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.”
“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.”