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A few minutes with newly-promoted Philadelphia Union assistant coach Jim Curtin

If you have not seen Jim Curtin before, rest assured that he will be very hard to miss on the Union's bench. Just look for the tall guy with the curly mop of reddish-blond hair.

A few minutes with newly-promoted Philadelphia Union assistant coach Jim Curtin

Jim Curtin during his playing days with the Chicago Fire. (Nam Y. Huh/AP file photo)
Jim Curtin during his playing days with the Chicago Fire. (Nam Y. Huh/AP file photo)

If you have not seen Jim Curtin before, rest assured that he will be very hard to miss on the Union's bench. Just look for the tall guy with the curly mop of reddish-blond hair.

Yes, Curtin still has the distinct look which made him immediately recognizable in his playing days with the Chicago Fire. But in recent years, he has stood outside the white lines instead of inside them.

After retiring in 2009, Curtin moved back to the Philadelphia region. In June of 2010, he joined the staff of renowned youth soccer training facility YSC Sports in Wayne, Pa., and became its director of curriculum development.

In 2011, he became the head coach of the Union's under-18 team, and last year he also oversaw the Union's inaugural class of under-14 players.

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Last week, Curtin took another step up the ladder when he officially became one of John Hackworth's assistant coaches with the senior squad. I spent a few minutes chatting with Curtin about his goals for the job, and in particular how the Union hopes to build its player development program.

"I got 10 years' worth of experience in two and a half years" at YSC, Curtin told me.

The Oreland, Pa., native and Villanova product plans to stay connected to the Union's youth teams even as he spends more time at PPL Park.

"Our youth [organization] and our first team have such a good link," he said. "It is something that I see as important and it's something that John Hackworth strongly believes in."

Curtin acknowledged that the Union and the rest of Major League Soccer have a ways to go before clubs are properly developing young talent, in terms of both quality and quantity.

"I don't think there's a team right now that can say they've gotten it completely right," he said. "You look at a lot of the young players that are on Generation Adidas contracts that don't make it at the end of the day."

Generation Adidas players, for those of you don't know, are a select group of elite college players who get selected by MLS teams in the SuperDraft. Their salaries don't count against the cap until they've played a certain amount of minutes.

Among the noteworthy GA players who haven't lived up to expectations is the Union's first ever draft pick, Danny Mwanga. Penn State product Corey Hertzog is another example.

In the last year or so, MLS and its clubs have started to allocate more money toward academies and less money toward the Generation Adidas program. As that process continues, expect to see more homegrown players joining Zach Pfeffer, Jimmy McLaughlin and Cristhian Hernández in the senior ranks.

Curtin has very high expectations for what the Union's youth academy can become.

"If you get the youth academy right and running and you're putting two players into your first team each year, that could be a huge thing," he said. "Think of the farm system of a baseball team – the teams that get it right, they really reap the benefits of it during the regular season."

And he used a phrase that could potentially make some headlines.

"Our goal is for that to be our designated player, so to speak," he said.

Curtin quickly realized how that line might be interpreted.

"I don't want to skew that as saying we're not signing designated players, if the right DP does come along," he said. "I just say it as an example – it can be that valuable. If you get the youth model right, it can become as important as a top designated player."

So how does a MLS team get that youth model right? Well, it probably helps to have someone with MLS experience who can talk to young players and help them develop. And if you're trying to connect with local talent, it probably helps if that someone has local roots.

The Union have all of that in Curtin.

"I said it when I was still playing – if Philadelphia ever got a team it would be something I'd want to be a part of," he said. "I looked up to guys who started on high school teams when I was a kid and these guys get to hear from professionals."

Curtin has shared that experience with fellow Philadelphian Chris Albright, who joined the Union in 2011. Both men enjoyed long and successful careers in MLS, and Albright won 22 caps with the U.S. national team.

And while Curtin admitted that "we don't like to talk about ourselves," they nonetheless enjoy the experience of telling their stories to a new generation of local soccer players.

"As recently as last Tuesday Chris was at a training session with my under-18 boys and we brought up that exact message," Curtin said. "The opportunity to play in front of your hometown fans is a unique one. Embrace it and don't let it slip away. "

The opportunity to coach is something that Curtin has wanted to pursue for quite a while.

"While I played, I always knew I wanted to get into coaching," he said. "So as you're playing, you kind of think of little points, and you take things from other coaches that you like – and perhaps more importantly what you didn't like."

Curtin describes his style as "a lead by example guy… not a yeller and a screamer."

"I think of a guy like Jesse Marsch – he's a guy I played with [in Chicago] and learned a lot from," Curtin said. "He had a coach's mentality, and that's something [former Fire and U.S. national team coach] Bob Bradley instilled in us."

Curtin then spoke of the "philosophy" that he and Hackworth want to install in the Union's academy players.

"We want a style that is possession with a purpose," he said. "Any team can go sideways and backwards, but [Hackworth] wants keeping the ball with a purpose that penetrates a defense and lead to goals. It's really easy to say we want to play like Barcelona, and everyone says that now, [but] it's not realistic."

It is a style to fit the current era of Major League Soccer: skill mixed with speed and athleticism. Curtin admitted, though, that another element of the game has decreased in importance.

"You could have arguments over whether it's smarter," he said. "I don't think there's as many players who could slow the game down as there used to be – [Carlos] Valderrama, [Mauricio] Cienfuegos, [Marco] Etcheverry."

If you've watched MLS for long enough, you know that Curtin named three of the best playmaking midfielders in the league's history.

"The number 10 is kind of gone," he said, though he added that the league as a whole now is "definitely a better product for the fans."

And there's still room for creativity in the midfield. Curtin cited Michael Farfan as the model for the kind of player the Union want to produce.

"He is as good as any playmaker in the league right now," Curtin said. "He just needs a little fine tuning here and there, and he will be on his way to a good career."

Farfan is also a cornerstone of the Union's youth movement. Philadelphia had the youngest team in MLS at the start of the 2012 season, and that was before they traded away Danny Califf and Lionard Pajoy.

Curtin insists that he doesn't look at age when judging players on the senior squad. He cited Farfan and Jack McInerney as players who have been "thrown into the fire and are learning by example."

He even went so far as to predict that Amobi Okugo will make MLS' Best XI in 2013.

"They're years ahead of a normal MLS player that gets drafted, who in my day would have come into the league and taken a couple of year sot get accustomed," Curtin said. "The group is young, but in my mind there's only good and bad. There's no old or young."

And Curtin himself is not so old that he's no longer able to mix it up with the players. He regularly gets onto the field to join training sessions.

"I'm not just telling them what to do, but can also show them a bit on the field," he said. "You see how they think and how they see things. It can be very effective in judging a trialist or a draft pick."

Philadelphia's sports fans are not known for their patience, and the Union have a lot of building to do. For now, the fans who've packed PPL Park for the last three years are just looking for reasons to be optimistic.

"Is it perfect yet? No it's not," Curtin said. "But we have a core group of guys that have bought into John [Hackworth]. It's going to be a process and we're going to get it right, I think, quicker than people think."

That process has already started. We'll find out in March how soon will bear fruit.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
About this blog
The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, U.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.

Reach Jonathan at jtannenwald@phillynews.com or 215-854-2330.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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