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Can Philly’s Jim Curtin Right The Ship

Without a doubt, Philadelphia Union Head Coach  Jim Curtin is one of the nicest guys in the MLS.  With that being said, the question is can he turn around a struggling franchise?  From the time the Union entered the MLS under their first coach Peter Nowak, expectations have been high and results have been mediocre at best.  After Nowak, arguably another great guy John Hackworth struggled as well at the helm.

Enter Jim Curtin.  Curtin originally took over for Hackworth who endured the Freddy Andy debacle and a team that truly played uninspired soccer.  Curtin definitely changed the culture and attitude of the squad but the results have been mixed and inconsistent.  Leading into the 2016 campaign, Curtin had the following remarks in his press conference this week prior to the season opener with FC DALLAS….

Note: Questions have been paraphrased.

Opening statement

Just to briefly touch on the preseason, I thought the group put a lot of work in from a physical standpoint, I think we’re at a higher level of fitness. That was the goal going in. We’re happy with where we’re at. We know there’s still another level to go to in terms of fitness over the course of 90 minutes, and how we want to press, how we want to play but happy with the guys, their commitment to keep better possession, something we set forth in the preseason. The results help, too, in providing that belief in the group and there’s a good spirit amongst the guys right now. Happy with where we’re at, had some good results. Most importantly, kept clean sheets in the preseason.

Again, excited to get going. There’s 20 MLS teams right now that think they have something special; that’s the beauty of the start of the season, it’s an exciting time. I believe, and I know the guys in our locker room believe, that this year is going to be different. There’s a lot of exciting things happening at the club, a bit of Union 2.0, so to speak, with the new training facility, the new practice building, and there are a lot of new faces in the locker room. So, anxious to get going. We know we have a tough opponent in FC Dallas, a very well-coached team under Oscar Pareja, a team that has a lot of dynamic, fast players that we’ll have to put a plan in to play against, and we look forward to the challenge.

On Maurice Edu’s injury status

So, he had healed completely from the groin surgery and was in LA — some great doctors out there took care of him in terms of the surgery for his groin. Aggressively approached his rehab — maybe, in hindsight, too aggressively — and there was what’s called a stress reaction. I think people freak out when they hear that; it’s not a broken bone or anything like that, it’s just a warning sign that there’s potential danger [for more on stress reactions, click here]. So, at the moment he has been in and out of a walking boot to try to keep him as immobile as he wants to be — as he can be — he wants to be on the field and is anxious to get going. I think everybody’s frustrated with the situation but, at the same time, we have guys that have stepped in and done a good job. Mo is a leader of our group and a guy who’s been a captain, so we do miss him; that’s obvious, his skills speak for themselves. But the game kind of doesn’t wait for anybody; you know, we can’t hold off the opener to get him ready. So, it’s not looking likely that he’ll be participating in that but other people will be called, it’s the next man up mentality, and we’ll have to have someone step in and perform.

On Tranquillo Barnetta’s injury status

Tranquillo had an injection in his knee just to try to loosen some things up there in the knee. It’s not a new injury or anything like that, it’s a situation where he had some tendonitis, some soreness in there from old, past surgeries. So, we’ll monitor that and be smart. I had a good discussion with him; maybe as recently as last season we’d be almost forcing him back, maybe too prematurely, but we do feel we have more depth this year, and it’s a credit to the rest of the guys in the team we don’t feel the need to rush guys forward. Obviously, he’s a very important player, a top player in our group but, at the same time, we want to be smart in how we handle injuries.

How do you fill the void of two players who have worn the captain’s armband not being involved in practices?

It’s hard, they’re two leaders in our group. To their credit, they’ve both in their own way done what you can do when you’re not on the field each and everyday with the guys — putting an arm around a young player, doing a little mentoring and helping players as they prepare for some a new league, some the first time they’re playing as professionals. They’re doing their part in that way. They both want to be on the field. We want them on the field; that’s when we’re at our best and we know that as a club and as a team. But the reality is that we have to prepare for a very good FC Dallas team, a top team in our league and MLS Cup contender, and we could possibly be doing it without two of our top guys.

What’s the game plan for guys like Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz?

Hope they don’t get on the ball, hope they don’t play in the game I guess would be the first part [chuckles]. Those guys are incredibly talented. Castillo one-v-one is a top player in our league, has the ability with speed to go by anyone and get to the end line. We’ve worked very hard on how we recover to the front of goal, particularly our center backs because at the end of the day during the course of 90 minutes he’s going to get to the end line a couple of times. That’s something we’ll do our best to prevent but in the case that he does we want to make sure our guys are prepared as best as possible. Mauro Diaz is a very talented player who can play the final pass, can get a goal from midfield; have to be very careful not to foul in and around our box because he has some of the top service in our league. You know, again, guys that are top players in our league, we’ll have to prepare for them. The message is that it is a team effort, it’s not a one-v-one matchup, it’s not an outside backs versus Fabian Castillo, it’s our whole team being bought-in to the style and the way we want to play, and all pressing together so our forwards and midfielders and defenders being on the same page, being nice and compact and not giving those talented players time and space.

On confidence going into Sunday

The preseason has been different, a lot of new faces, a lot of new methodology in terms of our performance department coming in and doing a really good job getting guys in better shape this time around. I would say, yeah, there’s lots of changes at the club but I think this change is exciting. I believe that we’re better and we’re further ahead than we were last year. I think we have more depth at each position. You know, Earnie’s talked about all along getting two guys at each spot; I think we’ve done that. We have young players on the field in this preseason, inexperienced players on the field this preseason, but I would also add they’ve held up against some of the top attackers in our league. As recently as our last game against Toronto — yes, Keegan Rosenberry’s out there, yes, Ken Tribbett’s out there, and they’re playing against Giovinco, they’re doing well, they’re holding up. Again, I’m not naive and gonna say it’s going to be an easy transition for them to just jump right in in Week One in Dallas and perform, but they’ve shown that they belong, they did it over the entire course of the preseason. Yes, missing a couple of key guys could hurt us but, at the same time, I believe in the group. We’re not scared. That’s the good thing sometimes with youth, they don’t know any better so there’s no fear factor. That’s a good thing so we use that to our advantage. Hopefully we can use the fact that Dallas is the team at home — and the favorite, to be honest — in the game so you can find ways to use that to your advantage.

On Toyota Stadium being a tough place to play

The funniest was actually, we were at a pro license coaching course for US Soccer this past offseason and the one thing that everyone brought up to Oscar during one of our meals was there’s a guy that sits behind the bench and he blows one of those vuvuzelas, and his timing is impeccable: The second you stand up for a second to try to relay any message to any player the thing is in your ear and it’s deafening. And it’s to the point where you almost have to just turn and smile to the guy because you literally cannot communicate on the field solely because of him as an individual. So, it’s a hostile environment, they have a good fan base, they have a good team. And like most teams in MLS are better at home than on the road so we know we have a tough task. We respect our opponent but, at the same time, we don’t fear them. We have to go in there with the mindset of executing. The big thing we stressed all preseason — and, again, we’re not stealing a Bill Belichick line — but just do your job, and stick to that. From there, if everybody collectively does their job, the team can beat teams that have superstars.

On Dallas being dynamic and being a measuring stick for how far the Union defense has come

Yeah, I think that’s fair. They’re a a team that’s dynamic, they have interchange, they’re one of the best attacking teams in our league. It’s no secret we need to improve our defense. I think we did that in the offseason to the back four, but also it needs to be said that defending starts with the forward line, and we have a real commitment now from all of our guys on the field to defend from our forwards to our midfield to our backs. So, strengthening that, getting that foundation there, the starting points are good right now. It will be a measuring stick against an FC Dallas, for sure.

Oscar has his group, too. They do attack and they do have young players on the field, but Oscar, for those who don’t know, was one of the top defensive midfielders in our league and he’s a defensive-minded guy, as well. So, it will be a tough task: They defend well, they attack well, and I’m looking forward to a good match.

How far along are you in terms of knowing what your starting XI is? Are spots still up for grabs?

There’s always discussions. Every morning we talk about the starting XI, the 18, all the different variables that go into it, so we’re pretty clear on…Maybe there’s two spots left where there’s still discussions about but, again, happy with the group and it’s important for the guys that are going into the game against Dallas on Sunday, our first MLS game, that they have a clear frame of mind of who’s going to be on the field, who’s going to be traveling with the group. So, we’ll make those choices; I’m not going to reveal them right now.

The addition of new Sporting Director Ernie Stewart and and ownership group who wants results now make it imperative that Curtin gets off to a good start this season…We’re pulling for you Jim. Let’s see the Union live up to the expectations that majority owner Jay Sugarman has placed on the you and the entire club this season.

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