We need to take a second to appreciate the job that Jim Curtin has done this year.
The Philadelphia Union, with Wednesday’s 2-0 win over FC Cincinnati, have won five of their last seven games and sit top of the East Conference. But this was supposed to be a sacrificial year for the Union -- a short-term hit for a long-term gain.
The Union made a major shift in the offseason. Ernst Tanner, the new sporting director, changed the team’s playing system. He asked the head coach, Curtin, to play a new formation and new style. Gone was the 4-2-3-1; gone was the possession-first mentality. In came the frenetic, direct 4-4-2. It was a mandate with an eye to the future.
Any sensible money would have said that the Union were set for a 2019 dip. The learning curve for a new way of playing can take time; multiple key players -- Haris Medunjanin, Fafa Picault, David Accam, Ilsinho -- didn’t fit the new style. It’s hard to build for the future without some suffering in the present. The whole situation was so unusual that Tanner only gave the out-of-contract Curtin a one-year extension.
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Yet here the Philadelphia Union sit, 10 games into the season and looking down on the rest of the East. What sacrifice?
Curtin has found a way to mix old and new. The Union press a little higher and a little harder now -- the starting formation provides a specific challenge for opponents. But they haven’t lost their passing roots. They can also still keep it on the deck when the game calls for it. They have one of the most composed deep-lying midfielders in the league, Medunjanin, and they don’t let his talents go to waste. They look as comfortable beating you with the ball as without. The Union have had the majority of possession in four of their five wins this year.
We spend a lot of time in sports getting mad at coaches. It’s hard to win as the guy in the suit; victories get credited to roster talent, but losses get put on the boss.
We need to be sure to give credit where it is due. The Union have had a great start to the year. When you think about the full context, about what the logic suggests should have happened, “great” doesn’t fully describe it. You can’t look at them in the East standings -- sitting on top, that is, for the other 11 teams -- and not think about the job Jim Curtin has done so far this season.