Friday, October 9, 2015

Jim Curtin's candor refreshes Union's chase for the playoffs

In the course of my travels this summer, a lot of people across Major League Soccer asked me whether I think interim Union manager Jim Curtin will get the job full-time. My answer on each occasion was the same as it is now: I don't know.

Jim Curtin's candor refreshes Union's chase for the playoffs


In the course of my travels this summer, a lot of people across Major League Soccer asked me whether I think interim Union manager Jim Curtin will get the job full-time. My answer on each occasion was the same as it is now: I don't know. And in all honesty, I don't know if the decision-makers at PPL Park are certain yet. With the U.S. Open Cup final and the climax of the playoff race still to come, many major factors remain in play.

But I do know this much. Regardless of Curtin's future, he will go down as one of the most honest men who has ever represented the Union. He will tell you what he knows, and what he believes, and what the difference is between the two. And just as importantly, to borrow the old phrase, he knows what he doesn't know.

Curtin was at his most plain-spoken in the wake of Saturday's impressive 4-2 win over the San Jose Earthquakes. I asked about Andrew Wenger's two impressive goals, and whether the left wing role in a 4-2-3-1 might finally unlock all of his talents. This was part of a long answer:

He's a special player who just needs confidence, and I think a night like tonight certainly gives a guy confidence. He has really learned how to play the position. It's been a little unique for him to be out wide on the wing, but he's starting to grasp some of the defensive responsibilities, and that's leading to his goals.

I think it's a good place for him. He can play as a target forward too - we talked about it if Conor [Casey]'s legs went, maybe you throw him up top and throw Danny [Cruz] wide, and Andrew becomes the guy in the middle.

He's versatile. You've heard it all along, with him growing up. Everybody said, "Is he a centerback? Is he a forward?" He's a soccer player. He has now grabbed that left side and he obviously had a great game tonight.

A few moments later, Curtin said this in response to a question from Eli Pearlman-Storch of the Philly Soccer Page about what the tone of the locker room was with a 2-0 halftime lead:

I actually told them that the first half wasn't good enough. Everybody thought that we would be happy up 2-0. I didn't think we played great. I thought our possession was a little sloppy in the first half.

The second half started with more possession in their end. You're going to have a team come at you when you're down two goals. You're going to get their best punch. And in the first 10 minutes of the half, you talk about raising the bar - we shouldn't concede, it should never get to 2-2. We should be able to kill the game off.

We need to do a better job of when there are moments to just swing the ball around the back with our defenders, find Vincent [Nogueira] and slow things down and just kind of possess the ball. It needs to improve but at the same time, when we break on the counter, we're a dangerous team right now.

The first goal was a credit to that, and the second one had a decent build-up. Three and four, when we break, we break with some real numbers and there's a purpose behind it.

You can talk about possession, but I think all those possession stats get skewed - especially when there are early goals in games, and a lot of different things. That's a long, long discussion I can have on even how they keep the possession statistic - it's not a clock, it's total passes divided by something. It's a long discussion if you want to get into that with me.

Kevin Kinkead of CBS3 and then asked whether counter-attacking has become the Union's identity. Curtin's reply:

We don't have an identity. I'm a big believer that you don't have an identity until you win something, and we haven't won anything. If we win an Open Cup, and we make the playoffs and make a run, then we can start to talk about style and our identity and what we're about.

 Right now, we're a blue-collar, hard-working team, and if everybody plays a good game - not a great game - we'll get a result. If four guys don't have a good game, we'll lose to teams in MLS. That's what we are. We're more the [San Antonio] Spurs than the Miami Heat. That's the way we go. Everybody has a role to do, everybody needs to do it.

All these things get thrown out [about] style and attractiveness, and every coach that gets hired now says, "We're going to play beautiful, free-flowing, attractive, attacking soccer." Well, do you watch the Champions League, do you watch the World Cup, do you watch MLS? These games are about men competing.

I'm sure there are moments of beauty and brilliance and it looks nice, but the majority of those games don't look like that. It's just a facade. Barcelona kind of set a standard that none of us can keep up with, and I think everybody thinks you can just re-create that. That's not possible.

I couldn't tell you whether that candor is an asset or a hindrance to Curtin's future with the Union. I get the sense that his players clearly like him, and many Union fans do too. But we'll likely have to wait a while yet to find out how much of an impact that all will have.

Because I was away when Carlos Valdés officially re-joined the Union, Saturday's game was my first opportunity to catch up with him since then. I got him one-on-one for a few minutes of good conversation.

Valdés wasn't really gone for that long, all things considered. But in the context of MLS, a year and a half is a long time. So I asked him what he felt has changed since he left the Union for San Lorenzo.

"I think everything is different. I know some guys who played with me before and I know the field and the city, but it's a different time, a different moment," he told me. "I'm just trying to do my best to make our team much better, and I'm still looking forward to getting good results."

No one was especially happy with the protracted negotiations that finally brought Valdés back to PPL Park, including the player himself. But throughout the process, he kept at heart the fact that the Union really wanted him back.

"It means a lot," he said. "I want to stay for a long time with the Philadelphia Union, because I'm very thankful to the owners of the team. We'll see what happens, but it's really good for me, really good for my family, to feel that kind of feeling from people."

It did not take long for Valdés and new Union starting goalkeeper Raïs Mbolhi to develop a solid rapport. Indeed, it did not take Mbolhi long to open the lines of communication with any of his new teammates. But Valdés admitted that there is still plenty more to be done.

"Raïs is an experienced guy, but I think the most important thing for the game was that we won," Valdés said. "We need more time to be on the same page. We have to keep working every day to try to play in the right way."

Two months ago, Valdés had one of the best teammates on the planet. James Rodriguez and Colombia took the World Cup by storm. The Cafeteros played vibrant, attacking soccer that had the world dancing right along with them. Valdés was one of the VIPs at the party, and had a front-row seat as Rodriguez put on a show.

"He's a great guy, a great player, and you just try to enjoy it every time we play," Valdés said. "I'm very happy for him, and I hope he's going well at Real Madrid."

I finished the interview by asking Valdés how aware he and his teammates were of how much the world soccer community was drawn to Colombia's performances. It would be perfectly understandable if the players tried to shut that all out, but Valdés told me that the message came through.

"It's a team that gives a show," he said. "When we were playing, we tried to have some fun, and most people started looking at the way Colombia was playing. That's good for our team and good for our country, and I'm very proud to have been part of the World Cup in Brazil."

We can only hope that Valdés and the rest of his countrymen carry that same spirit into the Copa América Centenario in the United States two years from now.

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The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, the National Women's Soccer League, the U.S. men's and women's national teams, and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

Jonathan Tannenwald
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