Jim Curtin has survived two different regimes in Philadelphia. Now the Union head coach is hoping to work with a third.
Philadelphia announced last week the hiring of Ernst Tanner as sporting director. Tanner is replacing Earnie Stewart, who left the Union earlier this month to become U.S. men’s national team GM. When he officially starts in mid-September, Tanner will become the third different technical staff leader that Curtin has worked under since he was hired as Union head coach by former club CEO Nick Sakiewicz halfway through the 2014 season.
Whether their relationship will extend beyond a couple of months is an open question. Curtin is out of contract at the end of the season, and though he has Philadelphia in fifth place in the East following their massive win at New England last Saturday and in the third U.S. Open Cup final of his tenure, it’s no sure thing that he’ll be back in 2019. Union owner Jay Sugarman said when Stewart departed that the new sporting director would be able to choose his head coach, leaving Curtin’s status after this season up in the air.
“You’re evaluated in this business every day. Nothing is promised, nothing is a guaranteed,” Curtin told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. “You do the best work that you possibly can, and those things tend to sort themselves out. I’ve had positive dialogue with Ernst, with our owner, with [minority owner] Richie Graham. Again, it’s been a decent season so far, but obviously we’re still not done. And if we take care of business in the Open Cup final and we make the playoffs, I think those things will sort themselves out.”
Curtin has been in daily contact with Tanner for the past couple of months, but he said that he and the club have not yet held any discussions about a new contract. If the Union continue their upward trajectory, however, the Philadelphia native will have a solid case for a new deal. The Union are playing some of the more entertaining soccer in the league, using their open style to position themselves well heading into the stretch run.
Of course, that style will change a bit under Tanner. The 51-year-old German helped implement a high-pressing system at German Bundesliga club TSG Hoffenheim at the turn of the decade and brought the aggressive tactics with him when he became academy manager for New York Red Bulls sister club Red Bull Salzburg in August 2012. Curtin, who first met Tanner when he was coaching in the Union academy and Tanner visited the club from Hoffenheim to deliver a presentation on the high press, said that some of those tactics will be implemented in Philadelphia in the future.
“Ernst has been very open and great and has said you can’t just come in and instantly change everything, it’s going to take time to implement the system and the approach that we play,” said Curtin. “So, there’ll be some changes obviously, for sure in terms of how we want to press. I think it’ll be aggressive, there’ll be a real emphasis on defending and more of an emphasis on fitness, just in the conversations I’ve had with him. Obviously, I think we’re a fit team but there’s always another level of fitness you can go to, and so yeah, I think it’ll evolve in its own way and I’m really anxious to learn his methodology and his way of thinking.”
Before any broad tactical changes occur, the Union have some business to handle. Philadelphia have a tough game at home against New York City FC on Saturday (7 pm ET | TV & streaming info), one of six of their remaining 11 matches against teams currently in the playoffs. The rest of their schedule won’t be a cakewalk, either. The Union have games against East playoff contenders New England, D.C. and Orlando on the docket, a trip to the surging Seattle Sounders and the Open Cup final in Houston late next month. They don’t have the star power of some of their fellow postseason hopefuls, but Curtin is confident that his team’s strong identity and solid form will carry them through.
“We’re a team in the true sense of the word in that we can’t have off nights. If we have two or three guys have an off night, we can’t win,” he said. “So, you can tell the guys all rely on each other, we’ve called upon our full roster, I think we have a deeper team now and… everybody’s contributed. We had a real busy stretch last week, we got through it pretty well, but we know that we haven’t really accomplished anything yet. We got ourselves to a final, which is a good achievement, and we got ourselves positioned above the red line and now we kind of control our own destiny. We’ve set ourselves up for that, but still haven’t accomplished anything until you do finally feel that playoff berth.”