Union

Union's Jim Curtin sees 'light at the end of the tunnel' as lost season nears end

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Union's Jim Curtin sees 'light at the end of the tunnel' as lost season nears end

CHESTER, Pa. — Jim Curtin is a Philly guy through and through. 

He grew up in the area. He went to college at Villanova. He returned to Philly at the end of his playing career for an outside shot to suit up for the Union, only to take a job with the club’s youth academy. And now, as the Union head coach, he lives in the heart of the city with his wife and three children.

So as another disappointing Union season winds down, with seven games left and the team nearly out of playoff contention, how is the head coach handling some of the boos that have been directed his way recently at Talen Energy Stadium? Or what about when, during a rough patch earlier in the season, questions about his job security hovered around the Philly resident who has said he never wants to leave his hometown.

“Listen, everybody wants to be applauded and appreciated in their job,” Curtin told CSNPhilly.com after a recent practice. “I recognize where we’re at though. When I first took over the job and we had two [U.S.] Open Cup final runs, it was probably 90 percent of the people on board. Everybody was high. There’s been maybe a middle period and now it’s probably at a lower period. And that’s the nature of pro sports. We can talk about a lot of things but the only way we’re gonna win back a Philly fan base is to win.”

Curtin — who, as the franchise’s longest-tenured coach, has been running the show since the middle of the 2014 season — certainly has his share of detractors. And a few of the moves he’s made this season have been questionable, the four-month benching of reigning Rookie of the Year runner-up Keegan Rosenberry probably standing out to some. But given the state of mediocrity that’s presided over the Union since their inception, much of the fan base’s anger seems to be directed toward Jay Sugarman, who’s been the club’s principal owner since the beginning and has never spent the same kind of money as the league’s top teams.

In recent weeks, though, Curtin has been dropping hints that the club is getting ready to open up the wallet a lot more this offseason. And, assuming sporting director Earnie Stewart keeps him around as he’s pledged to do, Curtin is excited to put down the welcome mat for those players and help the club usher in a new direction.

“As hard as this year’s been, we do still see a light at the end of the tunnel,” the Union coach said. “Guys have another year under their belt and we will add some pieces that will come in and be those difference-makers for us next year. I think in a lot of ways, we raised the bar last year by making the playoffs. And I think expectations grew but we weren’t ready to take that next step.” 

Curtin used the word “difference-makers” a few times to describe the kinds of players the Union will acquire in the offseason. That implies players who will command a big salary. Maybe potential All-Stars. Championship-level guys. That’s a good thing. 

But it’s fair to wonder if skepticism and apathy have already set in for fans who might be wondering why those kinds of players didn’t arrive this past offseason to help the Union build off a 2016 season in which they squeaked into the playoffs. 

“We understand our fans are frustrated,” Curtin said. “They want us to be getting wins on the field. Sometimes it’s hard to see good performances in young players that are getting better, getting closer. We recognize when they’re not happy they’re gonna let us know at the end of the day.”

Still, if there is a greater fan erosion happening, Curtin isn’t seeing it. Sure, there are the smattering of the boos and a few more empty seats in the stadium. But as he walks around Philly, he sees a lot more people recognizing him, a lot more people in Union gear, a lot more kids in parks running up to him to play soccer with him and his three kids, ages 9, 7 and 5. 

“It shows the Union brand is really growing,” he said. “You see in playgrounds now kids wearing not only Union jerseys but soccer jerseys of even other MLS teams. The game continues to grow. And I do get recognized a lot walking around the city. I think I get attention more and people feel more comfortable after wins. They come up and say hello and high-five me and ask for pictures.”

Any heckles?

“No heckles,” he said. “Nothing’s been bad. But it is Philly. So I’m smart when I walk around. I do know after a bad loss people that recognize me are probably not too happy with me. But that’s part of the business and what I signed up for.”

Curtin’s point about the league’s and the sport’s popularity growing is a fair one, even if it does sometimes seem like a slow grind in Philly. And if the Union truly do make a few big signings on top of the growing youth foundation they’ve already established, the franchise can potentially make a big leap.

But the Union coach knows that until then, just talking about it isn’t going to do a lick of difference, recalling his nine-year MLS career with the Chicago Fire and then now-defunct Chivas USA as proof.

“Early in my career, I was loved by the fans, by everybody, and then toward the end when things got harder and I got a little older, I wasn’t so loved,” Curtin said. “It’s the reality of pro sports. The only way you can win back that equity in the fan base is to keep your mouth shut and win games. That’s Philadelphia.”

Union believe they found their missing piece

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Union believe they found their missing piece

David Accam is a dream come true for the Union.

“At the end of the season, we talked about adding players and David was at the top of our list,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said. “I didn’t think that would be a real option. When it comes along, it’s incredible.”

Shocking as it was for Stewart, the Union pulled 27-year-old Accam from the Chicago Fire for allocation money at the 2018 MLS SuperDraft on Jan. 19. With his ability to create one-on-one opportunities and punish teams on the counter-attack, Accam, who had 14 goals and eight assists last season, is a perfect fit in the Union’s 4-2-3-1 system, and the exact type of “difference-maker” the team was looking for.

“David is known in the league for his speed, but when we scouted him we noted just how good he is on the ball,” Union manager Jim Curtin said Tuesday at the official introduction of Accam at Talen Energy Stadium. “The space he creates for others because he is so dangerous. When he gets one-on-one, his quality will take over games and it’ll create a lot of space for the rest of our players.”

From Accam’s perspective, he’s joining an established attacking group. Specifically mentioning Union leading scorer C.J. Sapong and winger Fafa Picault, Accam expects to have space to work.

“We have enough quality on this team already,” he said. “I just have to do my part.”

On top of his offensive acumen, Accam knows MLS. What attracted the Union to the speedster is not only his skill but his familiarity with the league. Unlike European players that take time to adjust to the climate, travel and style of play, Accam should make an instant impact on the Union.

“He’s been now, for multiple years, a top attacking player in our league,” Curtin said. “He’s got the statistics to back it up. The fact that he has a familiarity with the league, he knows the defenders will be grabbing and kicking him for 90 minutes, and that matters a great deal. It makes the transition more seamless. 

“He’s a great fit for us.”

But snagging that perfect fit wasn’t free. Acquired in one of the largest trades in Union history, the attacker was moved by the Fire in exchange for $1.2 million in combined allocation money. According to Stewart, the speedster, who was ripe for a new deal, signed an extension with the Fire before the team moved him to Philadelphia.

“Our understanding is that David has an obligation now with the Union through 2020,” Stewart said.

Despite scratching out a significant name off their wishlist, the Union aren’t quite done adding players, with the expectation that they bring in a playmaking midfielder. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be going on a shopping spree.

“I think we are in a better place than we were last year with the acquisition of David,” Stewart said. “There will be a little more happening but not much more because I believe the foundation is solid. With the acquisition of David and one more player in the near future, we’ll be in good shape to compete for the playoffs.”

Union acquire electrifying winger in major trade

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Union acquire electrifying winger in major trade

The Philadelphia Union didn’t make a pick in the first two rounds of the MLS SuperDraft on Friday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

But the hometown team still made one of the biggest splashes of the day.

Between the first and second rounds, Paul Tenorio of ESPN FC reported that the Union had a trade in place for electrifying winger David Accam, sending a palpable buzz through the ballroom. Not long after, the move was officially announced and the Philly fans in attendance finally had something to cheer about after a quiet-to-this-point offseason.

“I know there was some impatience with the timing of things,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “But this is a special player we added — one that changes the whole dynamic of our team.”

The move wasn’t cheap as the Union dealt $1.2 million in allocation money to the Chicago Fire in exchange for the Ghanaian speedster, who’s bagged 33 goals and 15 assists over the last three MLS seasons.

But if he can stay healthy and keep producing at the rate he has been, the Union think it can be a bargain.

“A David Accam on the open market is significantly higher than what we paid today,” Curtin said. “I can tell you with confidence if we shopped around for someone of David’s quality and production, we’d spend a heck of a lot more money than we did today.”

Accam will likely start on one of the wings opposite fellow burner Fafa Picault with leading scorer C.J. Sapong up top. That still leaves a hole in attacking midfield that the Union need to round out their offense — a position which Curtin and sporting director Earnie Stewart said the club is still searching for.

“With Fafa, with Accam, with C.J. Sapong, those guys will create a lot of space for whoever plays in that No. 10 spot during the course of the season,” Curtin said. “That’s something that makes other teams worry. When we get off the bus, you have to account for David Accam. So that’s a real positive.”

Accam has a unique backstory, playing at the Right to Dream Academy from 2004 to 2008 in his native Ghana, before moving to England on a student visa and playing for Ledbury Town and Evesham United. After taking part in “The Chance” competition, a Nike event to find undiscovered soccer talent, he moved to Swedish club Ostersund in 2012 and then to top-flight side Helsingborg later that year.

After starring for both clubs, he was signed by the Fire as a Designated Player and has been a consistent goal-scoring threat in Chicago. Since he came to MLS in 2015, Accam is one of just six MLS players to total at least 33 goals and 15 assists in league play, along with stars Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa, Diego Valeri, Ignacio Piatti and Kei Kamara.

“As we said a while back, we’re trying to find some difference-makers for our team to help us over those humps in certain games,” Stewart said. “We believe a couple of difference-makers can help that. And once David Accam came around, it was really clear to us that was a target that we wanted to make sure happened. And we as the Philadelphia Union made sure we stretched ourselves to make sure this player came aboard. We’re just very pleased that we were able to accomplish this.”

The Union also made a couple of other smaller moves leading up to the draft, signing defenders Matt Real and Mark McKenzie to Homegrown contracts.

Signing both players when they did was a good indication that the Union valued them both as much, if not more, as any guys they may have been able to draft had they not previously dealt away their picks.

And it’s even better that both Real and McKenzie came through the Union Academy and are more familiar with the club than a kid coming out of college would have been.

“Everybody has a different path,” said McKenzie, an 18-year old center back from Bear, Delaware. “All of these guys that got drafted today are great guys. … But myself, coming through the academy and when I was at the pre-academy when I was 11 and 12 and worked my way up to the U-14s to the U-18s to the [Bethlehem] Steel, it’s been an absolute honor and a blessing. I’ve been pushed and challenged at each level, and I’m looking forward to the future and what that holds.”

“It’s a big moment for me,” added Real, an 18-year-old who played for USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC last year. “These last couple of weeks for me have been surreal. I’m still kind of soaking all this in.

“Mark is my brother. Me and him have been playing together since the academy started. We graduated together, we’re on the [U-20] national team together. So this couldn’t be any better for me to share a moment like this with him.”