CHESTER, Pa. – As a former MLS All-Star who anchored the Chicago Fire’s backline for most of the 2000s, Jim Curtin knows a thing or two about good defense.
And now, as the Philadelphia Union’s new interim manager, Curtin’s top priority is to turn Philly into the type of gritty, hard-nosed defensive club that he believes is necessary to win in MLS.
“Good teams win 1-0 games in this league,” Curtin said during his introductory press conference on Thursday. “The teams that do that at the end of the year are the teams that are toward the top of the table – the Kansas Citys, the Salt Lakes. They grind out 1-0 results and they’re good in both boxes.”
One of the main reasons Curtin was promoted from his role as an assistant coach to the Union’s interim manager is because the Union had been leaking goals – and thus failing to win games under John Hackworth, who was fired on Tuesday after guiding the team to a 3-7-6 start.
So far this season, the Union have allowed 27 goals – a higher number than all but two other teams in the league. And in three of their last four games, the team has given up at least three goals while getting burned by counterattacks and bad giveaways.
“The toughest thing is that there hasn’t been continuity,” Curtin said. “We’ve played different guys and whether it was injuries or different situations that had come up, we haven’t had a four that has been playing together. And that’s what it takes. You have to play with each other game in and game out to get used to each other and have a chance.
"The idea would be to pick a four and go with them – not have it be that we’re juggling game to game.”
Curtin did admit that playing the same back four to this point has been difficult because “no one has really completely grabbed it and made it theirs either.” But the new manager had good things to say about Ray Gaddis and Fábinho, who have started most of the games at fullback, as well as natural right back Sheanon Williams, who has filled in at center back while Austin Berry continues to work through injuries and inconsistent play.
“I know he can be one of the best center backs in the league,” Curtin said of Williams. “I’ve seen him do it.”
As for starting center back Amobi Okugo, Curtin had high praise for the Union original while also holding him accountable for many of the backline’s problems this season.
“Amobi, last year, was a top-tier center back in the league,” Curtin said. “Is he having a tough time? Yeah, he is. But we can pull him out of that. Everybody just needs confidence. Once you get the confidence and the continuity of playing together, that helps everything.”
When asked if he’d consider moving Okugo back to the midfield – where he had played throughout his career until Hackworth plugged him in at center back in the middle of the 2012 season – Curtin said that he would.
“We’re going to sit down with him and I’ll have a meeting with him and we’ll get to the bottom of where he thinks is the best spot,” the Union manager said. “I’ve had conversations with Amobi where I think he should be, talent-wise, a best XI player in this league. I think he’s that good.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.