While he’s been on the job for seven years now, he is still only 42, with a ginger’s age-defying skin and a generally sunny disposition, so maybe I’m being a little unfair when I say this. But Jim Curtin looks a little tired lately.
No foul there; plenty of us feel that way in these strange and stressful times. And it’s all too understandable if he or anyone else on the Philadelphia Union have worn their miles a little more heavily in 2021. Last season they marked a delirious breakthrough, pressing their way to the Supporters’ Shield title, their first-ever major hardware, with a 14-4-5 record and an undefeated home slate at Subaru Park.
This year Philly have treaded water in mid-table for long periods, wearing a target on their backs, drained by the rewards of success like multi-million-dollar transfer sales (Brenden Aaronson, Mark McKenzie) and international callups, of which they had a whopping seven in September’s window. And they’ve been occupied with a Concacaf Champions League run that reaches its moment of truth on Wednesday (9 pm ET | FS1, Univision, TUDN), when they host Club America for the second leg of their semifinal series chasing a 2-0 aggregate deficit.
Heavy, as they say, is the head that wears the crown.
“We still sit in a decent spot in the table that a lot of teams would exchange with us gladly. But at the same time, we have a little bit higher standard now, too,” said Curtin in a Wednesday media availability. “I think obviously the press has a higher standard, the fans have a higher standard for us, the players in the locker room probably have the highest standard. And we're disappointed now when we lose – we're always disappointed when we lose, but now it's, I think, a little bit more amplified.
“It has been disjointed,” he added. “That's kind of how our whole season’s been, it's been stop-start, it's guys in and out, and we haven't gotten a good rhythm and a good flow of games. So that's why maybe you see a little bit of the inconsistent performances from not only the players but also the coaching staff. So, all of us. We're all in this together, we have to find a way.”
With last weekend’s tight, frustrating, shorthanded 1-0 home loss to East-leading New England, the Union are 2-3-2 since the start of August. Goals have been hard to come by, and the ferocious intensity that animates their identity has grown more mercurial; Curtin had to concede that they got their “asses kicked” by D.C. United, a team crafted in Philly’s image, in a 3-1 road loss on Aug. 28.
They’re still fifth in the Eastern Conference standings, though that can be deceptive given the testing trips to CF Montréal, Minnesota, Toronto and NYCFC at Yankee Stadium in the coming weeks. And they’re happy to be idle this weekend as they gear up for the midweek CCL showdown. But with so much invested in that massive occasion, the risk of a hangover is very real no matter Wednesday’s result.
“It's our first time going through it, and look, history will show you when you do play in the Champions League, it has an effect on the team, one way or the other,” Curtin said this week. “Sometimes positive for moments, for stretches. But also it can have a negative impact and it can make it a little more challenging.
“It takes a lot of players working hard. It takes tough decisions for the staff, to field a 20-man roster and utilize your subs the right way,” he later added, “and juggling all the different rules and different competitions has been unique and new for us. But it's a challenge we want. We want this for our fan base, we want this for our club. It raises certainly the stature of this badge and we recognize that. So we want to put on a good show for the fans, we want to make a run and get to a final.”
Only three teams in MLS history have successfully defended their possession of the Supporters’ Shield, and it’s been a decade since the most recent one to win it back-to-back: the 2011 LA Galaxy. The Union’s 2021 illustrates just how difficult it is, and even more so given their particular competitive model.
Last year I wrote about how swiftly Philly had become a case study for other MLS clubs to follow, not only because of their success but their approachability. The DOOPers lean on data analysis, academy products and value signings from abroad to spend a fraction of what league elites like Atlanta, Seattle and Toronto do on their rosters. The Union hoisting the Shield seemed to mean more because they were doing so much more with less.
Huge one-off moments like Wednesday’s semifinal second leg have been cited as the counterargument to that approach, the kind of occasion where elite individuals (Raul Ruidiaz, Carlos Vela, Sebastian Giovinco, et al.) can trump a year’s worth of collective work with one cultured swing of a boot. Curtin might argue that he does have players like that, with Jamiro Monteiro back in the fold after a reported midseason transfer request and the likes of Kacper Przybylko and Jose “El Brujo” Martinez surely eager to grab the spotlight.
But one of them, someone, anyone in navy blue has to step and do it. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that their season is in the balance.
“I've said it all season, we're a good team. We're not a great team yet,” said Curtin. “We have to all raise our level down the stretch here, because again, people remember more so than ever, how you finish the season, and not how you started. So we can still have a special year, we still can do special things, but we all have to be at our maximum to do it. Our margin for error with our club is very small. I think we all know that.”