At no time in the league’s history have so many MLS teams employed young American head coaches. They
bring a different perspective to the job, as men who grew up playing in the league -- as well as abroad, in some cases -- before embarking on a coaching career.
Philadelphia Union boss Jim Curtin is the youngest at 38. He grew up in nearby Oreland, Pa., and attended Villanova prior to a nine-year MLS career, mostly with the Chicago Fire. After retiring in 2009, he began coaching with the Union’s academy teams and served as a Union first-team as assistant coach to John Hackworth before taking over for him in 2014.
Curtin has known the success of making the playoffs, which the Union did last year, as well as the disappointment of falling short. It is currently 10th in the Eastern Conference at 8-12-8 (32 points), seven points below the playoff line.
Jump from player to coach: 'Lucky enough to be drafted by Bob Bradley."
I would rewind my preparation part of things, my scheduling, to being lucky enough to be drafted by Bob Bradley, and as a rookie I was in a locker room with Jesse Marsch, Chris Armas, Ante Razov, Zach Thornton, Diego Gutierrez, Josh Wolff. Most of them are coaches or assistant coaches in the league, and how about Carlos Bocanegra, who has a pretty big job in Atlanta [technical director]. Our assistant coaches were Denis Hamlett and Tom Soehn, who have coached in the league and been general managers.
I stumbled into this environment where all these players thought like coaches and it’s no coincidence they have jobs in the league. Everybody in that locker room had the mindset of a coach, and that was because of Bob. He was so structured, detail-oriented that it kind of rubbed off an everybody.
Bradley film sessions: 'You were always on your toes'
Bob’s best quality -- and I’ve said this at least to friends that ask because not many people bring it up and I’m glad that you do – and what made him different was, you’d go into a film session with Bob having in mind that you just played the best game of your life. He would break it down and show you everything you could have done a little bit better. You would walk out of that one-on-one film session thinking, "Man, I let him down, I let the team down, Jesus I thought I was good, what the heck?"
The following week you had a tough game and Jaime Moreno made you look like an idiot on the field and scored three goals and you were the reason, and Bob would show you all the good things you did. "If it’s just a little better here, Jim, it’s the difference between a goal and not." He would make you feel good after those moments.
You were always on your toes and never completely satisfied. When Bob gave compliments, and they were few and far between, when you got one it made you want more. You didn’t want to disappoint him as opposed to make him happy or sad. It was disappointment, which was even worse.
Time commitments: 'The hours of a coach are about 10 times as much'
Isn’t it funny? You start to realize that, "God, playing, that was the easiest thing in the world." You’re worried about your teammates because you want to help them, but it’s a very, very individual mindset when you’re a player.
I can remember thinking, ‘Ah, we have to stay after and do weight lifting?’ The hours of a coach are about 10 times as much. Players can do things most people can’t do so I guess that’s why they get the nice, cushy job that doesn’t require a lot of hours, but it’s also high-pressure, high-intensity for those 90 minutes.
From assistant to head coach: "No preparation until you’re in it'
I coached in the academy for several years, so I did it with kids and I thought I was learning a lot. I think it was great for me to do it in the academy and to work with the first team as an assistant, but I don’t care what anybody tells you, to be the head coach there is no preparation until you’re in it and on the sidelines and there’s 30,000 people there and you have to make a quick sub decision, or whatever it might be. That’s the reality of the job.
All the coaches in our league have gone through really high highs and really low lows. Like anything else, you learn a lot from the tough moments.
Going from assistant to head coach, like you mentioned, is a big difference, man. A lot of the things you say and think in your mind as an assistant and interject -- and I can think back to things I recommended to Hack, in hindsight, I was a total idiot -- you realize how much he has on his plate and how many people he had to keep happy. Owners he had to talk to, general managers, all the different variables that go into it.
Interaction with his players: 'I consider myself a relationship coach'
Every coach is going to feel differently about how much you should or shouldn’t talk to your players. I consider myself a coach who’s not a yeller or a screamer but a relationship coach, show trust in the players, knowing they can call or text me, in this day and age, asking me advice. I think that is powerful with today’s player, it’s changing, that’s for sure.
I won’t mention any names, but one coach ran some of the best training sessions but in terms of man-to-man communication and letting you know where you stood in the team, he was the worst I’ve ever been around. There were a lot of moments where I just said, ‘Man I will never be like that. I’ll always have an open dialogue with my players.’
Relations between U.S. players and foreign coaches: 'You have to change and adapt and open up'
It’s almost like a dictatorship of fear and that’s powerful, too. There’s still some coaches like that, especially in Mexico, where they have that system in some teams. The head coach is only out there on Thursdays and he picks the team and they go, and it works. It’s not to say one is right or wrong, but it’s evolved the way the kids are now with social media, texting, and in front of their phones all the time. You have to change and adapt and open up.
It might sound crazy that I’m text-messaging with my players the night before a game but that’s what they need and want. It's changed, drastically. But if I would have texted Bob Bradley the night before a game, it would have been one of the most amazing things ever.
Working with sporting director Earnie Stewart: 'He believes in me as a young coach'
It’s been incredible. First of all, Earnie’s a winner, on and off the field. I’ve learned a ton from him. He’s done it as a player in Europe at the highest level and now as a sporting director. He’s instilled a high work ethic in our entire staff.
He’s at all of our academy sessions, all of our Bethlehem Steel sessions, all of the games. He sees everything and it’s been great working with him.
The biggest thing and the most powerful thing is he believes in me. He’s stuck up for me in hard times, when we’ve had a little bit of a losing streak. He believes in me as a young coach. Yes, I have things I have to learn but he sees the work we do each and every day and he has my back.
Union changes for the offseason: 'We probably do need to add some difference-makers'
We don't have the $7 million player who's going to bail us out so every night we need all 11 players to do their jobs. I like that, it's a real team in that sense and that's how we approach it.
We still believe in our group and we are set up very well for next season as well in terms of the contracts we have some big decisions on, and options. That’s why we stayed quiet in this last transfer window. We’re still getting a lot of young guys good experience. We think we have good cast of role players, but we probably do need to add some difference-makers to move forward in the offseason.