Progress Report: Jim Curtin

The Zolos are now several games into Jim Curtin’s interim reign. This is his first managing gig, and time was needed to examine his management ability. With a few games under his belt, how do we rate Curtin?

Honesty

Jim Curtin’s honesty and directness is refreshing for the Union.  He does not pull any punches and admits when the team does not play well. I enjoy hearing him talk as frankly and openly as he can. Can anyone imagine how Piotr Nowak would have handled the team’s public discussion about the Carlos Valdes situation?

On the topic of the original manager, Nowak was infamous for running the organization like the KGB. Information rarely, if ever, was leaked. The offseason ended up as one big game of spot and name the trialist in lieu of any information. Preseason games were blacked out. The cold, quiet months of the MLS offseason under Nowak were a terrible time for Union fans craving any information about this team.

Initially, Hack attempted to loosen this iron grip of secrecy. He wrote emails to the fans expressing his views on recent events and his explanations for his decisions. As time progressed and this team slumped, John noticeably departed from this transparency. Blaming the referee as well as spinning negative results into positives became running jokes amongst the fans. At the same time, hyped up signings were nearly immediately cut (hello, Damani Richards). Hack’s press conferences simply became a farce.

I really do hope the next manager is as transparent as Jim has been. Philly fans want straight answers, not propaganda or pussyfooting.

Starting Lineups

Initially, I was disappointed in Jim’s first few games. Curtin seemed to just keep playing some of the dead weight like Wenger and Hoppenot. I have really come around recently.

1. He just puts people in their position: Hack was a system guy. Rather than adjust his system to the players, the players were expected to adjust to the system. Curtin has made a real effort to put players in their natural spots. Strikers are strikers. Centerbacks are centerbacks. Injuries and suspensions have forced Edu and Williams to play out of position, but that looks to be the exception rather than the norm. At the very least, Amobi is back in midfield!

2. Chaco the #10: Maidana has all the potential to live up to that #10 on his shirt. Under Hack, Maidana was played mostly on the wing when not benched for being a bad parent. With average at best pace, the wide position was a waste of Chaco’s creativity and ability to deliver a pinpoint ball. Curtin moving Chaco to the center of the pitch has really brought the best out of his game. I am drooling at the thought of him and Nogueira in the center of the pitch together delivering balls to Casey and Seba.

Get well soon Chaco.

3. Brian Carroll: Brian has become one of the major whipping boys among Union fans this season. Hack stuck true to starting Brian game in and out. Often, this meant playing three defensive mids with unclear duties. Carroll became the focus of fans’ frustrations with #Hacktics and poor results. Personally, I think he still has a role to play with this team.

Curtin has handled the situation well. Lahoud seemed to start early in his tenure as a way to show Curtin is not Hack. However, Curtin has found appropriate times to play Carroll. Carroll is not a week in, week out starter anymore, but there are certain games where you need his ability to destroy the other team’s attack. At this point in his career, Carroll is just a role-player for this team.

Organization

A change of manager can really make a world of difference. The Union are still a far shout from the most organized and disciplined teams in the league, but there has certainly been improvement.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Union have slowed the leaking of goals. Aside from the Colorado game, the Union have made few of the boneheaded mistakes that had plagued the team at the beginning of the year.  I no longer find myself sick with nerves anytime the team gives up a set piece. Curtin has done well to organize them. More than anything, the backline needs consistency and chemistry. We need to pick our four best defenders and play them week in and week out.

Under Curtin, our attack has really started to find itself. After taking over, Curtin abandoned Hack’s attempts at sideways passes and possession for the sake of possession (staples of #Hacktics). Now, we work the ball forward to Maidana who pushes it out to the wings for Cruz and Seba to run onto. We are not a possession team. We need to hit on the counter and let our attackers run onto the ball. We are at our best when we stretch teams out like we did in New England.

Most of this attacking resurgence is due to Curtin being able to get the best out of Casey. All too often under Hack, the lone striker would find himself up top on an island. If he won the ball, he likely had no one to play it to. Now, Casey is dropping deeper in order to link up the attack. His goal against the Red Bulls came from a smart pass to Ray from outside the 18 who played it right back to him.

All told, we finally seem to have a more organized idea of what we want to do as a team. The Union have abandoned most of the principles of #Hacktics in favor of a more pragmatic approach. The build up from the back to the front finally looks smoother and more fluid. There is certainly more work to do, but we are finally starting to see this team’s potential.

Substitutes

Here is where I am really disappointed with Curtin. I am a self-proclaimed youth guy. I think young players need to see as many minutes as possible. Curtin has mostly used the usual Hack guys as subs. We all know Wenger has very little to offer this team off the bench. Why not try Jimmy McLaughlin out wide off the bench instead? Fred has played well recently, but he is in the twilight of his career. Why not just save him for a Chris Albright role and give Zach Pfeffer his minutes? For a team who claims to emphasize youth development, we do a really shitty job bringing our players into the first team. (I plan on writing an article focusing on this topic soon.)

That being said, I am very happy that Wheeler has taken Hoppenot’s role as a striker off the bench. I have been very disappointed with Hoppenot for a while now. He is a one trick pony that only wants to run on to balls and dive. He hasn’t seemed mentally equipped to keep up with our newly revamped midfield and has just looked out of his depth all year.

In contrast, Wheeler is a guy who has something to offer. Unfortunately for him, fans have soured on Wheeler after Hackworth decided to try  his ridiculous experiment. Still, he is a big, hardworking body at top with some defensive skills. I like having him come off the bench to battle defenders when we need to close a game out.

Where does Jim Curtin stand?

I have been pleasantly surprised by Jim Curtin since he took over. He hasn’t been an immediate revelation that has solved all our problems, but who was expecting that? His ability to simplify the game and roles for his players has really helped this team turn the corner.

Should Jim Curtin be the manager? I am not yet on that boat. I still want to see how this team’s Open Cup run develops. A strong showing will help his case, while crashing out in a poor manner will certainly doom his chances.

I really think more game time is necessary to evaluate Jim. Most teams have a bounce in form after firing their manager. Hack was never able to adapt to other managers once they figured him out. Let’s give Jim a chance to see how he adapts now that teams are becoming more prepared for him. If he truly wants this gig, now is the time for Jim to sink or swim.

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