Jim Curtin Finally Finds His Voice

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By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer

When Jim Curtin was first announced as the new manager of the Union in 2014, he was little more than a relatively obscure former MLS defender from a little town called Oreland, baby-faced with no head coach experience prior to his appointment. He inherited the reign of John Hackworth, whose tenure trended positively but never had anything to show for it, and was tasked with doing the seemingly impossible—making something out of the ultimate MLS underdogs.

It hasn’t been an easy journey to the top, but Curtin is making immense strides to get there, and he’s not letting anybody get in his—or the team’s—way.

When Curtin was first named head coach, he was a victim of a squad that seriously lacked identity. They had barely been a team for five years when Curtin took over, and were still trying to find their footing in the league. The novelty of the Union had worn off, and they had failed to make themselves into a team people could take seriously. It seemed wholly unlikely that a 34-year-old with such a lack of experience could turn that around.

It didn’t help that Curtin was knowledgeable, level-headed, and eager to be part of the Union’s system, but lacked a real voice. He came across as soft-spoken, reserved, and unwilling to rock any boats. While it was nice to not have a Jose Mourinho figure that shot off at the mouth and said whatever thought crossed his mind, there was no hope of the team gaining any bite when their head coach didn’t have any himself.

However, slowly but surely, the Union started gaining traction. They were signing underrated, but utterly impressive, players. They were playing with more of an identity, one that officially made them Curtin’s team—calm, organized, and fluid. The ball made its way from the defense, through the midfield, and into the back of the opposition goal almost effortlessly. Nothing ever seemed to faze the Union, whether it be jostling from frustrated opposition or heat from a rivalry matchup. It perfectly reflected Curtin’s brand of coaching and his personality overall, and established his team as a disciplined, levelheaded, and ambitious team that fought until the final whistle, no matter the scoreline. It wasn’t perfect, but it was clear that something was there.

Then the Union’s success started escalating. They were causing problems for some of the biggest teams in the league, and even earned their first playoff win in 2019. Even with the chaos of the 2020 season, the Union managed another trip to the playoffs (although it ended in the first round), and earned their first trophy with the MLS Supporters’ Shield, awarded to the team that finishes the season with the most points. It became clear that keeping the faith in Curtin’s personality as a coach was paying off. Even though they were entering the 2021 season with more success than they’ve ever had before, Curtin made it clear that they weren’t letting it get to their heads. The team still kept their heads down and played like they had something to prove.

In 2021, Curtin is the most outspoken he’s ever been.

There was the now-infamous dig at Atlanta United head coach Gabriel Heinze after the Union knocked Atlanta out of the CONCACAF Champions League, after Heinze accused Union players of diving and faking injuries to secure their victory, along with refusing to shake hands with Curtin after the game.

“He’s an incredible coach, he’s an incredible player, but you can still be also a sore loser and be an [expletive] at the end of the game,” Curtin stated in a post-match press conference. “I still think there’s a right way. I think he should shake hands like a man after the game.”

When midfielder Jose Martinez received a red card and extra suspension from MLS after a game against NYCFC, Curtin wasn’t shy about openly criticizing the player—something he had rarely done in the past.

“A blatant red card and a complete mistake, and Jose really let his team down,” Curtin said. “[A “firm and hard” conversation] is necessary. He’s a great kid, he wears his heart on his sleeve, he’s passionate and he wants to win. But there is a balance between being professional and being smart.”

Curtin has truly been able to make this club his own, which is dually impressive because of how much identity the Union lacked when he was appointed, and the swiftness of criticism that falls on managers who don’t immediately churn out winning results. He has proven that good things come to those who wait, and that a wise old Cameroonian basketball player might have been onto something when he declared that Philadelphia needed to “trust the process.”

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