The 2017 Philadelphia Union are off to a rocky start to put it lightly. After a promising draw to open the season against Vancouver and Toronto, the Union have lost four straight. On one hand the team has had promising moments, with the first half against NYCFC being a shining example. On the other hand however the team has been lackluster and played out of position which some say is thanks to the stubbornness of head coach Jim Curtin. MLS is a fickle league where parity reigns supreme. One year a team is last and the next the Supporter Shield winner. Jim Curtin absolutely should be on the hot seat with the temperature rising with each passing loss. When does enough become enough to fire a coach that took an underperformer to two straight Open Cup Championships, and helping to create one of the deepest rosters the team has ever had. Well that’s what I’m here to discover.
The case against Jim Curtin
I’m going to start with the easiest fact of all: The Union have not won a game dating back to last August. I’m hard pressed to think a coach that can’t lead their team to a win in eight months should keep their job. In a professional league it is the duty and some would say contractual obligation to win games and make the playoffs.
Jim Curtin and the Union made the playoffs last year, but limped into the final spot after dropping countless points after being in a comfortable position all year. To say they ‘made’ the playoffs may even be a stretch. Finishing 6th out of 10 teams hardly qualifies as being a good team. You can see where this headed to as well, crashing out of their first round tie and not putting up much of a fight.
After not winning for so long, it would make sense for any other coach to try to make a change or switch up formations, roles, and strategies. Jim Curtin has been notorious for being a stubborn and Philadelphia-hardened coach. Although consistency is helpful in a lot of instances, Curtin has lacked the intuition to make needed changes. In the latest run of losses, he refused to change his favored 4-2-3-1 formation and the only thing he made changes to was who player striker. Jim Curtin’s biggest weakness currently is playing players out of position.
With a team that has been hailed as the deepest ever for a Union side, it’s preposterous to have multiple players not playing in their preferred position. Alejandro Bedoya the Union’s captain and most important player has been the most glaring of these mistakes, being played as a #10 creator just under the forward. Bedoya is a tried and true box to box midfielder who works extremely hard on both ends of the ball to link the defense and attack in transition. Bedoya was wasting away in games like the one at home against Portland. Meanwhile there is a perfectly capable creator on the bench in Alberg.
This is the last point I’ll make against Jim because I think it plays well into previously made arguments. Even when Curtin was willing to make the changes and be flexible a-la last Saturday against NYCFC, the team still did not play to their potential and get up for the game. Something has to be said as to the motivational ability of a coach and how well they cope with a dark cloud hanging over the locker room. Although a good first half showed signs, continuous breakdowns led to the frustrating 2-0 scoreline going to NYCFC.
The Case For Jim Curtin
The case for Jim Curtin is honestly a little harder to make than the case against him, but please try to stay objective and consider these comparable situations elsewhere in MLS history.
Prior to the 2011 season DC United made a change and decided to go with a decorated and historic player as their new head coach. Ben Olsen took the reins and just missed the playoffs in his first season. In 2012 Olsen and DC had a successful season and reached the Conference finals before losing to Houston. 2013 is where things got interesting. DC came into the season optimistic and ready to repeat a deep run into the playoffs and challenge for the Supporter’s Shield. That same year DC United won 3 games all season, having one of the worst performances of any team in MLS ever. Many fans called for Olsen’s head and were flabbergasted when he was still at the helm by season’s end. As you can probably tell since Ben Olsen is still the coach of United, things went a little bit better for them in the next few seasons. DC continue to be a competitive team into the 2017 year with their same coach in charge.
We can see the same story play out for the New York Red Bulls last year who had a eerily similar beginning to the Union’s season this year. Although playing well and sticking to their high-press strategy, the Red Bulls had their worst start to a season ever after 7 games. Fans and pundits alike called for Jesse Marsch to make changes to the personnel and the high-press strategy. Marsch stubbornly stuck to his plan and New York went on to win the Supporter’s Shield for the second time in three years.
The moral of this story is that just because a team has a bad season, sometimes it is up to lady luck to decide your fate.
I think Jim Curtin has one last game to make his case to the front office. If he fails to win against Montreal to end the Union’s homestand and not take at least three points, at that point it is an objective fact that he needs to go. Just like coaches need to make changes to the team on gameday, so to does the front office need to make their changes. However, if Curtin can take the Union out of this hole, there is plenty of evidence pointing to successful comeback stories in MLS.