Only in Philadelphia can a team sit in first place and still feel like the underdog.
Here, team success means just more of the grind for a coaching staff, more work behind the scenes to ensure your survival, but more importantly, your relevance in a demanding sports town.
Jim Curtin knows all of this.
He knows it because he’s spent much of his life in Philadelphia. Being the head coach of the Philadelphia Union, the city’s professional soccer franchise, hasn’t come with the glamor that comes natural to the city’s other four major sports teams. Still, you can find Curtin as the first to arrive among the coaching staff each morning as he prepares for the day’s training session, to go over film with staff and players or to simply be in the building for whatever reason.
In July, Curtin locked up a multi-year contract with the franchise, which made him the club’s longest tenured head coach and provided proof that hard work reaps rewards. He’s one of the OG faces of soccer in Philadelphia and before moving into coaching, Curtin had a soccer career that included playing for some of the Greater Philadelphia Region’s best club teams, being an All-America defender at Villanova before and then playing in Major League Soccer with franchises in Chicago and Southern California.
Following an MLS All-Star playing career, Curtin, 40, came home and joined the ranks of the Union, working his way up from the club’s academy head coach to becoming an assistant on the senior team to being named head coach in 2015. As the youngest coach in MLS at the time, Curtin lived on one-year deals up until this year, when the club’s sporting director (fancy soccer term for GM) Ernst Tanner gave Curtin and his family of five some well-deserved job security.
It was a blessing for a guy who has made South Philly his home for the last six years, recently moving just four blocks down from his home in Bella Vista to a roomier abode in Queen Village.
“The new contract, obviously, yes, it does give more stability and it’s stability I and my family are extremely thankful for,” said Curtin last week as we both watched the close of a training session on the manicured practice facility next to Talen Energy Stadium. “Look, I'm gonna be living in Philadelphia for the rest of my life one way or another. At least until my kids [are] through high school, then maybe back out to California for the golden years. But Philly will always be home for me.”
2015 | The year Philadelphia native Jim Curtin became the youngest head coach in Major League Soccer after being named coach of the Philadelphia Union
Under Jim’s leadership, Philadelphia’s team finished with its best record in club history last season and at the time of this report, the Union remains the top team in MLS’ Eastern Conference, coming off a win against I-95 rival D.C. United over the weekend.
But you’d never know because despite the fact that this city is a melting pot of over five million people — many of whom play in weekend warrior leagues, pickup matches or tout their kids to and from soccer practices — Union soccer is an afterthought, a niche to the devout that will get in their car and drive 20 minutes outside of the city confines to Chester. In Chester, a $112 million soccer palace situated on the banks of the Delaware River and at the foot of the Commodore Barry Bridge awaits those who made the trek.
It’s a devotion unlike any other, but it comes courtesy of the hard work of a front office that comes up with gimmick after gimmick to ensure fans stay fans and make the trek. It’s a lot to ask someone to get in their car and drive to Chester, a city that has gone to great strides to aid the evolution of the club and the Union’s cause (see heightened police presence on game days and ingress-egress plan by way of on-off ramps directly coming off the Commodore Barry as examples).
But it just ain’t Philly.
“Look, the city of Chester has embraced us as a whole,” Curtin said. “A lot of the people that work in and around the team are from Chester and are people that I have great relationships with. But yeah, there is an element of, you know, [if the stadium was] downtown, would that give more buzz? Those are questions that I don't have the full answer to because it's never happened. I can speak for the popularity of soccer in my neighborhood now. It's grown to a level that I never would've thought, and I do wonder sometimes if the neighborhood could just get on a train and check it out, how much would that make our jobs easier.”
There’s no doubt in the minds of many that soccer in Philadelphia would be a thing if its premier professional team actually played in Philadelphia.
There was a window when Philadelphia soccer had its opportunity to be situated in South Philly alongside the four other major sports. That window came prior to the discussions being had by then Flyers chairman and owner Ed Snider to demolish the Spectrum to make way for what was to be called Philly Live!, which we all now know as Comcast’s Xfinity Live!, juxtaposed next to the Wells Fargo Center, Lincoln Financial Field and Citizens Bank Park.
In retrospect, it would’ve been a marquee move for the franchise, one that would’ve arguably benefited both the club’s exposure and relevance and would’ve provided much needed finances for a cash-strapped city.
According to a 2018 Delco Times report, from its inception year of 2010 until now, the Union has provided $350 million in revenue to revitalize Chester’s waterfront, although much of that improvement has been to the benefit of an 18,500-seat stadium and its training complex, complete with two full-sized practice fields, locker rooms, weight room, film room and training rooms. The latter have saunas and hot tubs.
21.4 | The number of miles Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, the home of the Philadelphia Union is from Philadelphia city limits.
The franchise instead chose to build all of this on land given pro-bono by the city of Chester and to date, the franchise still owns this property tax-free, courtesy of a PILOT program that only sees the club needing to fork out $125k annually. Ultimately, cost played a role in the club’s location, rather than the idea of making itself a fabric of the Philadelphia sports landscape.
The reliability of relevance was to come via a formulated mixture of two factors: putting a winning team on the field and a hell of a lot of marketing. I would know. Full disclosure: I worked as the team’s senior manager of communications for three seasons — a thankless job that came to an end when I was laid off just prior to the start of Curtin’s first season.
Well, less than satisfactory seasons coupled with minuscule marketing budgets nixed that plan and is the reason why today, despite the club’s dominant reign in the League, most Philadelphians couldn’t tell you who the team played last.
“They’d never admit it, but the Union shot themselves in the foot with putting the team in Chester,” a former executive who asked to remain anonymous told me. “Not putting this team in Philadelphia wasn’t necessarily a death sentence, but you can’t say it didn’t make life harder for the entire organization. I know it because I’m in it everyday and have been for years. Philadelphia is a soccer town, but to the people I speak with, it’s hard to rally around this club. It’s no one in the franchise’s fault. We all put in the grind for this club, but being in Chester helps no one.”
During an MLS season, you can find Jim Curtin at his desk by 5:30 a.m. most mornings inside the Union’s Power Training Complex; not because he has to be there by then, but because he prefers to be alone with his thoughts before the rigors of any given training day begins.
Following shortly after is the club’s technical director and assistant Chris Albright, who has been with the club in some capacity just as long as Curtin. The pair offers the one-two punch of Philly authenticity the club needs.
Albright and Curtin share a similar path, with Albright being a Penn Charter grad who went on to become a college All-America, MLS All-Star and U.S. National Team player with 22 senior appearances for his country.
All of that funnels into a collective that grew up loving Philly sports and knows the importance of being relevant in this town.
“Listen, I've been a pro sports fan in this city for my whole life,” Curtin said. “I hate when people say all ‘four of the major sports’ because soccer is a major sport. Eagles, Sixers, Flyers and Phillies. I know what it was like to be a fan of all four of those teams, and the passion that I have for them. I feel that with our fans, they may come watch us outside the city, but trust me. Our fans are no different. If I’m walking through the city and a fan sees me, if we win I get a ‘hey Jim, nice game,’ and if we lose, yeah, they let me know about it. Sometimes too much. But it’s Philly sports. It’s no different than if any of the other coaches were walking around the city, so whether it’s praise or criticism I embrace all of it.”
It’s why his grind starts as early as 5 a.m., and it's why he repeats ad nauseum his utmost gratitude for his longtime wife and best friend, Jen, who holds it down most mornings getting three young children out the door to school or other summer activities. Ask him and he won’t admit it, but his drive is not to be the one steering the ship of a failing franchise.
Now with his chosen players, a training staff he can rely on and, perhaps most importantly, an executive team that understands what he needs to get the job done, the job is his to lose.
He’s also steering a hot team at the right time to be a soccer fan in Philadelphia. Earlier this summer, the City of Philadelphia, along with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and the Union Foundation, the club’s charitable arm, collectively committed $3 million venture with funds coming from the city’s Rebuild initiative to create 15 soccer-specific mini-fields throughout the city, giving more kids a chance to play the game organically.
It’s a notion that Curtin feels is much needed and is surprised didn’t arrive sooner.
“I think it’s great, namely because I'm a big believer that kids can learn more just playing against each other than being a part of a team that’s too structured,” he said. “You have these club teams where six- and seven-year-olds are being told what position they are and what to do and where to pass it. Let them be kids, let them have fun. I think these facilities will give kids more opportunity to experience the game without all the structure. I get a smile on my face when I see the local flag football teams struggling for numbers and there's soccer going on right on their football field. I do believe it’s a shift that will happen over time.”
$3 million | The amount the City of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and The Philadelphia Union Foundation have committed to the creation of 15 mini soccer-specific fields throughout the city.
At the time of this report, Curtin and his team are still the class of MLS’ Eastern Conference and coming off a win headed into another match in two days time. He’d want you to know that, and you should know that a Philly boy is making good right now.
Even if it is by way of Chester.
“Look, I tend to give players the credit. I'm a big believer that the players in our club have really worked and earned everything that we've done,” Curtin said. “But I do pride myself on being a little bit of an example that if you put in the time and hard work, it will eventually pay off. I started coaching 8-year-old boys and girls [and] worked my way through the Union Youth Academy. I became the assistant coach. I learned a lot there and now became the head coach.”
He paused, then added, “I've seen [this organization] at all levels. I've seen this plan in place. It hasn't been perfect. It hasn't been flawless. There's been highs. There's been lows. But if you look at what we’ve done and the moves we’ve made, we’re getting ourselves to where we want to be. Personally, to be a part of this [franchise] on the upswing gives me a lot of pride. I’m proving things to myself and to this club. That’s why I get up everyday. It’s a grind, sure, but it’s one that’s fulfilling. I think that’s all anyone could ask for out of a career.”