Goal. "It was at a time when I didn't think it was fair to my family — I had young kids at the time. Philly was home, and it was always where I wanted to be. It was where me and my wife both are from. The idea was I could sulk about it and cry, or I could move forward with my career and life and get into coaching, and that's what I chose to do."
Fast-forward seven years and that tough decision has proven to be a smart one as Curtin prepares to enter his fourth season as head coach of the Philadelphia Union. Still the youngest coach in MLS at 37, Curtin has spent parts of the past three seasons learning on the job, and the ups and downs of that education might have proved to be too much for some other coaches. Not Curtin, who has grown into a role he readily admits he wasn't ready for when he accepted it in the summer of 2014.
"For any great job, and I would consider being the head coach of your hometown team a great job, no one is actually ready until you're in it," Curtin said. "I wasn't ready, but at the same time I wasn't going to say no. It's like an astronaut's first launch. Is he really ready when he's never done it before? Once you get in it though, you learn that there's a lot that goes into it.
"Any coach who says they were ready to be the head coach the first time is full of it," Curtin added. "You can never really be prepared for something like this when you start, but I feel comfortable with it now and now that we have stability and clarity in the organization it's pretty powerful."
Though Curtin may not have been ready when he first took the job, the Union will be expecting him to be ready now as he prepares to guide a revamped team into the 2017 season. Expectations are much higher now, as the influence of sporting director Earnie Stewart has helped mold the Union roster into the deepest collection of talent the team has ever had.
"We all do look around now and we see with the group that we have that it's not good enough just to get in the playoffs," Curtin said. "The bar has been raised. We have a group that is capable of getting in the playoffs and winning that first series, which the club has never accomplished. We had the two heartbreaks of getting to two (U.S. Open Cup) finals, we had the taste of the playoffs last year, and now we have to take that next step, which is to win big games, and I think we have the team to take that next step."
The Union have added some promising pieces to a roster that had a solid foundation to begin with. Bosnian midfielder Haris Medunjanin has looked sharp since arriving this winter, while former U.S. national team defender Oguchi Onyewu has shaken off the rust of two years of inactivity to give the Union a viable starting center back option. Those pickups, along with the arrivals of forward Jay Simpson and defender Giliano Wijnaldum, have helped turn the Union's preseason into a fierce battle for starting roles.
"It creates real competition, not just to be in our 11, but to make our 18 each week is going to be a real challenge," Curtin said. "There are going to be good, solid pros who aren't going to make our 18. That's healthy. That means our club is moving forward. I think under Earnie, initially when he came in he said he wanted us to be two deep at each position. In just over a year's time, when you look at our second group we really do have really solid players at one and two all over the field, and a good mix of academy kids coming up too and that's exciting."
"What happened in a lot of games is we got caught up in these end-to-end games, and we're not built for that," Curtin said. "We don't have a David Villa or Kaka to pull off a play and win a game by himself, we have to do it with all 11 guys. We got caught trying to play end-to-end with teams, and we got punished.
"We're focused on keeping our team compact, and not let ourselves get stretched. Yes, we want to high press, but we want to do it all together, where everyone's attacking and everyone defends. In that sense we're a true team because everyone has to be good, not great, and we can play with anybody."
Though the Union don't have any multi-million dollar players on the roster, they do have some of the league's best, including MLS Best XI goalkeeper Andre Blake, recent U.S. national team call-ups Chris Pontius and Keegan Rosenberry, and U.S. veteran Alejandro Bedoya, who Curtin is counting on to take on a much bigger role this season.
"I want (Bedoya) to now embrace the role of being our leader, and our engine," Curtin said. "I feel like in his career he's always been on great teams, whether it's FC Nantes or the national team, and I feel like he kind of maybe sees himself as a role player. With the Philadelphia Union I want him to be the guy, so it's a different role in some ways. We want him to take that leadership role, not just on the field but in the locker room. He's worn the captain's armband all preseason and he's really embraced it."
As for Curtin, he is fully embracing his role as coach, grateful for how far he has come, and fully aware that things could have gone much differently if he hadn't made the decision seven years ago to trade in his cleats for a whistle.
"It was a tough decision, it always is tough to walk away from playing," Curtin said. "There are guys, and some of them are close friends of mine, who are struggling right now because there's nothing like the rush of playing every week, and being kind of important and a big deal, and then it's just gone. Some guys can't handle it. It's a tough time, and I feel like our league needs to do a better job of bridging that gap for guys.
"I've been lucky, and I know I don't have all the answers, but I think am getting better as a young coach," Curtin added. "I've been able to navigate some tough situations and I think it made me a better coach, and a better leader.
"I'm going to keep relentlessly pursuing ways to get better because you have to. If you're not doing that then you're in this for the wrong reasons."