Union manager Jim Curtin and Impact counterpart Thierry Henry’s paths through the soccer world are as contrasting as any you’ll find.
Henry grew up in suburban Paris as part of a vibrant mix of Black and brown immigrants from around the world that has fueled France’s decades of national team success. He won the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship, and at club level won 12 major trophies with Monaco, Arsenal, and Barcelona.
Curtin grew up in suburban Philadelphia and traveled in mostly white communities from Oreland to Bishop McDevitt High School to Villanova. He spent his whole playing career in Major League Soccer and never made the U.S. national team.
Their paths have barely crossed before. Curtin’s playing career ended before Henry’s time with MLS’s New York Red Bulls began in 2010, and Curtin’s tenure as Union manager started in the final months of Henry’s final MLS season, in 2014.They have shared a field only twice: July 27, 2014, when Henry played at Subaru Park in Curtin’s second-ever game as a coach, and a Union-Montreal preseason friendly in Tampa, Fla., in February.
Yet when they meet at Red Bull Arena on Sunday night, in an Impact “home” game moved out of Montreal because of U.S.-Canada border restrictions (7 p.m., PHL17), they will share a common and powerful trait. Both men are among the most vocal anti-racism campaigners in the MLS coaching community.
In addition to using their platforms to speak regularly on the subject, both coaches have taken significant actions when the cameras are on them during games. Curtin wears one of the Black Lives Matter T-shirts designed by Union midfielder Warren Creavalle. Henry took a knee during a July 9 contest against New England for the first 8 minutes, 46 seconds of play — the length of time a Minneapolis police officer put a knee on George Floyd’s neck.
“When you talk about Thierry Henry, you’re talking about a global icon of our game,” Curtin said. “The fact that he’s been such a strong, outspoken voice for the African American players in our league, I think that’s been powerful over the recent weeks. … He could easily be quiet, but he really speaks his mind and wants things to improve, I think, the game of soccer and also off the field as well.”
MLS continued its push on the subject this past week, when it announced — together with the MLS Players Association and Black Players for Change — that it will leverage its platforms and voice to drive voting and voter registration. That includes efforts by the league office and individual clubs, many of which will open their stadiums as polling places on Election Day. The Union can’t do that with Subaru Park because of how Pennsylvania conducts its elections, but they are looking into what they can do akin to the Eagles, Flyers, and 76ers with their venues.
Curtin has heard from Union fans who’d rather he stick to sports. But he has also heard from plenty of fans who support his words and his actions, including a prominent caucus in the Sons of Ben supporters' club. He also has support in the Union’s front office, which matters most.
“There are going to be people that are upset that we’re still wearing certain T-shirts on the sidelines, but the reality of it is we have the support of our owners — which first and foremost is something that we’re all grateful for,” Curtin said. “I get the occasional hate speech from different people, and it’s tough. If those are the threats that are being made, that they’re going to drop season tickets or different things like that, those things trickle to me as well.”
But, with the team’s support, he isn’t planning to back down.
“It means everything,” Curtin said. “It’s something that you think would be clear, but it’s not, because there’s still going to be a minority that are upset with things and say that sports shouldn’t involve, you know, actions to improve things off the field, which is nonsense. You go back in history, from Muhammad Ali to the Olympic demonstrations you could go through. Sports are more than just on the field. They really are.”