Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly roots run deep for Union's top technical staffers

Jim Curtin, Chris Albright know how demanding Philly fans are, and offer that same passion running the Union.

Union general manager Chris Albright (left) and coach Jim Curtain. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)
Union general manager Chris Albright (left) and coach Jim Curtain. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)Read more

IF THERE IS one thing that won't surprise Union head coach Jim Curtin and technical director/assistant coach Chris Albright, it will be the high expectations placed on them by the team's fan base.

Not too long ago, Curtin and Albright were on the other side of the fence, demanding commitments of excellence from the management of the Eagles, Flyers, Phillies and Sixers.

Curtin is from Oreland and in 2001 became the first Villanova player taken in the Major League Soccer draft, by the Chicago Fire. Albright is a Penn Charter graduate who was born and raised in Philadelphia. They were raised as Philly sports guys and have gone through the ups and many downs in the city's pursuit of championships.

Were it not for their position with the Union, Curtin and Albright might be two of the loudest voices telling the team to get it together.

But because of their positions, the pair who grew up together in the youth soccer programs around Philadelphia have an opportunity for which other area fans have long dreamed.

With the Union having opened training camp for its sixth season yesterday, Curtin, 35, and Albright, 36, have the task of moving the franchise to the next level.

The honeymoon is over. After five seasons, the Union is no longer an MLS expansion franchise. The team missed the playoffs the previous two seasons and has only one postseason appearance on its resume.

In 2014, what was expected to be a playoff team finished 10-12-12, with 42 points.

This is Philadelphia, and Curtin and Albright know that more will be demanded.

"The town is tough," said Curtin, who took over from John Hackworth as interim manager last June and then got the job full time in November. "It's an honest town. More so than any other city, even New York, you have to earn your respect in Philadelphia.

"Nobody cares what you say you can do. They want results. We'll have to own up to that and produce."

When Curtin took over for Hackworth in the middle of last season, few believed Union CEO and operating partner Nick Sakiewicz when he said the young interim staff of Curtin, Albright and assistant coach Mike Sorber would have a chance to earn the job.

Several big-name managers from Europe were rumored to have the inside track on the job.

But while the Union missed the playoffs, the team's play improved under Curtin.

Curtin led the Union to its first appearance in the final of the U.S. Open Cup, where it lost in an extra session, 3-1, to Seattle Sounders FC, which won the MLS Supporters Shield for having the best regular-season record.

Still, going into 2015, the question remains the same: Why should Union fans believe this staff can put the club over the top?

Sure, Curtin and Albright are from the area. It is nice that among Curtin, Albright and Sorber, the staff has 27 years of MLS playing experience.

But why should fans believe?

"We understand that just because we played, that does not give us equity in the positions we have now," said Albright, an All-American at Virginia who won three MLS Cups in 14 seasons. "We get that.

"We're ready to prove to everyone that we are in these roles for a reason and can be successful. This is a big responsibility and it is one that we do not take lightly."

Building an MLS champion has been done in a variety of ways. A team such as the Los Angeles Galaxy has used its financial clout to pay big contracts to "designated players" and won three of the last four MLS Cups.

But franchises with similar financial power, such as Seattle, Portland, Toronto and the New York Red Bulls, have not.

The 2015 expansion franchises - New York City FC and Orlando City SC - already have shown their cards by signing big-ticket players. Spanish international player David Villa and English legend Frank Lampard will play in the Big Apple. Kaka, the Brazilian who was the 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year, will be in Mickey Mouseville.

The Union simply does not have deep pockets like that. It cannot simply replace a Landon Donovan by spending $6 million on Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard, as the LA Galaxy can.

That makes things trickier for Curtin and Albright. But as Real Salt Lake, Colorado Rapids, Columbus Crew and FC Dallas have shown, big money is not the only path to the MLS Cup.

"Yes, there are smaller margins for error when you can't just go out and spend $90 million in a week," Albright said. "But we take that on as a challenge."

Curtin said the fact that MLS has a playoff system to crown its champion, instead of doing it solely based on regular-season standings, helps level the championship competition.

"To our fans, I would say that if you look at the [English Premier League], only two or three teams can realistically win that league at the moment," Curtin said. "A team like West Ham United is mid-table, will always be mid-table and never win the Premiership.

"By comparison, we can be midtable, get into the playoffs and we can win the trophy. That's kind of the difference. The playoff structure provides a chance for the other guy. We're the other guy in some ways, but we can still punch above our weight."

Curtin and Albright said they like the Union's core unit, but knowing when is the right time to make a bold move can be the difference between winning silverware and getting nothing.

"We're charged with finding a way to perennially contend," Curtin said. "I think we can put together a team that can contend during the regular season and put us in a good position in the playoffs to take that shot.

"You get a core group of players and you still sprinkle in a piece of the special, the difference-maker, the goal-scorer type guy."

When you pay enough attention to college basketball, you inevitably hear about a Philadelphia style of player. Albright and Curtin said there is also a Philadelphia style of soccer, and that is something they want to instill in the Union locker room.

"If you look at the career of guys who came up through Philadelphia soccer, we made careers off of being dependable," said Albright, who has 22 caps for the U.S. National Team and was a member of the 2006 World Cup squad.

"We may not have always been the best players on our teams, but you knew what you were going to get from us - effort. It was just a given that we were going to give everything we had, because we knew we had to.

"In our roles now, we are in a very similar space. We know we are not the big-spending team, so we have to work that much harder to become relevant and stay competitive."

Union fans can look to rival D.C. United for hope. United manager Ben Olsen likely crossed paths with Curtin and Albright when he played for FC Delco, a top-flight youth organization.

In his first full season with United in 2011, Olsen, who does not have huge finances to work with, finished 13th overall in MLS. The next season, D.C. finished third.

In 2013, despite a poor MLS season, D.C. United won the U.S. Open Cup, and last year posted the best record in the Eastern Conference.

"Absolutely, there is a Philadelphia type, and we try to find guys who have that same mentality and personality," Albright said. "That's how we played the game, and that's how we do our jobs now."

At some point during their years playing together and against each other in youth soccer leagues around Philadelphia, Curtin and Albright might have dreamed of playing professionally together on a Philadelphia-based soccer team.

But who are the kids who say, "When we grow up, let's run the local franchise"?

"It's definitely unique," Curtin said, "but I think it is an opportunity we've worked hard for.

"If you rewind 10 years from now, we played against each other in a MLS All-Star Game and then go back another 10 years and those were the days of us being teammates [on the Council Rock Dynamo].

"We have a special opportunity. To get to do this in your hometown makes it even more special."