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What does it really mean to be a soccer coach? The Union's Jim Curtin works to find an answer

Last week, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced that Union manager Jim Curtin had successfully completed the governing body's new Pro License coaching program, becoming part of the first class of coaches to reach this country's newly-created highest standard.

Last week, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced that Union manager Jim Curtin had successfully completed the governing body's new Pro License coaching program, becoming part of the first class of coaches to reach this country's newly-created highest standard.

The Pro License program that is overseen by Netherlands natives Nico Romeijn and Wim van Zwam. They came to America after long tenures overseeing coach licensing programs run by their native country's soccer governing body.

Romeijn was was the Dutch federation's head of education, and also developed the courses in UEFA's coach licensing programs. van Zwam spent 13 years coaching a range of Netherlands youth national teams, and in the last three of those also taught the Dutch federation's coaching courses.

Upon arriving in America late in 2015, the duo built a 12-month course designed to replicate the rigors of the UEFA Pro License, Europe's most prestigious coaching program. UEFA mandates that managers seeking to coach teams in the continent's top competitions must have the license before being hired.

The first U.S. Pro License course ran throughout this year. U.S. Soccer intends to mandate in the future that all coaches seeking head jobs in MLS, the NASL, the USL and NWSL must have completed the program. For now, the license still too new to enforce such a rule right now.

Curtin was one of 13 coaches in the inaugural class. His colleagues included eight current MLS coaches, three U.S. youth national team coaches and two coaches with past experience who are currently out of work:

MLS coaches: Gregg Berhalter (Columbus Crew), Jeff Cassar (Real Salt Lake), Jim Curtin (Union), Jason Kreis (Orlando City), Pablo Mastroeni (Colorado Rapids), Ben Olsen (D.C. United), Oscar Pareja (FC Dallas) Peter Vermes (Sporting Kansas City)

U.S. youth national team coaches: John Hackworth (under-17 men); Omid Namazi (under-18 men); Tab Ramos (under-20 men and U.S. youth national team technical director)

Currently unemployed: Sigi Schmid (former Seattle Sounders head coach), Richie Williams (former U.S. under-17 and under-18 men's head coach)

By American soccer standards - and I know that phrase only means so much to some of you - that is a pretty prestigious group. Their combined resumés add up to four MLS Cups, four Supporters' Shields, eight U.S. Open Cups and 327 U.S. national team caps (plus Pareja's 11 for Colombia).

(Coincidentally, there's a pretty heavy Philly-area influence in that group. In addition to Curtin, there's Harrisburg-born Olsen; Delran-born Vermes; former Union coach Hackworth; and former Kixx stalwart Namazi.)

Five of the men - Berhalter, Kreis, Pareja, Vermes and Ramos - are legitimate candidates to succeed current U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena when he steps down from the position after the 2018 World Cup.

This is some pretty good company for Curtin to keep. He is the first to admit that for as far as he has come already in his short managerial career, he still has much to learn. The Pro License course certainly helped.

At least, in theory.

Because here's the thing. What does having a coaching license actually mean? How much smarter does having that piece of paper in your hand make you? How many more passes does your team complete, and how many fewer goals does your team concede, because of it?

Many people in the American soccer community try to disqualify you from saying a word about the sport if you haven't played it, coached it, or sometimes both. But as any sport becomes more popular, it inevitably attracts fans and observers who haven't been lifelong members of high society.

So in addition to asking Curtin what the U.S. Pro License course involved, I asked him what goes into a coaching philosophy and how it can have an impact on players. He gave some deep, thoughtful and transparent answers.

What did the Pro License course entail?

Nico Romeijn and Wim van Zwam, they've been given the task to up the game for coaches in the United States... We did a week in Orlando as kind of an introduction, with some great guest speakers. It was followed up by a site visit where they came and visited us [at each coach's workplace].

In Philadelphia, they watched how we trained on the field for a week, in preparation for a game, and they stayed for that game. There was also a Copa América break where we met in Chicago and broke down some games from the Copa América over four or five days.

That was followed up by another site visit - hopefully we had learned something in our reflection and feedback that we had been given. Then, from there, a final meeting in Chicago with an assessment of a final project.

During the course of it, and in those weeklong [group] meetings, there were several guest speakers. We got to talk to David Moyes, who shows up in person and talks to us about the trials of going from Everton to Manchester United to Spain, and what that entails. We got to talk to Bob Bradley, who spoke to us about the different challenges he has as a coach. We had Harvard [Business School] professors coming in and doing case studies on leadership and building culture.

The speakers that they brought in were incredible. Probably 15 to 20 of them... They came in and they really brought it to a group that's pretty tough to impress. They did a heck of a job...

Overall, it was much more extensive than the previous U.S. license, which was intense, but it was intense for seven days.

[The U.S. Soccer A License was the previous highest level attainable.]

The difference between the B license to the A license was you would go away to Florida for a week. It would be intense for a week, but it would be done. This is a year of being assessed. You're being analyzed on the field, off the field, in a classroom environment in a lot of cases too. How you manage and how you lead your group and little things you can do.

A lot of the value from it comes when you're sitting in discussions with Peter Vermes and Sigi Schmid and Gregg Berhalter, and they're talking about the different challenges they all face. You realize it's a lot of the same challenges I face.

It's a lot of common bonds, a lot of sharing of information. An incredible amount of sharing, to be honest. There was a moment in the course, the first second in Orlando, where Jason Kreis raised his hand and goes, "Are we really all doing this? We're all really going to be this open to sharing our experiences and how we go about our business?"

It did take some time to get the barriers down, but after those first two or three days, everyone had trust. The openness and the sharing was incredible - especially for me, the youngest guy in the room, asking a lot of questions over dinner, over a beer, exchanging stories and strategies...

I know it improved me as a coach, and it made me eager to try some new things and get started. But within all that, taking ideas, and still recognizing that you have to be authentic to the coach that you are. Because your players will sniff it out if all of a sudden I try to become Peter Vermes, or if I try to become Ben Olsen, or if I try to become Pablo Mastroeni. They'll sniff that out pretty quick, because it won't be real.

Was everyone in the course taught the same things, or was instruction tailored to each coach's situation? Coaching a youth national team is quite different from coaching a MLS club's senior squad.

Completely different, yeah. The one re-occurring theme that came up throughout, whether it was the leader speaking or David Moyes or Bob Bradley, was just remaining authentic to your coaching style. The messages for John were completely different than they were for a Peter Vermes because he's going through different things.

I would say it was catered to each individual, but within that, we did have a lot of discussion on how do you attack a 4-3-3, what's the best way to go at a team that plays three in the back. Some themes maybe applied to everyone, but I would say they dialed it down to each individual and what they deemed their strengths and weaknesses as a coach. They gave really strong, but fair, feedback on all those things.

You said you had a final project. What was it?

Mine was a broad one. You think back, and Earnie [Stewart], in his first nine months, came into the club at a time where there was a lot of change going on. My final project was growing a true identity and culture at the Philadelphia Union. A heck of a lot of topics to cover there. We talked about the work that we've done, things that we've done really well, things that we can improve on.

Some [other coaches' final projects] were as specific as using the Catapult [player] tracking system in a training session. Mine was a little broader, because I felt that at the time, what our club has gone through, and the drastic change that we've had, I thought that it was appropriate. And I got very good feedback on it.

What is a "culture"? It's such a broad term, and people think they know it when they see it, but it isn't always truly defined.

The word "culture" gets thrown around very loosely today in sports. Obviously, you need some balance of culture, you need talent, obviously, and you need a scheme. Every club or business at any level puts more emphasis on each part. Sure, you can just go straight talent and you can be pretty successful. I believe in trying to grow a culture...

You have to do the right things at all times when nobody is watching. I think that is a powerful message. Sure, there's other things involved in culture on the field that are important - how we press, how we play together, and how we attack different things...

I want us to be a team that when people think of the Philadelphia Union, something pops into their head. Whether they like it, whether they don't, it's clear what it is.

I use the Starbucks example. If you have a cup of coffee, whether you like Starbucks coffee or not, it tastes the exact same in Seattle as it does in China. That coffee is the same. Does Starbucks branch off and try crazy things sometimes that don't work? Yeah. But they still have that foundation that their cup of coffee tastes the same no matter where you get it, and you know exactly what you're getting.

[The emphasis on the following paragraph is mine, because it's the part of the conversation that stood out the most to me. I suspect it will stand out for many of you too.]

And what is that for the Philadelphia Union? I want us to be known as a club that develops players for the United States national team. That sounds obvious, but I think we are a unique team in that regard.

I think others have their eyes set on bringing in the DPs and the elite players. I want players to come through the Philadelphia Union and play for the United States national team. Because at the end of the day, this country and this game will only grow if our national team is great. Not good, great.

You can bring over a [Andrea] Pirlo, you can bring over a [Frank] Lampard, and yeah, maybe 30,000 more people might watch a game. But it's only going to really move from a sport where seven to eight million people are watching our national team play, if our national team is good. I'm truly a believer in that. I think we're a club that believes in that strategy.

And it needs to be said, too, that winning is at the front of it. That's understood that we're a pro team, and we know we need to win first and foremost. But along with that, developing players for the United States national team.

What makes me happy the most is to now see Keegan Rosenberry get called in [to the U.S.' upcoming training camp in January], to see [Alejandro] Bedoya get called in, to see Chris Pontius resurrect his career and get called in - from a goal that we set at the beginning of the year. That's special to me.

To see Derrick Jones get called into the under-20s with Auston Trusty, and know that we have those young kids coming up, driving the engine for us, is powerful. Our staff has done a great job, Earnie has done a great job, of shifting that culture.

And again, we do want to win games, obviously, as well.

You talked about the balance between culture, scheme and talent. I know you are an Eagles fan, and I know you know about Chip Kelly's famous remark in 2014 that in the NFL, "culture will beat scheme every day." While that doesn't specifically account for talent - as you and every other Eagles fan know all too well - do you think the debate applies to soccer?

Yeah, I'm not a believer... [he pauses]

Every club is going to put a different emphasis on each one. With the financial restrictions of our league, with financial restrictions at different clubs, you have to adjust accordingly. I am not a believer that you can just ignore talent and culture beats talent. I don't believe that at all. So, yeah, don't put me in the Chip category. You need good players to win games.

You knew I had to ask.

Oh, it's fair. I could talk to you about Chip and the good things that he does, and the things that were maybe not so much. You could get into his scheme - it worked [at Oregon] because he had a 100-player roster. Then when you go to the NFL, you've got a 50-man roster. So it's a little different when you're running these guys into the ground, and you have to have their respect.

It is more of an emphasis on: yes, culture is incredibly important, we believe in that being powerful, but you need good players to win games. I understand that. Then the scheme can hopefully, when it's two even teams out there, maybe you can do something that you pull off, whether it's a set play or a little strategy and adjustment.

There's different things, and an emphasis on each one. But keep me out of the Chip Kelly discussions. I'm not a Chip guy. He went too extreme. If you go too extreme, especially going from dealing with college kids to dealing with men who get a paycheck, you had better be aware of your surroundings. You can't just dismiss the talented guys, that's for sure.

What was it like to pick the brain of Oscar Pareja during the course? He's one of the hottest coaching names in American soccer right now, having won this year's Supporters' Shield and Open Cup with a Dallas team built on academy prospects. It's a model that many fans around MLS wish their teams could replicate.

But how possible is it really? The youth soccer demographics in north Texas aren't the same as they are in Philadelphia and other parts of the country.

The kids are different. Obviously there's a very heavy Latino influence that he has down in Dallas. I think our philosophies are similar. We talked a lot [during the coaching course] and naturally, I gravitated toward him because we're kind of doing it in a similar manner. A strong academy, not the highest-spending team, believing in playing young players. There are a lot of things that we share.

He's been doing it for longer than me. Their academy has been there a lot longer as well. The one thing he kept stressing is that as tough as it is in pro sports, because we're judged on results, there is an element of patience you have to have as a coach, and trust, and taking risks to put young players on the field. He's an incredible coach [with] incredible stories he had from back in Colombia, the differences he grew up with compared to the differences now.

He does still face problems with good Mexican teams and good teams overseas coming and plucking a lot of his talent from the academy. That's also a big-picture thing that MLS has to get right. These assets - for lack of a better word - that we're investing a lot in, and bringing up through our academies. and raising, there's still no mechanism to guarantee that we keep them there. That's something that a lot of lawyers and other people are fighting [about], to find a way to keep the talent here...

Oscar was one of the people in the room who, when he spoke, everybody in the room was very focused and asked a lot of questions. The area where he's coaching now is unique, and he's done it in a different way than most and has had incredible success. He was deservedly the Coach of the Year.

Jurgen Klinsmann was one of the speakers during the year, while he was still the U.S. national team head coach and technical director. What did he have to say to you all? His opinions of American soccer player development were well-known, and often not complimentary.

His opinions are strong. First and foremost, you have to respect where he's been as a player as a coach. An incredible man, a very respectful man, but also, again, strong opinions. We are moving the ball in the right direction, but we are still way behind where we need to be.

I think, in his defense, sometimes maybe not [having] complete control of the language led to, maybe, comments that came off a little stronger than they were maybe intended, in terms of U.S. soccer fans' knowledge. Sometimes, when I would read them, I would go, "Ooh, that's going to ruffle some feathers." There was a little bit of a challenge in that.

I think some of the things that he says are intended to move the game forward and push things forward, but I think they got maybe twisted sometimes, and misinterpreted, and did more harm than good. Especially to him in particular. But again, he's still a guy that moved things forward, I believe, and had a lot of different innovation.

There's always going to be critics, but at the same time, it's not an easy job to coach the U.S. national team. It's a big country, where the game is growing at a very rapid rate, but we're still looking to develop literally that first world-class player that does it on the big stage.

He continued to stress that it does take time, but at the same time, in a country as big as ours, we need to get it right a little quicker than we have, to be honest.

Was he more cordial with the group of coaches in that room than he was at times when in front of a microphone?

I would imagine so. I think when the seat gets a little hot and he's dealing with different questions, maybe there's a little more comfort with us in the room. [Our meeting] was at a mid-season point when they had played a strong Copa América.

Yeah, it was different. A couple results don't go your way and the seat gets a little warmer, and then it gets hot, and then it gets to accusations, and some players back him and some don't, and the next thing you know it's snowballing to the point where it's impossible to stop. Those are tough challenges that every coach goes through, ones you want to avoid.

A lot of our course was based on that. David Moyes talked about it, Sigi Schmid talked about it. You learn, because you don't recognize them when you're in them, but to hear these guys talk now, as a young coach, you try to pick up where there were breakdowns.

It all goes to communication, always. You can talk about leadership and culture and these kinds of things, but it still comes down to the most simple thing: communication. Having open lines to your owner, your general manager, your technical director. That's where it starts to break down.

What is an act of coaching, in your view? Or is coaching not an act in that way? As those of us on the outside try to figure out what "intangibles" are, are there tangible things that you see, or is it more of a hands-off thing?

The biggest takeaway I've had from this course is all these [speakers] in positions of power - a lot of them were business examples, a lot of them were soccer examples - they all have this relentless pursuit of self-improvement. They're always trying to get better. I think by doing the course, I did a little bit of that.

It is moving a little bit more to almost where you're more the manager and less the coach. As the money increases in our game, and as it increases all over the world, everyone can play. But can you now manage the egos, and keep everyone confident, and keep them going?

I don't want to say it's becoming less X's and O's, because that's still a huge part of our game, but I'd say the most important thing now is man-management. Putting your best players in their best positions to succeed. Finding the opponents' weaknesses and attacking them.

You look across other sports, at the NBA, the NFL, and now it has crept into soccer. It's important what I say before the game, and the week of training is obviously the most important. The game becomes the part where, as a coach, you just sit and you see your work and how it plays out. You make an adjustment here or there, you make a tweak at halftime.

It's a real challenge, getting a team ready. And I think it has shifted. I actually think you're starting to see soccer [change]. Traditionally there's only been one coach and an assistant, maybe two assistants. I think you're going to start to see - and I've seen it already in our league and in the world - it's going to get specialized.

Yes, there's the head coach, but there will be the offensive coordinator, the defensive coordinator, being as specific as the strikers coach, the outside backs coach. It's going to start to move that way, because they all need feedback, they all need to feel part of it. The best way to do that is more bodies. You see that in the NFL, where it seems that there are more coaches than there are players sometimes. In the NBA, the same thing: there's 40 guys sitting there in suits doing analytics, and all the data that goes into it.

It's evolving, it's getting better. It is still about teaching. There are teachers. But at the same time, at the pro level, with the Pro License, I think it's a little less of that and more about how you lead.

Lastly, one question on a different, but also important, subject. Any news on the offseason shopping front?

We're looking for a striker right now, obviously, and an experienced centerback to teach our current guys on the field.

The Twitter handle above is for my general news reporting. My soccer handle is @thegoalkeeper. Contact me there for any questions about this post.