Jun 2, 2019; Saint Paul , MN, USA; Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin look son prior to a game against Minnesota United at Allianz Field. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
That lesson, as well as the relationship he had with his college coach, Larry Sullivan, has been a guiding light for him, particularly since taking the helm of his hometown team midway through the 2014 Major League Soccer season.
“My first college season, we were a very good team and made the Big East Tournament. That was the only year we had success. My sophomore, junior and senior years, we lost a lot of games. It was the first team I had ever been on that didn’t win,” said Curtin, who was raised in Oreland, PA, just outside of Philadelphia in Montgomery County, and played at Villanova from 1997-2000.
An athletic 6-foot-4 defender, he was the Big East Rookie of the Year in his first season and an All-Big East first-team pick in each of his final two campaigns. In 2001, he became the first Villanovan to be chosen in the MLS SuperDraft, going to the Chicago Fire in the third round. Three years later, he played in the MLS All-Star Game, marking a highlight of his nine-year pro playing career (2001-09).
“Learning how to deal with losing, recognizing you have to improve and grow and realizing that even in losses, there are lessons you can learn; that was something that I really look back on and cherish from my relationship with Larry Sullivan. He was so influential in everything I did. I learned a lot of good, hard lessons that eventually led me to become a better coach.”
coach of the year
In their first eight seasons of existence (2010-17) the Philadelphia Union finished with a winning percentage over .500 only once and advanced to the postseason just twice. But in the last three seasons (2018-20) they’ve posted a combined record of 45 wins, 29 losses and 17 ties while appearing in the MLS playoffs each year. In an unusual and challenging 2020 season, the club earned its first trophy—the Supporters’ Shield awarded to the team with the league’s best regular-season record. For his efforts, Curtin was named the 2020 MLS Coach of the Year.
Curtin, the third manager in Union history, enters 2021 as MLS’s second longest-tenured manager behind Delran, NJ native Peter Vermes with Sporting KC. Curtin downplays his role in the team’s success but his guidance, a little Philly attitude, and his ability to relate to and rally his players led to the Union’s historic 2020 season, despite a span of time when, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team could not meet in person and then only hold individual training sessions and eventually socially distant team workouts.
“Coach has instilled in the team a sense of that Philly toughness and the players have adopted that mentality when stepping on the field,” says the Union’s longest-tenured player, defender Ray Gaddis, who played his ninth season in blue and gold in 2020. “He also has been able to press the right buttons with players to get them to buy in on the style of play and push to become more than a good team but a great team. Being able to handle so many unprecedented things in 2020 has made him a better coach for the future.”
For Curtin, relationships are the key.
“I don’t want to simplify coaching but all of us can go on YouTube now and get every training session that (renowned English Premier League soccer coaches) Pep Guardiola or Jürgen Klopp run,” said Curtin who became just the fifth man to win the Supporters’ Shield as both a player and manager, doing the former as a center back with the Chicago Fire in 2003. “All of the information is available and accessible to all of us…but how you use that information in the relationships you create is more important than anything else.
“Each year, I’ve had the opportunity to go to Europe and see the best environments in professional soccer. I’ve heard the top speakers from Harvard Business School. Everywhere you go, any of the best environments for companies, businesses or professional sports teams, the same things come back. Yes, there are tactics, a plan and vision and innovation and all of those key buzzwords, but the biggest thing in every successful environment I’ve seen is the relationships that the leaders cultivate with the people. If you’re able to motivate people, delegate and empower people to make them feel a part of the culture and give them a voice, you get the most out of them.”
Bringing out the best
The 41-year-old Curtin, who lives in the Queen Village section of Philadelphia with his wife Jen, daughters Ryan (12) and Avery (10) and son Miles (8), was elevated from an assistant coach and became the club’s interim manager midway through 2014 before eventually getting named to the post full-time. The Union’s winning percentage in 2015, Curtin’s first full season, was .397, but that number has improved each year, soaring to a franchise-best .717 in 2020. And he’s done so with a team that’s annually in the bottom half of MLS in terms of player salaries.
COVID-19 created havoc with the 2020 schedule, pausing the season after the Union played their first two games. Action resumed four months later with the MLS is Back Tournament, played in a bubble at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex outside of Orlando. Add in the social justice issues that ran rampant across the country, and there were a lot of challenges involved in keeping the group focused, especially a team that included players from 15 different countries.
“It’s a very diverse and unique group and the way we had to come together as a team and stay unified on the field and off, our involvement in the community, the demonstrations our players made for positive change for police reform, the treatment of African-Americans, and equality, that’s actually something I’m more proud of than us lifting that first trophy for our fans,” Curtin said. “Yes, [winning the Supporters’ Shield] was special, but there are things in life that are more important than soccer.”
Curtin’s efforts in a tumultuous 2020 weren’t lost on his players, especially Gaddis.
“He kept our team together by checking up on the players, not just merely about soccer, but about life,” said Gaddis, 31, who is the club’s all-time leader in minutes played and took a leadership role in MLS’s Black Players for Change anti-racism campaign. “Coach had us watch the documentary, The Last Dance, to keep dialogue fresh. We were having Zoom meetings to talk about tactics of the game, and it helped gear us back up to start playing. Also in MLS is Back and throughout the season, letting players just be themselves and telling us to control what we can control, issuing messaging cohesion, it allowed players to play free and give their best.”
Wisely, Curtin recognized that his players’ concerns weren’t just on the field.
“You have to speak to people as human beings,” Curtin said. “And that was our first step as COVID entered into our group. We immediately called all of our players and asked how their families were doing. I still believe, more than Xs and Os and soccer tactics, it comes down to the relationships you create and how you grow them and create an environment where it brings out the best in them. 2020 has been such a challenging year for everyone in a lot of different ways, but it’s shown that if we’re able to adapt, able to adjust and able to bring people together rather than be divisive, special things can happen.”
While in Disney, the team advanced to the semifinals of MLS is Back. But in the team’s opening game of the tournament, as a sign of solidarity, Union players made headlines when they wore the names of victims of police brutality on the backs of their jerseys in place of their own names. And Union midfielder Warren Creavalle created t-shirts that integrated the message that Black Lives Matter, a design that was worn by players and staff leaguewide. Curtin wore that shirt on the sidelines during games both in the Disney bubble and as the season resumed in MLS stadiums.
“As the leader, you have to show there’s something that you believe in,” Curtin said. “We’ve had 400 years of systemic racism in our country. That needs to be changed. You always have to be showing support for your players, you have to be learning from your players. We had good healthy discussions on Zoom where players talked about times in their lives, and in pro sports, where they were treated differently because of the color of their skin. A lot of words get used and a lot of people say the right things and some other coaches hide, do the easy thing and say, ‘No comment.’ But when it’s something I believe in, and my players also support, I’m going to voice my opinion. I can’t hide from that.”
And because of that, now he can’t hide from his success.