Jim Curtin puts burden on himself to play Union's academy products more

MLS Orlando City Union Soccer
Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin is seen in action during an MLS soccer match against Orlando City, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, in Chester, Pa. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)

On multiple occasions during the 2017 season, Union manager Jim Curtin asserted that he wants to be known as a coach who gives young players serious playing time.

And on multiple occasions, his actions were the opposite.

Believe it or not, he knows this.

As Curtin heads into the winter, he is putting the burden squarely on himself to turn his words into deeds in 2018.

“I recognize my role within the club, and it’s to move it forward,” he said in a recent interview.

He specifically cited center back Auston Trusty and midfielder Derrick Jones as case studies.

“A Trusty and a Jones, they’re close, man,” Curtin said. “It’s not far off that we’re going to hand the keys to an Auston and say, ‘It’s your job.’ It’s getting closer to that.”

It isn’t fully Curtin’s fault that those players aren’t “there” yet. Player development in soccer is as much the responsibility of the player as it is the coach, and arguably more.

Curtin did not use the word patience. He knows not to do that to his hometown, having been (and still being) a fan of the other local teams.

“You want to provide something that they can see and relate to that is getting better and moving, and sometimes that’s hard to see when the philosophy is young players, and our academy is still 10 years younger than the Red Bulls’ and FC Dallas’ [that] have started to bear fruit,” he said. “Ours is close.”

The Union’s academy has borne fruit, too. In addition to Jones and Trusty, playmaking midfielder Anthony Fontana signed a deal to join the senior team at the start of 2018. Left back Matthew Real could be next after a strong year at Bethlehem Steel.

How does one judge whether players on the cusp have proven they can do it at a higher level?

Curtin used Trusty as an example, highlighting his performances at Bethlehem.

“The year that he had, where he gets 34 games [in the USL], that checked a box for us where he succeeded,” he said. “People don’t see it as a successful year for him because he didn’t start for the first team, but internally — Earnie, myself, Richie Graham [who runs and bankrolls the academy] — we see it as a year where he has moved forward.”

He continued with some words he knew would make headlines.

“Now the action has to be shown from the head coach that he’s playing minutes with the first team,” he said. “That’s something we can talk about, and the fans can get mad at me. Now I have to show them, and actions speak louder than words. It’s up to me to decide when that moment is, and I would say this is a very big preseason for him, going into it, and the games he’s going to get against MLS competition going into the season will decide whether he’s starting for us on Opening Day. That’s the ultimate goal I have.”

Curtin would also like to see more from Fontana.

“Anthony is a guy who is a little bit behind Auston’s trajectory, but showed he can play and impact USL games,” Curtin said. “Now the next step is to have a strong off-season, to have a really good preseason with the group, and the next thing you know, you find yourself starting in these games.”

Fontana has gotten a lot of hype. Curtin is “cautious.” But not too cautious.

“Anthony has a unique skill set: he can score goals from midfield,” he said. “Look at our league; you kill for guys like that. … He has that kind of quality. We’re cautious, a little bit, because we don’t want throw out too big comparisons. But he has the ability to get goals from midfield, and that’s something we really value.”

What about Adam Najem, a young playmaker whom many observers expected to get more playing time than he did?

“Adam showed glimpses, and had a couple chances with the first team,” Curtin said. “A positive year for him, but you do recognize you want more. And we’ll see that, hopefully, in the preseason.”

The conversation turned to what expectations should be. Curtin first addressed the academy. He knows it better than almost anyone, having helped launch it before joining the senior team’s coaching staff in 2012.

“The goal of the youth academy is to find the next [Christian] Pulisic, the next [Clint] Dempsey, the next Landon Donovan,” Curtin said. “However, within that, if it can produce 10 pros with 15-year careers, that is so powerful for our roster, the way that our league has restrictions with salaries, composition, and how many supplemental and first-team roster spots you get.”

He knows those kinds of players “might not be as sexy as what Christian is doing right now in the Bundesliga as an attacking player.” But a player who can sustain a long career in MLS — or perhaps be sold on to Europe — still has plenty of value.

Then Curtin turned to himself. As a player, he made the playoffs in seven of his eight years with the Chicago Fire, and in both of his seasons with now-defunct Chivas USA.

His current team’s lack of consistency frustrates him.

“I’ve come from clubs that have been winners,” he said. “We’ve won, and it was natural that you just thought, ‘No matter what, we’re going to be playing when the games really matter.’ And trying to get that into our culture is tough.”

Curtin is helped in that task by veterans such as Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya.

“The year Haris had was a really good year, an incredible year,” Curtin said. “If we can get that kind of production again? Can Ale take even a bigger step next year? Can our experienced guys, can C.J. take a step up? Can our young guys now come in to the team and contribute? Can we be in the playoffs? And then we know from there the ultimate goal is to win MLS Cup. But …”

He paused.

Was he about to say something he might regret later?

He caught himself in time.

“Get ourselves a home game. That’s probably the next step for the club,” he said. “To host a home playoff game would be the first time we’ve done that in this new MLS, this new way things are done.”

The Union haven’t had a home playoff game since 2011. Six years is an eternity in MLS.

“To host a home playoff game and to win a damn playoff game,” he concluded. “That’s probably the next step.”

For now, the wait continues.