Jim Curtin was defeated but remained in command of both his wits and his team. He was an interim coach in name only.
His Philadelphia Union had been outlasted by the visiting Seattle Sounders 3-1 in an epic U.S. Open Cup final that likely was the biggest match in club history. The Union had taken the lead and played well against a deeper, more talented squad that leads the MLS standings. The crowd at PPL Park was raucous. And the sting was palpable as Curtin gathered his players shortly after the final whistle.
“I just told them to do the right thing and stay out here. I didn’t want to be one of those teams that just does the old get-your-medal-and-leave or, even worse, leave before you get your medal,” Curtin said during his postgame press conference. “Just to be respectful of the fact that it was a good game -- Seattle is the champion -- and to do things the right way. They all probably would’ve done it anyway because they’re bought in, but that’s the way it went.”
They did do things the right way. The Union players clearly have bought in and club CEO Nick Sakiewicz has noticed. Curtin remains the “Interim Team Manager” according to Philadelphia’s website, but Sakiewicz said Friday that the job is Curtin’s “to keep.”
Sakiewicz told SI.com, “Everybody else calls him ‘interim.' He’s our first team coach. He’s not going anywhere. He’s in the job right now. It doesn’t mean I might not do a reorganization down the line, or add on pieces to it. But Jim Curtin is not going anywhere.”
Curtin, 35, ended his playing career after the 2009 season and was a Union assistant when John Hackworth was fired in early June. Curtin took the reins at his hometown club and led Philadelphia on a 9-2-5 surge that resulted in a place in Tuesday’s final and a decent shot at an MLS playoff berth.
He got just about everything right against the Sounders. Philly’s team shape was solid and Andrew Wenger, Sebastien Le Toux and Conor Casey caused plenty of problems on the counter. The Sounders were pushed to the limit and in the end, both teams had a chance to win. The Union’s golden, trophy-clinching opportunity fell to Pedro Ribeiro, a rookie reserve earning the league minimum. Seattle’s fell to Clint Dempsey.
“They’re stacked. They’re a handful,” Curtin said of Seattle. “I’ve never been proud of anything in my life that ended in a loss before. This is the first time …. I’ve never been a ‘proud of the loss’ type of guy. I’m the most competitive guy in the room. But on the other side, as a coach for the first time, to go through something like that, I at least understand what coaches say now when they say they’re proud of their group.”
Sakiewicz said he was as impressed by how his manager handled the defeat as he was by the performance. Curtin is growing quickly into the job.
“They are a classy group of guys. It’s an awesome locker room and they’re a reflection of the leadership of this club. We didn’t lose. We won the silver medal, and I’m very proud of that,” Sakiewicz said. “I never announced he’s our interim coach. He’s taking care of the team and he’s doing a fine job of it. I don’t know if I’m going to re-engage the coaching search. That’s an honest answer. I don’t have to make any decision. Everybody wants me to make a decision. What decision should I make? He’s our coach.”
Sakiewicz acknowledged that he’s spoken with potential full-time coaching candidates. He felt obliged to do after cutting ties with Hackworth, another one-time Union assistant who earned the gig full-time after a strong interim start. The most intriguing interview was with René Meulensteen, a Dutchman who spent a decade working with Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and then managed Fulham.
Meulensteen was in Philadelphia to meet Sakiewicz in July. The Union has become more ambitious recently, signing the likes of Maurice Edu and Argentine playmaker Cristian Maidana while investing in upgraded training facilities. A new coach like Meulensteen would continue that trajectory.
“I know all the candidates that have been in here and there are a lot of good ones,” Curtin told SI.com last week. “I’m not going to be a guy that’s going to self promote. I’m not going to talk negatively about the other candidates. I’ve kept my mouth shut. The good news is that Nick and I have a good relationship. We have open dialogue. He assured me that me and members of my staff will be a part of things long term.”
Curtin’s comfort and command are increasing. He said he was nervous at first and well aware that he lacked experience. He leaned on his Union colleagues and sought advice from other young MLS coaches, including D.C. United’s Ben Olsen, a fellow Pennsylvanian.
“I don’t pretend to have all the answers yet, by any means," Curtin said. "I’m a young coach. I’m eager to learn and I want to push myself and be the best. I’ve learned coaching is a heck of a lot harder than playing."
Sakiewicz has suspended his search. Curtin is the only one interviewing now, and Tuesday’s loss hardly damaged his candidacy. If anything, the performance and the way Curtin conducted himself afterward may have helped it. On Friday, with an Eastern Conference showdown with the Houston Dynamo beckoning, Sakiewicz sounded convinced his club is on the right track.
“I know Jim Curtin’s our coach and is going to remain our coach until I decide it’s necessary to make a change. But it’s not necessary to make any change right now. Jim and I had a chuckle after I made the coaching change [with Hackworth] and he said, ‘Yeah, they all ask about how I feel about being interim. Isn’t every coach 'interim?’ It’s true,” he said.
“If anyone wants me to do something with this team, they’ve got to convince me I should do it,” he continued. “Jim Curtin is my manager and I’m happy letting him do what he’s doing and I’m going to support him 100 percent. If anyone thinks differently, they’ve got to convince me of it.”