by Kevin Kinkead
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — For the first time in its brief history, the Philadelphia Union will be coached by a Philadelphia native.
Jim Curtin’s interim tag was removed Friday morning, making the 35-year-old Oreland native and Villanova alumnus the youngest coach in Major League Soccer.
But speaking at a press conference at Chickie’s and Pete’s in South Philadelphia, Curtin sounded like an experienced manager when describing in detail his plans to turn around a team that has qualified for the postseason just once in five seasons of play.
“The title changes with me, but the message is the same,” Curtin said. “I’m here to win and that will continue. I started out in my first press conference and said that I need to win here, and now it’s something where I continue to believe that I have to push this team forward in that regard. The title shifts from interim to head coach, but the message is the same. I’m here to win and get this team back into the playoffs where we belong.”
In June, Curtin inherited a team that was 3-7-6 and had nearly played itself out of postseason contention before the World Cup break. Curtin got things turned around, and the club went 6-3-5 over the next 14 league games. He took the club all the way to the finals of the U.S. Open Cup, where the Union fell just short of taking out a Seattle team that would go on to win Major League Soccer’s Supporter’s Shield. Philadelphia then faltered down the stretch, eliminating itself from the playoffs with collapses at home versus Chicago and Columbus.
“I thought moreso than at any end of season meetings that I’ve ever been a part of, there was a sincere disappointment and accountability,” said Curtin. “That’s something that we’ve preached from day one with me getting in there, was accountability. Our end of the year meetings went in a way that a lot of (players) actually put their hand up and took blame for the games down the stretch and coming up short. I do that as a coach and we talk about ways we can improve. It was refreshing to see the players listen to what the coaching staff had to say, instead of giving the empty false promises of, ‘this offseason I’m going to do this, this, and this’. They took accountability, and to me, that was a big first step for a lot of them in regard to being disappointed and not satisfied about how the year ended. Playoffs was the goal and that’s all we’re going to talk about moving forward with me.”
The news of the hire does not come as a surprise. It was widely believed that the interim tag would be removed, despite the names of nearly a half dozen candidates being thrown into the mix. Foreign names like Fabio Cannavaro and Owen Coyle popped up in various reports, while the team confirmed interest in domestic candidates Jesse Marsch, John Harkes, and Tony Meola.
The first report that Curtin would be promoted to full-time manager was published on September 23rd by Kristian Dyer, a pregame and post-game TV analyst who is currently on the Union payroll. Shortly after that report, the information was corroborated by several independent media outlets.
But the news did not become official until six weeks after that initial report, suggesting that there were contract issues that still needed to be ironed out behind the scenes.
There are still questions about the front office setup.
Team CEO and Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz has been considering the idea of bringing in a general manager to work with Curtin and Technical Director Chris Albright. Former Manchester United assistant Rene Meulensteen has been in the picture for some time, with sources telling me that he could possibly become a “Sporting Director”, with oversight and player-personnel responsibilities from the youth academy all the way up to the senior team.
Sakiewicz flanked Curtin at the press conference, but did not confirm or deny whether the team would another piece to the front office and technical staff.
“(Jim) will lead our first team in all aspects,” Sakiewicz explained in an opening statement. “And along with the staff he will be fully responsible for all player identification, recruiting, signings, transfers, and trades.”
“We’re constantly evaluating our structure,” he later added. “Today is about adding a very important piece, which is our first team manager. We continue to look at making heavy investments in this club. We invested heavily with Tommy Wilson in the academy and what we do up there in Wayne. We’re investing heavily in Jim and the resources given to him to make sure we get this team to continue to move in the right direction. We just built a practice facility, which is really important for a professional team to have. I’m sure the guys and all of us are happy with those two beautiful fields at PPL Park. Like everything, we are evaluating our structure. Whatever we can do to make the on-field product competitive in MLS 2.0 or 3.0, we’re going to do. There’s going to be lots of announcements over the next three months – players, staff, structure. (We’re) forward thinking and we hope everybody is excited about it.”
Curtin graduated from Bishop McDevitt high school and enrolled at Villanova University in 1997, where he promptly became the Big East Rookie of the Year. Curtin had considered transferring during his sophomore season, but ultimately changed his mind, received all-conference honors in 1999 and 2000, and went on to become the first Wildcat ever drafted by a Major League Soccer team.
Selected in the third round by the Chicago Fire, Curtin enjoyed a MLS career that spanned nearly a decade. A towering center half, he played in Chigago from 2001 to 2008, and shared the field with notable figures like Hristo Stoichkov, Carlos Bocanegra, Damarcus Beasley, Chris Armas, and former Philadelphia Union manager Peter Nowak He won two U.S. Open Cup trophies and played in four cup finals during his tenure with the Fire.
Curtin was traded to Chivas USA in 2008 and played two years for the Los Angeles club. He made 18 appearances in his first season, but saw a diminished role in 2009.
As the story goes, Curtin was interested in joining the Union as a player for its 2010 expansion season. But Nowak reportedly did not share that interest, and Curtin instead retired and found a job working with youth players at YSC Sports in Wayne. Curtin became the head coach of the club’s under-18 team in 2011, then Nowak was fired in 2012 and Curtin became a senior team assistant under the newly promoted Hackworth. YSC then became the home of the Union’s youth academy, which opened in September of 2013.
Curtin might not have the resources of other clubs in Major League Soccer, but his hiring follows the trend of clubs that are handing the reigns to former players. Last season, former New York defender Mike Petke won the Supporter’s Shield in his first season with the Red Bulls. Jay Heaps leads an excellent New England team and Ben Olsen took his D.C. United team from worst to first in the Eastern Conference. There are currently 16 former players in charge of MLS clubs.
“For the fans that will question a 35 year old, a young coach, that’s natural, that’s normal, Curtin explained. “There is going to be that. I ask you to give me an offseason, a full offseason and see what we come up with. I can promise you we’re going to work 24/7 to bring in great players and improve a roster that’s already very strong.”
“I’ve talked about this before – moreso than any city, moreso than Los Angeles, or Chicago, or New York, your reputation in this town is earned every day. Whether you’re the new kid at the playground playing basketball, you have to earn your respect, you have to earn your right to play. It’s honest, it’s real, and I plan on operating transparently. I’ve been very open with the press on my feelings. I would encourage them, just like I hold my players accountable, to hold us accountable and do it in a fair way.”
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