When the Union started their 2021 season, they did so amid questions about whether they’d be able to sustain the success of their Supporters’ Shield-winning 2020 campaign.

Then they went out and answered them all, with a second-place finish in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference and runs to the playoff conference final and Concacaf Champions League semifinals.

Now the Union are widely viewed as one of the league’s best clubs. Which means the pressure is different: Instead of proving doubters wrong, the team has to prove believers right.

“We know that the bar has been raised — we know that there’s more expectations from ourselves, from our fans,” manager Jim Curtin told The Inquirer this week in a one-on-one interview ahead of Saturday’s season opener against Minnesota United at Subaru Park (1 p.m., PHL17). The game will mark the start of his ninth season at the helm of his hometown club.

“I think that’s natural as any team improves and gets a little bit further each and every year, and takes, maybe, new steps forward each year,” Curtin said. “Look, we’re always going to have questions going into a new season, but I do think it’s time to put to bed that one, you know, ‘The Union still have to prove they can do it again.’”

» READ MORE: The Union’s trade of Jamiro Monteiro makes room for the team’s rising stars. Now they have to play.

It’s a testament to the depth of talent that the Union have assembled, especially from the club’s youth academy, that the doubters didn’t come charging back when Jamiro Monteiro was traded to San Jose earlier this month. A certain kind of status gets conferred on teams that use all of their Designated Player slots, and the Union have never played a game with all three filled in what’s now a 13-year history.

But even the doubters saw glimpses of the quality that Jack McGlynn, Quinn Sullivan, and Paxten Aaronson have. Now Curtin can turn them loose, and knows he has to — even as he was planning to have Monteiro on the field up until just a few weeks ago.

“We anticipated him coming back from the Africa Cup of Nations and rejoining the group along with Olivier [Mbaizo],” Curtin admitted. “But that didn’t happen, and now we’re kind of adapting and adjusting ... There still is a lot of guys that logged a lot of the minutes from last season, so it’s not like we have to teach a whole new system to a whole new group of guys, or have a ton of different changes, a ton of crazy new ideas getting thrown at new players.”

» READ MORE: Jamiro Monteiro is still sour about being traded by the Union

Getting the balance right

Another factor in how much playing time the youngsters will get is Alejandro Bedoya, who will turn 35 at the end of April. Curtin saw the question coming, and knows he’ll be asked it again plenty often — especially after declaring early in preseason camp that Bedoya is “in probably the best physical shape he’s been in yet.”

It should help Bedoya that there are far fewer midweek games scheduled this year than there have been in the last two years. Curtin knows, though, that he subbed his captain out before the 70th minute of a start just once last year and once in 2020.

”He’s a player that because of his brain and his soccer IQ, he’s getting better as he’s getting older — which kind of defies the trajectory of most pro athletes,” Curtin said. “We have to be smart, we have to always have open discussions. Ale’s always going to want to be on the field, and we’ll have to sit and talk weekly and see how that body’s feeling. But overall, right now, he’s showing no signs of slowing down.”

There is naturally pressure on Curtin to put the pieces together, and he embraces it.

Yet the most pressure on this season already fell during the winter on to the team’s owners. They responded by finally opening up the checkbook in a big way for strikers, signing Julián Carranza on loan from Inter Miami (for what will be a significant salary by MLS standards) and breaking the team’s transfer fee record to land Mikael Uhre from Denmark’s Brøndby.

» READ MORE: Danish striker Mikael Uhre officially joins the Union for a team-record $2.8 million transfer fee

(If only the Union hadn’t had to wait so long for Uhre to get his U.S. visa so he could fly over here and start playing.)

“I think all of us, in our jobs, work to earn equity and trust and belief from our bosses,” Curtin said. “If you rewind to when Ernst [Tanner] got here three years ago and you look at the last three seasons, I’ll just say I think we’ve done a good enough job, and we’ve done it kind of in a unique, smart way. I think it gained more trust from ownership, and I think that they see that now.”

More than one spotlight

If Curtin keeps succeeding here, we might start to hear his name linked to other coaching jobs — well beyond lowly FC Cincinnati, where Curtin’s close friend Chris Albright became general manager last year and made a brazen move to poach his old colleague.

The time could come when those links come from Europe. They know Curtin in Germany, which scouts American soccer better than any other country in the world. They know him in Austria, thanks to the success of another of Curtin’s close friends, Jesse Marsch, and one of Curtin’s former star players, Brenden Aaronson.

They might not know Curtin yet in England, which is still the bellwether for measuring American soccer success whether or not that’s fair.

But let’s let our minds wander for a moment, as happens when there’s no soccer to watch in person during the cold winter months. England’s Telegraph newspaper reported earlier this month that Leeds United is sizing up Marsch to replace manager Marcelo Bielsa should the famed Argentine move on after this season. And it’s widely known that Leeds bid up to $27 million in recent weeks to buy Aaronson from Red Bull Salzburg, which bought him from the Union under Marsch’s watch.

» READ MORE: Paxten Aaronson keeps up a family tradition of playmaking skill

If Leeds, whose ownership includes the San Francisco 49ers, brings in Marsch and Aaronson …

Or if Marsch succeeds Gregg Berhalter as U.S. national team coach after the 2022 World Cup, and gets to coach a slew of high-flying Union alumni

OK, back to reality. That really is the purest of speculation. If anyone is reading these words in an English tabloid’s newsroom, let them go.

And if you’re reading these words while preparing for the Union’s opener, know that Curtin isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

“People linked me to different jobs, and that’s always flattering,” he said. “I do need to say I’m happy in Philadelphia and I do want to bring the first MLS Cup here. I’ll know when my time is done, and I’ve gone and taken things as far as I possibly can. But I still feel that there’s more to do; there’s more to give, and there’s more we have to win.”