Those U.S. Open Cup runs sure were fun, but last I checked the Union compete in Major League Soccer as well. The results have been anything but fun in that league. Jim Curtin has been at the helm for two U.S. Open Cups and 51 MLS games, and the joy of the Open Cup success seems to be masking the issues that have plagued the Curtin era. For some reason Jim Curtin is getting a pass from the FO and fans alike, and this fan would like to understand why.
Here is what I see:
Curtin's record over those MLS games has not improved compared to his predecessors. In fact, it's pretty remarkable how similar the results of the three coaches have been. Peter Nowak and John Hackworth were run out of town by a pitchfork-toting mob, yet there is no outcry for Curtin's job. The story gets worse for the current manager when you look at the trends in goals scored and allowed.
Curtin publicly said that his number one priority is to shore up the defense, but goals allowed have actually gotten worse by 12% when compared to the Hackworth era. The reality of the Curtin era is that the team hasn't improved and arguably is going in the wrong direction. What's more concerning is that Curtin is incapable so far of implementing the defensive mindset he set out to implement.
Beyond the results there are concerns on the player acquisition front. Curtin's two main acquisitions in the offseason were Venezuelan striker Fernando Aristeguieta and Benfica B center back Steven Vitoria. Curtin spent about $750K on the salaries of those players and didn't receive nearly enough production for that kind of cap hit. Those players should not return next season, meaning Curtin's major offseason moves bore no fruit.
The acquisition of C.J. Sapong does appear to be a coup despite the cost of the Union's first round pick. Lost on the wing and bench in Sporting Kansas City, Sapong had his career resurrected by Curtin. His nine goals led the team but it remains to be seen if Sapong can carry the striker load for a playoff contender. He needs to expand his skillset as a scorer to take that next step. However, Curtin deserves full credit for the acquisition.
Eric Ayuk was another exciting story this season and Curtin should be given credit for eyeing the talent in the 18 year-old. However, signing any player with a $50K salary is a very low-risk proposition. Ayuk might as well have been a low-round draft pick. If Eric Ayuk didn't pan out, no one would have cared. Ayuk looks like he could develop into a well-rounded starting winger in this league. He has work to do but it was a good depth find by Curtin.
Tranquillo Barnetta was a high profile acqusition during the transfer window and seems like a valuable player. But when Curtin signed him he announced that he wanted Barnetta to play centrally, where Cristian Maidana was currently playing. This confused the fan base and it's still unclear exactly how Curtin wants to use the two attacking midfielders, or if he envisions them playing together at all next season. If Curtin chooses Barnetta over Maidana there will be questions to say the least. If he plays them both and Barnetta plays on the wing then Curtin's original vision was flawed, calling in to question what exactly the plan was in the first place.
A handful of good stories this season shouldn't mask the fact that the big acquisitions were a bust and those were critical to the team's failures this season. Do we trust Curtin to improve on the big signings this offseason? Are we sure he deserves this pass?
Player development and the draft
This past season fans also witnessed the emergence of Richie Marquez. Marquez should be a mainstay in the Union back line for years to come, but credit should not necessarily go to Curtin. Marquez was drafted by Hackworth and was languishing deep on Curtin's bench before a series of injuries forced him into the spotlight in the 10th game of the season. Marquez never allowed Curtin to bench him again, but it is curious why Marquez was so deep on the bench given his play was clearly better than the backs ahead of him.
The only draft pick that saw minutes this season was Raymond Lee, and those minutes were a total disaster. Lee was later cut by the team. To be fair to Curtin, he didn't have a first round pick and lower round picks rarely reach an MLS pitch. So far the draft has not been a success story but this season the pressure will be intense to get value from the 3rd overall pick.
There was also the issue of key players regressing from season to season and the overall development of young players. There were high hopes that Andrew Wenger was going to be a slashing powerful left winger, perhaps on the cusp of being the best in the league. His season was an absolute disaster and given his salary, he should not be in a Union uniform next season. Players like Ray Gaddis and, for a while, Sheanon Williams had also not developed as much as hoped. Some would argue they regressed. How much of the player regression can be placed at the feet of Curtin is up for debate, but the Union need to start building a track record of developing younger players. Popular youngsters Amobi Okugo and Williams were already sent out of town by Curtin and the link between the Academy and the senior team is close to non-existent. Again, hard to blame Curtin for all or any of this, but there aren't any successes to be lauded either.
Tactically speaking Curtin struggled as well. After the first game, Curtin stubbornly stuck to the popular 4-2-3-1 formation. This formation suited his midfielders (to some extent) but forced him to make a choice between Sapong and Aristequieta, which left offensive firepower on the bench. The offense stumbled to 3rd to last in the league but Curtin refused to push more offensive talent onto the pitch unless desperate at the end of games, and even then a two striker formation was a rare sight. Given the team was clearly on the road to nowhere, taking a chance to play two forwards together wouldn't have been a big deal, yet Curtin showed no ability to adjust.
The team also struggled to generate any consistency within the formation. They seemed unsure of how much to sit back or to push forward. Clearly better when sitting back and protecting the porous defense, it felt like Curtin still wanted them to push forward to take advantage of Nogueira, Maidana and ultimately Barnetta in the midfield. However, the team wasn't talented enough to maintain possession while pushing forward. Tactically the team looked lost the entire season and they never developed an offensive or defensive identity.
And fans and the FO think this will change when?
Pulling it together (or apart)
In his postseason press conference, Curtin talked about how much he learned in his first full season in charge of personnel and game management. This admission, while endearingly honest, speaks to a core issue which is that the Union did not set up Curtin for success. Curtin is the youngest manager in the league and is on a learning curve that he is still climbing. He probably would have been best served as an assistant under an experienced manager for a few seasons before getting the big job.
But at the end of the day, Jim Curtin is the head coach and needs to be held accountable as such. Whether looking at player acquisition, player development, or tactics, there are questions about his ability to build a winner in Philadelphia. He is clearly a man people like. A man of integrity, and a man with a tremendous desire to succeed. But are those traits enough to compensate for the lack of progress this year? We need to stop leaning on the U.S. Open Cup runs where the team went 3-3-1 (W-D-L, 2-1 on pks) against MLS competition, with 5 of those games at home, and look at the 51 games that have been a disappointing grind.
Fan sentiment seems to range from tired indifference to blasé support, with few people calling out that the results show he is not ready for the job. Curtin is getting a pass. And I'd just like to know, why is that?