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.”

'World-class' Zlatan Ibrahimovic leads Galaxy over Union

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'World-class' Zlatan Ibrahimovic leads Galaxy over Union

BOX SCORE 

CHESTER, Pa. — For a little over 45 minutes, the Union, and their two teenage centerbacks, held the LA Galaxy and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in check. 

Then something changed. 

In a brief lapse, Ibrahimovic tied the game with a clutch assist to Ola Kamara in the 48th minute, then buried a goal in the 63rd minute for the lead. The Galaxy didn’t look back to take the 3-1 win on Saturday at a rainy Talen Energy Stadium.

“Up until that point, we did a good job with him,” said Union manager Jim Curtin. “But that is what world-class strikers do. They can pick their moments and dominate and win games. He is about as special a player as there is.” 

On his goal, Ibrahimovic accepted a short pass from Romain Alessandrini inside the Union box. The 6-foot-5, 36-year-old shuffled briefly, picked his head up and fired off a right-footed shot that thread between Union defenders and past Andre Blake. 

He was given space, and took every bit of it.

“He’s a world-class striker, one of the best players our league has ever seen and one of the best strikers are game has ever had,” Curtin said. “He’s less likely to dribble and run by you now, so we preached to get close. On that instance, I think we did give him a little bit too much space.”

The Union knew it could happen. Since signing with the Galaxy in late March, Ibrahimovic has 12 goals in 15 games. He put that skill on display Saturday. Despite the consistent downpour and wind, the Swedish legend was dangerous on the ball and threatened the Union at will. 

“I just keep doing my job,” said Ibrahimovic, who finished with six shots, three on net. “[MLS is] lucky I did not come 10 years ago because I would be the President.”

The would-be President still had good things to say about the Union. Despite padding the stat sheet, Ibrahimovic liked what he saw from the Union’s teenage centerback duo of Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie, who was born in 1999, the year Ibrahimovic turned pro. 

“I think they did a good job,” he said. “It’s not easy, two young guys, not so much experience and then the weather conditions were not the best. I think they did a good job.”

Union fall to LA Galaxy, Zlatan Ibrahimovic in rainy 3-1 loss

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Union fall to LA Galaxy, Zlatan Ibrahimovic in rainy 3-1 loss

CHESTER, Pa. — They fought through heavy rain, wind and three days rest. But the Union couldn’t get past Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who netted a second-half goal and an assist to propel the LA Galaxy over the Union, 3-1, on Saturday at Talen Energy Stadium. 

The defeat was the Union’s fifth loss in their last seven MLS games, to drop their record to 7-10-3. The Galaxy are unbeaten in their last seven games, moving to 9-7-4.

• Union defender Auston Trusty, who was born a year before Ibrahimovic went pro in 1999, drew primary defensive duty on the big attacker. For the first half, Trusty and the Union did well to slow him down. Then the second half began.
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• Down one, the Galaxy would tie the match when Alejandro Bedoya turned the ball over in the midfield and it ended up on the foot of Ibrahimovic. He absorbed enough defensive attention to slide the ball forward into open space for Ola Kamara, who scored the tying goal. 

• In the 63rd minute, Ibrahimovic would strike again. Romain Alessandrini beat his man on the left side before dishing to Ibrahimovic, who pulled it to his right foot and fired off a low shot that beat Blake for the 2-1 Galaxy lead. Michael Ciani added the insurance from Allessandrini for the 3-1 final score.

• The 36-year-old hasn’t lost a step. He now has 12 goals in 15 games for the Galaxy — seven more than anyone on the Union.

• But it wasn’t all bad. In the 29th minute, C.J. Sapong finally broke through. After 12 scoreless games, the forward, while falling down, redirected a low shot by Borek Dockal, causing the ball to bounce slowly past David Bingham for the 1-0 Union lead.

• It was just Sapong’s third goal of the season and first since April 28, but was a nice reward for an active game. He had a season-high three shots on goal. He was replaced by Cory Burke in the 68th minute.

• Saturday was a homecoming for two former Union players. Chris Pontius, who is having an excellent first season for his hometown team with five goals and four assists in 19 games played, made the start for the Galaxy. He was replaced by another former Union player, Sheanon Williams in the 79th minute.​​​​

• It's a quick turnaround for the Union, who will now travel to BBVA Compass Stadium to face the Houston Dynamo on Wednesday on the road, where the Union are 2-6-1 on the season.