The Union will now have two weeks to rest and train before playing the lowest remaining seed following the Eastern Conference play-ins and will host throughout the MLS playoffs. Earlier this week, Curtin reached another first for the club when the Union secured its first ever berth in the Concacaf Champions League. These latest achievements present a convincing case for Curtin’s inclusion on the Mount Rushmore of Philadelphia soccer coaches. For now though, there’s much to celebrate.
Speaking after a joyous on-field ceremony, Curtin said, “I could walk away and never coach a game and be happy.” The 41-year-old Bishop McDevitt and Villanova grad reflected on his growth since taking over for John Hackworth midway through the 2014 season. “When this thing started, I was a young coach that was finding his way coming from the academy, had some time as an assistant, but was probably a bit over his head at the start, but because of the talent and the players and the support I had around me, I was able to learn on the job. I’m grateful for the patience and the long-term vision of this club that we could do something special.”
As a player with the Chicago Fire, Curtin won the Supporters’ Shield in 2003, playing alongside Carlos Bocanegra and behind former New York Red Bulls coach Chris Armas. He made more than 150 appearances for the Fire, winning the U.S. Open Cup in 2003 and 2006, but his transition into coaching began immediately following his final season with Chivas USA in 2009.
Sustainability was a vital goal of the young Philadelphia franchise from the start, and In those early years, Curtin found himself drawn toward something bigger than short-term success.
“I can picture sitting with Richie Graham across the table when YSC Academy was just an idea. We were sitting in a trailer, and he was taking me through blueprints of where they were going to build this world class soccer facility and eventually have a school where kids could learn and grow and improve in the academy and eventually play for the Union first team. And the messaging was yes, every kid might not make the first team but they will be set up for life because we’re really going to value education and do it in a unique way. I remember sitting there having just played my last playoff game against David Beckham at Chivas against the Galaxy, and things were happening fast, but I could tell in two seconds that this was a club and he had a passion that I wanted to be around.”
Curtin earned the opportunity to become the Union’s long-term solution after leading the club to a positive record to finish out the 2014 season and a spot in the U.S. Open Cup final where they eventually lost to the Seattle Sounders 3-1 in extra time at home, then the most important game in the franchise’s history. Over the next three years, the Union had sub-.500 records and lost their second-straight U.S. Open Cup Final in 2015 as well as the opening round in the playoffs in 2016. But Curtin never let that deter him from the bigger picture, and he gives credit to the ownership group for its patience.
“It’s real easy when a couple losses happen to jump ship and move on from a guy, but they valued that continuity and cohesiveness of the group, and they kept our group together and now we’re seeing the ultimate results,” he said.
Under Curtin’s leadership, the Union have shown a steady progression since 2018 and are not only contenders for their first MLS Cup, but the rest of the country is starting to see the successes of their vision of building from within. Brenden Aaronson is a likely candidate for Young Player of the Year ahead of his move to Red Bull Salzburg in December, Mark McKenzie should be in consideration for Defender of the Year, and other young players like Anthony Fontana, Matt Real, and now Matt Freese are beginning to contribute after moving up through the system. Whereas in years past, when the loss of a player as valuable as Aaronson could be crippling to the team’s core, the Union are set up to find those replacements from their reserves, something that took patience to develop.
“It took years of hard work and a lot of people and lot of kids that put a ton into it to have this special day,” Curtin said, “but this is proof of concept, I think this is proof of the Philadelphia Union’s vision, the Philadelphia Union’s way of doing things, and it is a unique way.”
Raymon Gaddis is the Union’s longest-tenured player as well as the club’s leader in appearances with 221. Gaddis joined the Union the same year Curtin moved up as an assistant and has witnessed his coach’s growth. “Being here nine years, this is a special moment, not only for myself but for a coach that I played with,” Gaddis said after the game against New England. “He’s done so well leading and being the face of this organization.”
The Union selected Gaddis in the 2012 MLS Super Draft after a successful career at West Virginia, and since his arrival, Gaddis has formed a relationship with Curtin that has become complimentary to each other’s success. But he’s also seen firsthand Curtin’s impression on the younger players. “Jim Curtin coached a lot of these academy kids, and his special relationship, not only with the older, senior guys as we say in the locker room, but also these guys who’ve graduated from the academy to Union II to now first team. He’s really made an impression on them as well. But seeing and coming to work every day, I think that they see that and that rubs off on them and they don’t want what happened in the past, they want to be part of something special.”
Curtin is the likely favorite to win MLS Coach of the Year, following a trend in which the previous winners have come from teams that won major trophies. Bob Bradley won in 2019 after LAFC won the shield, Tata Martinez won in 2018 after leading Atlanta United to the MLS Cup, Greg Vanney won in 2017 after Toronto won the shield and the cup, and Óscar Pareja won the award after FC Dallas captured the shield. Curtin finished third in the Coach of the Year voting in 2019 behind Bradley and Dome Torrent, who is no longer with New York City FC.
“For me, he is the coach of the year,” Gaddis said. “Coach Curtin knows how to push the right buttons. He’s also getting the best out of his players. With such quick succession of games, he’s able to manage the roster, he’s listening to the players, that’s not lost upon him. He’s continued to grow as a coach, year by year, hand over hand as he learns more.”
The Union will have some time off with the international break then begin preparations for their opening round opponent in the MLS playoffs, which could be New England again, Montreal, or Inter Miami, all teams they’ve beaten during the regular season. The Union are 9-0 at home and will find the comforts of Subaru Park a valuable benefit in their quest for a second trophy, but they will rely on Curtin’s leadership as they push for more silverware.