Jim Curtin on his coaching rise from toddlers to pros, what makes Philly special, and Chicago locker room lessons

Jim Curtin has exceeded expectations nearly every step along the path he's taken from youth soccer to the heights of Major League Soccer, building a nine-year playing career with the Chicago Fire and Chivas USA and then climbing from academy coach to Supporters' Shield-winning coach of his hometown Philadelphia Union.  

Curtin, a heady, gangly, 6-foot-4 defender, was set for a career in finance until Bob Bradley took him in the third round of the 2001 MLS SuperDraft, literally walking out of class at Villanova University and, by his second season, into a lengthy stretch as a starting center back for the Fire. His work ethic and intelligent play among more talented teammates made him a fan favorite, a 2004 MLS All-Star, and a revered veteran who made 162 MLS appearances for the club before spending two years with Chivas USA.  

He began his coaching career in earnest as a Union academy coach in 2010, joined the first-team staff in 2012, became interim head coach when John Hackworth was dismissed in June 2014, lost the “interim” tag five months later, and has guided the Union into the top tier of MLS clubs, earning a reputation for developing top young talent -- such as Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie -- while en route to the club's first trophy, going 14-4-5 last year to claim the Supporters' Shield.

Now he's on the cusp of joining an elite group of coaches who have won 100 games in MLS, with a Union side that sits third in the Eastern Conference at 12-7-9 while aiming for its first MLS Cup championship.

Curtin, 42, spoke to Soccer America on playing for Bradley, his evolution and philosophies as a coach, the differences between Philly and the West Coast, and how he's a wonderful example of why coaches shouldn't give up on players too early.

SOCCER AMERICA: As one who grew up in Philadelphia, who went to college in Philadelphia, whose life has been centered in Philadelphia, what does it mean to you to be doing this in Philly?   

JIM CURTIN: It's something that I don't take for granted at all. I'm very fortunate to not only coach professionally, but also to do it in my hometown. And I've gotten to see specifically the Philadelphia Union grow from the club that I used to coach in the academy -- quite literally, kids age 2 years old to 18 years old, boys and girls -- to have my start and then kind of growing as a coach, learning on the fly, becoming an assistant coach in the club, and then ultimately the head coach. I've seen it at every level. And then to do it in your hometown is something that is truly special.

Philadelphia is a city where respect isn't just given, it's earned over time. That applies to me in that I have kind of earned the trust and the belief of the fans in this city. So now when you're out at a restaurant or out at the bar, the fans will really have your back. And then if you don't play well, they'll also let you know that, as well. And that's what Philadelphia is about. You feel a little more pressure, almost like a like a child that doesn't want to disappoint their parents. You have that mentality and that feeling. It's something that I'm very grateful for. And I have a great staff and great players that have made my job very easy.

SOCCER AMERICA: In 2009, you said you hoped to play for the Union, which began in 2010. You never got to do that. Is this better?

JIM CURTIN: I believe things happen for a reason in life, and, look, in 2009 when my career came to an end with Chivas, I was 30 years old. I still had some, I thought, four to five good years left of soccer. But I also didn't want to be having my family -- I'd just had my second child at the time -- chasing me chasing my dream around the country for maybe less salary. So we made the decision after living in beautiful Los Angeles, in Hermosa Beach, it was going to be Philadelphia or nothing.

My former [Chicago Fire] teammate and captain Peter Nowak was the head coach of Philadelphia. I won't bore you with all the details, but I understand it now as a coach. Peter didn't want any of the old relationships with his new project, which I respect now. At the time, I thought it was pretty Eastern European and old-school of Peter, and it didn't work out, and that turned out to be the best thing for me, because I got to dive right into coaching at age 30, which is fairly young.

I went from being in a playoff game against the Galaxy, playing against David Beckham -- we lost and were eliminated -- and the next step is I'm literally coaching 18-month-old to 2-and-a-half-year-old kids in what's basically a babysitting camp in the Union's little youth development sector of things. I'm getting balls blasted at me in a goal. We're playing some version of, like, Red Rover or Sharks and Minnows, and little kids are kicking balls at me, and I'm getting hit by them and going, “How the hell did I get here?”

It was humbling, but it was still good for me at the time. And it kick-started my young coaching career. And I can't stress enough how important it is to work with both young boys and young girls, because they learn differently. It was learning how players grow and develop and get better at different stages. And every player being different, so the best kid at age 12 isn't necessarily the best kid at 16, and all those things. Learning that and understanding that, I think, has really been great for me in terms of working with players like Brenden Aaronson, who I saw at age 8 and 9, and seeing the steps that he's taken; and Mark McKenzie, seeing him grow and get better. It's been great to be a part of their growth and development.

SOCCER AMERICA: You did a bit of coaching when you were in Chicago, too, didn't you? When did you know that's what you'd do after you were done playing?

JIM CURTIN: I'll just say: When I was in Chicago, the MLS salaries weren't quite what they are today. So I was director of coaching at the Chicago Kickers. I was only in my third or fourth year in the league when I was working for the Chicago Kickers, which is a great little club, and working with kids is something that I always loved. I will say I was lucky.

Again, sometimes in life, it's a little bit of timing and luck. I was in a Chicago Fire locker room where you’re likely to start thinking like a coach, you know what I mean? Bob Bradley instilled that in all of us. And you look at all the players in that locker room -- Jesse Marsch, Chris Armas, Zach Thornton, Ante Razov, Josh Wolff. Carlos Bocanegra, C.J. Brown, John Thorrington -- there's literally 25 guys that went on to have futures in coaching or front offices, so you're in that environment.

So I'm learning from them, and I don't have all the answers. I'm 23 years old, but I'm going in as the director of coaching with the Chicago Kickers and making mistakes and trying do things in training sessions with those kids and seeing how they learn. I didn't know at the time what it was doing for me, but it was certainly helpful and helped me grow as a as a young coach.

SOCCER AMERICA: Philadelphia is such a unique place. So is Chicago. But -- as an outsider with both -- I sense a similarity, too, in the people and how they approach things, how they approach their sports teams. They're different from each other, but there's a similarity in their connection to such things.

JIM CURTIN: I think so, too. Look, I think that, as you head from the Philly areas and head west, I think the people get a little more friendly or maybe a little more open to the mundane discussions. For example, if you're getting a coffee in Philly, it's, “Give me my coffee.” If you get one in the Midwest, it's, “How's your day going?” and “How are you?” and “Nice to see you.” If you go out to Hermosa Beach, they want to talk to you for 10 minutes, and you're like, “Just give me my goddamn coffee.”

Not to be too East Coast, but I've grown to love all three mentalities, because I think they all have a really cool thing. On the East Coast, it's “Let's go, I want to get down to the next thing,” which can be a good thing but also can be a bad thing. Sometimes you do need some time to relax and step away and slow down. Sorry I'm using the coffee analogy as like a description of our country, but ...

SOCCER AMERICA: It's such a major part of our lives.  

JIM CURTIN: Yeah, exactly. But I do think there's something there where Philadelphians, we're maybe more rough around the edges. But deep down, we're good people and we love our sports. I think that in the Midwest, everyone's a little more open and friendly, but deep down, they still love their sports, too, and they're good people. So I do see similarities and a connection there. Chicago's a great city and I loved my time there. But Philly's always going to be home.

SOCCER AMERICA: You really had a connection with the Fire fans. How did that develop and fuel what you did with the club?

JIM CURTIN: They were amazing to me. I was never the most talented or gifted player. I was a role player on a really good team. But I knew what my role was. And I think that that was something that the fans saw. I love those teams. We won a lot, so we were a likable group, and that helps. I'll always remember my games at Soldier Field, at North Central College, when they were redoing Soldier Field, and at Bridgeview. You have so many great memories with those fans in Section 8 and just interacting with them and a lot of great people that I still keep in touch with when I coach there now. ...

I loved my time in Chicago. Amazing fans. And I hope that they get things back on track.

* * * * * * * * * *

Philly Boy

Most beloved sports team
I'm a Sixers guy. I embrace them the most. But the team that's most beloved is the Eagles. Sports talk radio here in the city, if there's 10 calls, nine and a half of them are about the Eagles. They don't talk Flyers. They don't talk Phillies much, unless there's playoffs involved. Sixers can steal a little bit of the Eagles' thunder, but it's an Eagles town. More and more, Philadelphia Union soccer gets brought on there, I almost had a heart attack the other day, when they did a whole 15-minute segment on us. And we are slowly but surely cracking into what used to be a four-for-four town. We're trying to make it a five-for-five town.

The cheesesteak
I'm a Dalessandro's guy. Everyone will say something about Pat's and Geno's, but those are tourist spots. Dalessandro's is a little bit towards the suburbs -- still Philadelphia proper, but it's a little bit off the beaten path. If you're downtown, I like the owner a lot at Jim's Steaks on South Street. But Philadelphia is so much more than cheesesteaks. It has such an incredible restaurant scene.

'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia'
Thumbs up for sure. The guy (who created, produces and stars), Rob McElhenney, he's a local guy. A St. Joseph's Prep guy, which is a rival of Bishop McDevitt, my old high school. He's just bought into a soccer team, Wrexham in England. He bought in there with [actor] Ryan Reynolds. We're supposed to play them. It's a great TV show. Longevity-wise [16 years], it's incredible how great of a run it's had. There's some Philly humor in there that maybe goes over some people's heads.

* * * * * * * * * *

SOCCER AMERICA: After the way it started, your playing career had to have exceeded expectations.

JIM CURTIN: For sure, it did. I was a late bloomer. For so many young kids that get dismissed now at 16, 17, 18 years old, I wasn't a great player until I was probably 18 or 19. And I wasn't a professional till 21, 22. And I had good players around me and was able to grow into the game. So I think too often now we dismiss young kids before it's right or before it's fair. Every kid's development is going to be completely different. Some are going to pop and peak at age 12, and that's OK. Others aren't going to peak till 22, 23 years old. I would tell kids to stick with things as long as possible and for coaches to believe in late bloomers and not just dismiss kids at a young age.

There's a real opportunity out there for kids and players that will embrace what they are and know what their limitations are, just trying to fit into a team and work hard and eventually find your way up the ranks. If you find your role in the team and do things the right way everyday, the coach will really embrace that. I made a good career out of it. It wasn't an exceptional career. But now you sprinkle in the good -- making an all-star team at one point, whether that was right or wrong -- I was proud of that. I'm happy with the career that I had, and I won some games and won some championships with some great people and teams.

SOCCER AMERICA: One of my favorite Johan Cruyff quotes is that you don't want the best 11 players, because then you have the 11 best 1s. You want the best 11 players who fit together as a whole, with difference-makers and role players. Those Fire teams, especially in those early years, had so much talent, both stars and role guys. How did existing in that impact the way you see putting together a team?

JIM CURTIN: I look at some of the pictures of the Fire's starting 11, and I have a great one, and I can proudly say I'm the worst player in that starting 11. In this picture I'm talking about, it's Hristo Stoitchkov, Carlos Bocanegra, DaMarcus Beasley, Chris Armas, Jesse Marsch, Dema Kovalenko, Zach Thornton, C.J. Brown. It's incredible and I kind of look at it and I go, “Damn, I'm proud to be the worst player on that team,” you know, just surrounded by so many good players. So, yeah, you're right.

Sometimes the best coaches aren't necessarily the guys that were the greatest players, because for those guys to explain what a kid needs to do, they just could go, “Just do it like I did.” You know, “What are you, an idiot? It's easy. You just do this and it's like ...” Sometimes you need to explain things a little bit clearer. I think you see a lot of good role players have good coaching careers. Again, that's a generalization. I'm not saying that's the case in every instance. 

SOCCER AMERICA: We see it with how many goalkeepers become coaches, because they see the whole field. Similar in baseball with catchers.

JIM CURTIN: You can talk about tactics and your substitution patterns and then making changes to the game, and all that stuff matters. But what I've learned through my journey is in every high-performance place I've been and visited, whether it be going to see Jesse [Marsch] at Salzburg or watching Liverpool train or at Man United, it still comes back to the relationships that you're able to create.

More than the tactics, more than all the different things that go into preparing for a game, and then subbing and getting guys fit. More than all of that is the relationships you're able to create. You have to get to know each player individually. I have 15 different countries represented. Every kid grew up completely different. You have to get to know them as people. That applies to your staff as well. I have to empower my staff and make every guy feel like they're part of it. And that is more important and powerful than anything that I do in a game in 90 minutes.

Of course, we want to win, but I think if you don't have those relationships and you don't develop those relationships and get the most out of people, that's where you see things fall apart pretty quickly.

SOCCER AMERICA: Teams that do really well tend to have very good chemistry and win with their hearts. If it were just tactics, you could play the game on a computer. Character matters, and we saw it in Chicago, we saw it from 2006 to 2009 at Chivas USA, and we see it with your Union teams.

JIM CURTIN: Yeah, you're right. We have three pillars here in Philadelphia, and we always check on them whether we're winning or losing.

Number 1 is we want to promote from within. That speaks to our academy. We always want to look for ways to bring players along, and also technical staff members, too. We want to promote our academy scouts to be first-team scouts and our academy coaches to become first-team coaches and our sports performance people become first-team sports performance people. So promoting from within is number one.

Number 2 goes to what you were talking about right now. The cohesiveness of 11 players that are together can be any group of individual talent. [Other] teams are going to buy more superstars than the Philadelphia Union. That's a fact. We accept that. But if we're all 11 on the same page, we can beat any group of individual talent, and our players buy into that, and that is really, really a powerful thing in sports.

The third pillar is innovation. We have to do it a little different. We have to scout markets that others aren't. We want to go tap into it. Yeah, sure, of course, everybody knows Argentina, Brazil and England are producing great players, but we've got to go find a guy in maybe the second or third league in a different country that people aren't already mined. And then we bring them in and we develop them and make them better.

SOCCER AMERICA: It's also very difficult because you always have to be the innovator, and you have to have the right people and the right culture to do that. You've been with the club really from the beginning, in terms of being with the academy and moving all the way up. How has the Union's culture evolved, especially during your time as head coach?  

JIM CURTIN: Yeah, I think it's drastically changed. When I first came in here, I was the interim coach who came into the job in a way that nobody wants to come into the job, where your head coach was fired. So they gave me the keys. I was 34 years old. I can say now I had no idea what I was doing. I was lucky, but I wasn't going to say no to the opportunity. So I took it and ran with it, and I quite literally started with myself, the academy director [Tommy Wilson] was with me, and B.J. Callaghan, who's now with U.S. Soccer, doing a great job for them. He was the academy goalkeeping coach at the time. And Mike Sorber was the other assistant.  

The four of us were basically it, and I had to navigate things. We had to do everything. And when I say everything, I mean, like, now I have a support staff and the whole sports performance department, a whole analytical department, a whole scouting network, a whole set of practice fields. We didn't even have full training facilities [when I started]. Now I've got more resources, and we've had some success, and I won some games. The club has just continued to grow and get better each and every year.   And I have to give the credit to ownership over the patience to stick with me, because it does take time to build a program like this while everybody in the league was maybe going for the big-name DPs to sell tickets or jerseys or whatever it might be. We said let's do it a little different. Let's build with the youth academy, and it might take us time, but let's really embrace this. And if we maybe do have a down season, let's fight through that and stick with it.

That culture that you talk about has been able to evolve and grow, because of time. I have to say, there are probably moments where the ownership or the general manager could have moved on from me. But we stuck together in the hard times. We had hard conversations, but we all had a vision that we had to do this differently than the other teams, and let's do it our own unique Philadelphia Union way. I'm not saying it's the only way, but it was a way that fit us. And that culture kind of came along with that and the players hearing the same messages. And now these kids in the academy, they're hearing the same thing that when Brenden Aaronson was 8, 9 and 10 years old and Mark Mackenzie and some of these other kids that I'm coaching now, by the time they turned pro, it was an easier transition. I'm not saying it's easy. But it was an easier transition because they were in the culture for that many years.  

You sprinkle in an Ale Bedoya, who instead of coming in and complaining that we didn't buy DPs and we need a striker and this or that, he embraced putting his arm around these young kids and bringing them through. So you had veterans that were on board, you know what I mean? It took a lot of time, but also it took good people that had a belief that this was a good way to do it. And now you're starting to see some of the results and it can be the results on the field and winning trophies.   

And it's obviously still priority number one, but it can be lucrative in terms of making money for ownership, as you see from some of the sales. It can be great for players, and now players look at it and go, “Shoot, man, the Philadelphia Union puts their young guys on the field, and they're going to play 34 games, and then I can move to Europe.” That's a good thing. There's a lot of rewards for a lot of people. The fans can get excited. Philly's a very parochial city. We embrace our own. ... It's working right now.

SOCCER AMERICA: What have been the biggest things in your education and evolution as a coach and manager? And how does it reflect those you've played for?

JIM CURTIN: You constantly have to be evolving. I take one trip per offseason, COVID messed up last offseason, but I've been lucky enough to go to Germany to watch teams train, to watch Hoffenheim back in the day -- where. not coincidentally, [Union sporting director] Ernst Tanner is from. I've had opportunities to go see see FC Basel for a whole offseason, when Rafael Wicky was there, my former Chivas teammate. I got to see Jesse at Salzburg. So I get to see these environments.

I had an incredible mentor and coach at Villanova University, Larry Sullivan. He was great for me, such a Philadelphia legend here. His nephew is [17-year-old Union homegrown midfielder] Quinn Sullivan, if you can believe that. I learned so much from Larry. Fast-forward to turning pro and coaching and playing under Bob Bradley. Incredible leader, has done so much in this game and [has such] bravery. I think people don't realize, just having the guts to go so many different places in so many new environments and having success everywhere. He's been learning, growing, getting better as a coach. It's a real inspiration for me. Jesse's doing the same thing right now [at Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig]. … I’ve been lucky that I've have had great people around me, and I owe a lot of what little success I've had to them.

SOCCER AMERICA: The way that you see the game, or the way the way that you want to see it on the field, has that evolved greatly or is that or is it something that is a little more subtle?

JIM CURTIN: That's a great question, and I think it goes back to that evolution. Talk about dumb luck in this game. I've had four sporting directors in my five or six years as head coach of the Philadelphia Union.

I had Nick Sakiewicz, who believed in me as a young coach and then stuck with me through some hard times. I had Earnie Stewart, who is so based on having the ball and wanting to be dominant in possession. I learned from that, and I took things from there. Now I have Ernst Tanner, who's the opposite: He wants the opponent to have the ball and all the pressing -- coming from the Red Bull system and Hoffenheim previously -- and how much you can play in transition and win things there. So I'm kind of a blend of all those things.

As I look at the game today and what the Philadelphia Union needs to be, it does go to what Ernst does in that transition, how quickly can you go from offense to defense and how quickly can you go from defense to attack? That's the way that the modern game is, and it's the way that we're kind of built to play. So I'm embracing that right now and then really loving it and learning.

SOCCER AMERICA: It's interesting because MLS is very different from leagues elsewhere, and the ways it's different, I think, are often misunderstood. Yeah, sure, travel and altitude and summer heat and humidity and roster restrictions, but there's also the anybody-can-win-anywhere-at-any-time thing and, beyond that, the diversity of playing styles nearly every game. The challenges facing MLS coaches are perhaps more pronounced and varied than elsewhere.  

JIM CURTIN: You're exactly right. The travel, all the elements, all those things are totally foreign to a lot of people. To be flying six or seven hours to play one game is nuts to some of the European people coming into the league.  

But think about it this way, too. I think that one of the coolest things that MLS has going right now is during my time here -- think about it -- one week I coach against Patrick Vieira, the next week it could be Jaap Stam, who is Dutch and very defensive, and Vieira wants to play open and play like [classic] Barcelona. Then you run into a Tata Martino, and then all of a sudden it's against Bruce Arena and Gregg Berhalter. It's like every week it's this huge new challenge.

There's so many diverse ways of seeing the game and thinking the game. There's so many great coaches, and it's been really cool to adapt, adjust and just tweak things every week. If you go to the Mexican League, I'm not saying every coach is Mexican, but there's an influence that's maybe more predominantly there. I think our league has become so attractive that so many different types of coaches in different styles of play are coming into this league. You look at England, and it's diverse, it's wide-range, but maybe the tactics aren't as completely different. You look at San Jose, you know what I mean? You go from playing Matías Almeyda one week to playing Jaap Stam. It's almost crazy, the differences. it's been cool to learn and experiment and try different things against these these great soccer minds.

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SOCCER AMERICA: Is it maybe more fun coaching in MLS than elsewhere?

JIM CURTIN: I didn't want to say that, because then I'll come off like some idiot that just starting talking about it. I'll just say it's a fun job, you know, and then people will run with that.

But you are right. It is more fun. And guess what? MLS is different, and we're OK with that. All these people that want to bash MLS or say it's better in Europe or it's better in South America, yeah, we respect that. We know where it's good. You can say what you want about our league, but it's getting better and better every year. The stadiums are incredible, the coaches are getting better and better, the players are getting better, and there's ownership involved in this thing.

It’s going to become a top league in the world. These guys don't invest in things for fun. They invest because they're winners, that they want to take this thing to the top. I don't have my crystal ball, but whether it's five years, 10 years or 15 years, this is going to be a top league in the world. That's the direction it's going. It’s been fun to be a small part of that.

Photos: Andrew Zwarych/Philadelphia Union

1 comment about "Jim Curtin on his coaching rise from toddlers to pros, what makes Philly special, and Chicago locker room lessons".
  1. Alex Michalakos, October 20, 2021 at 4:37 p.m.

    I was getting sad each time he mentioned the Fire; as he stated, SO MANY ex-Fire players have gone on to successful coaching or management careers BUT NONE IN CHICAGO (except Frank Klopas). Meanwhile, the Fire's had one unsuccessful coach after another.  I understand players often go back to their hometowns rather than stick with the team they played for, but there have been so many. Curtin was beloved by us Fire fans for being humble and hard-working--the image  that most Chicago pro sports teams say they want to have. Maybe we can do a Vanney and poach Curtin from Philly. 

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