Jim Curtin claps to the Philadelphia Union
USA Today Sports

Unfinished Business: Jim Curtin, Philadelphia Union still motivated by defeat in US Open Cup final

Only days after being named the Philadelphia Union’s interim manager last summer, Jim Curtin began inspiring his charges on an exciting run through the US Open Cup, one that resulted in a trip to the historic tournament's title game and the eventual stripping of the word “interim” from his job title.

While that may have been an impressive accomplishment to begin his coaching career, Curtin no longer has his second-place Open Cup medal.

Instead, it resides in a felt-lined wooden box in a house in Reading, Pennsylvania. That’s where Curtin shipped it after he saw a photograph of a young fan crying in the PPL Park stands near the end of Philadelphia’s extra-time Open Cup final loss to the Seattle Sounders, and was compelled to cheer him up with a gift.

“I felt the kid’s pain,” Curtin told MLSsoccer.com. “So I sent him my Open Cup medal. Hopefully I can replace it with one that’s the right color.”

It’s not surprising that Curtin could relate. He is, after all, a long-suffering Philadelphia sports fan himself. At his introductory press conference last June, the Philadelphia native immediately recounted being on hand for some of the city’s most gut-wrenching sports moments, like when Flyers star Eric Lindros was knocked out of the game by New Jersey’s Scott Stevens in the 2000 NHL Eastern Conference finals and when Tampa Bay’s Joe Jurevicius produced a 71-yard catch-and-run that helped deny the Eagles a spot in Super Bowl XXXVII.

Curtin was even a Union supporter before he joined the coaching staff, standing inside O’Neals Pub amid a sea of soccer fans to watch the club’s first-ever game in 2010 – and wishing he was on the field to help Danny Califf prevent the Sounders from spoiling the party with a 2-0 win that rainy night in Seattle.

Still, it came as a shock to Union season-ticket holder Sean Doyle – who volunteers for Union affiliate club Reading United as their social media director – when Curtin discovered a Facebook picture of Doyle's 12-year-old son, Tim, crying and began corresponding with him. It came as an even bigger shock when, about a week later, an overnight package arrived at their home with a jersey autographed by everyone on the team, a US Open Cup runner-up medal and a handwritten note from Curtin telling Tim to hang onto the medal until Curtin gets a championship one. Then, Curtin wrote, they could make a trade.

“He’s a dad, he grew up here, he gets it,” Doyle said. “Him seeing a young boy cry because they didn’t quite get the job done, it definitely did something to him that caused him to want to reach out. We live in a sports market that is, for the most part, very jaded. For him to make such a genuine heartfelt gesture like that shows he is totally plugged in with the fanbase.”

Curtin has made similar gestures in the short time he’s been Philly’s head coach. When the Union traveled to Dallas for the Open Cup semifinals on Aug. 12, someone organized an event for the Algerian community to see new Philly goalkeeper and Algerian national team hero Rais Mbolhi. Their disappointment that Mbolhi didn’t make the trip was only tempered when Curtin approached them afterwards to apologize and later sent them a signed Mbolhi jersey.

Curtin is equally approachable with Philly fans, having held gatherings with season-ticket holders and listening closely – perhaps too much – to what people are saying about his team.

“I’m a big believer in transparency,” Curtin said. “I think it’s important to have a good relationship with the fans and to be open and honest with them. I think they respect that. Even if they don’t agree with the moves you make, at least they understand the thinking behind them – as opposed to some things that have maybe gone on in the past.”

Being an affable and well-liked family man from Philadelphia is one reason why Curtin was named the head coach in November following an extensive search that spanned several countries and included far more experienced candidates. But the 35-year-old hometown hero knows his personality alone won’t get him very far in this town if he’s not able to turn the club around amid growing frustration from the city’s passionate fan base.

Last year, after losing that Open Cup final, the Union proceeded to fall out of the playoff race thanks to multiple late-game collapses. That marked the fourth time in five years the Union missed the postseason – struggles that three different coaches (Peter Nowak, John Hackworth and now Curtin) and many different players have so fair failed to curb.

“I understand some of the frustrations with things and some of the personnel moves that have gone on in the past,” Curtin said. “But we’re trying to get it right. It will take a little bit of time, but I think you’re slowly starting to see a roster form that we can be proud of. Until we win, we’re going to have to deal with the negativity. That’s something we signed up for.”

Although Curtin and the technical staff did not bring back franchise original and fan favorite Amobi Okugo in the offseason, Curtin still vows to build around a young core that now includes fullbacks Ray Gaddis, Sheanon Williams and winger Andrew Wenger. He also believes that the players the club brought in this offseason, most notably forwards Fernando Aristeguieta and C.J. Sapong and center back Steven Vitória, are young enough that they can grow alongside playmakers Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueira and Cristian Maidana and provide a dynamic nucleus up the middle of the field for years to come.

“There will always be changes and turnover,” Curtin said, “but I want it to be clear that we’re not just hitting the reset button every year.”

Those who watched the Union closely last season might even say that talent wasn’t the issue. Mental toughness, as vague of a concept as that sometimes sounds, has been perhaps the biggest problem for a Union team that has given up late leads even before Curtin joined the coaching staff as an assistant for the 2013 season.

To change that, Curtin said in a recent interview that he is urging his players to be “bastards in the last 15 minutes,” while stressing that everyone plays to their strengths. After all, those two things – knowing his role and being a nasty defender – that allowed Curtin to forge a successful nine-year pro career with the Chicago Fire and then Chivas USA, despite initial perceptions that he was not athletic enough to last in MLS.

“I was a blue-collar, just-do-my-job-and-not-try-to-jump-too-far-out-of-my-comfort zone type of player,” Curtin said. “I knew my limitations. That’s actually something I’m trying to preach to our group. Understanding your role on the team is very important. Everyone wants to be the star, but not everyone can be, unfortunately. There’s a real niche in our league for great role players.”

Curtin doesn’t have to conjure any far-flung imaginations to think about what the Union are capable of when they’re all working in unison, or how the fans will respond to such a display. Last year’s Open Cup title game was a perfect, if fleeting, encapsulation of that, as PPL Park shook to the core when the Union took a 1-0 lead over Seattle and inched as close as they ever had to capturing the club’s first trophy.

“You talk to any of the fans that were there and the players that played in that game, and it was probably the pinnacle for Union soccer games,” Curtin said. “The crowd was amazing. It was as loud as it’s ever been. That’s what’s pushing us this offseason. We have a little bit of unfinished business.”

Until that business is finished, Curtin will give away any of his second-place medals. For him, those just aren’t good enough.

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.