Admit it. You’re one of the people who booed Jim Curtin from the stands at Subaru Park. You might even be one of the people who chanted for him to be fired a few years ago. It’s OK to say so.
Just answer this question: What do you think of Curtin now?
If you’d still boo him, you might never change. If you have changed, you know it. And if you’ve believed in him all along, you knew he could be a winner if he had players good enough to win.
On Tuesday, Curtin’s believers earned the right to deliver a riposte to his critics. Major League Soccer announced Curtin as the Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year, and the balloting showed he won in a landslide.
Orlando City’s Oscar Pareja and Toronto FC’s Greg Vanney finished second and third, respectively, in the vote of players, coaches, club executives, and media. Both men were eminently qualified. Pareja cleaned up a club long known as a mess. Vanney’s team had MLS’ second-best record this year despite being unable to play true home games for months.
But Curtin didn’t win the award just because the Union beat Toronto in the standings. The Oreland native won because of how he marshaled his team, from great performances on the field to a pandemic and a nationally acclaimed antiracism campaign off it. He won because he proved equally adept at coaching teenage academy products and 30-something veterans, whether they speak English or Spanish or Portuguese or French or Dutch — or the vibrant mix of them all that is part of soccer’s magic.
“You’re the leader of a group of roughly 30 young men that you’re trying to make better and better each year,” Curtin said. “Ultimately, as a head coach, I’m nothing more than a teacher. I’m nothing more than a guy that is trying to create an environment that players can thrive in and reach their full potential.”
This year’s squad, Curtin said, is “the most talented team” he has had. But it also has been “the most challenging year" of his tenure.
"Because that locker room was so strong and so together, and so diverse, I think we leaned on each other more than ever,” he said.
“Behind every great team is a great leader. Our leader is Jim Curtin,” Gaddis said. “He’s pushed us this year. He’s made us better over the years, for players who have been here. He couldn’t be more deserving."
There’s an old saying in soccer that the game has piano players and piano carriers. It’s no coincidence that two of Curtin’s best friends in coaching, Jesse Marsch and Ben Olsen, were carriers on the field. Marsch won the 2015 Supporters’ Shield with the New York Red Bulls; Olsen won the 2013 U.S Open Cup with D.C. United, his club home for 20 years as a player and manager.
In fact, all five men who have won the Supporters' Shield as players and managers were renowned haulers: Curtin, Marsch, Chris Armas, Vanney, and Frank Yallop. (Nor is it a coincidence that the first three of them won the Shield together in Chicago in 2003.)
“They lifted trophies, they won things, but maybe they weren’t the Michael Jordans, so to speak, of their teams,” Curtin said. “More the students of the game, and the ones that had to bring it every day to get the most out of their talents.”
Also in that class of manager is one to whom Curtin might be best compared, Seattle’s Brian Schmetzer.
Both men manage in the places where they grew up. Both men have clear visions for their teams, the intelligence to make those plans, and the latitude to execute them. Both men know how to build cultures that fit with their fan bases. And both men have at times been touted for jobs that might be more glamorous but might not be better fits.
There are, of course, some big differences. Schmetzer has two MLS Cup titles on his resume, won with big-money rosters full of stars. His office is an NFL stadium built downtown in one of America’s best soccer hotbeds, filled with crowds that dwarf the baseball team’s next door. The Sounders have averaged more than 40,000 fans per game for the last eight years, and the Mariners haven’t cracked 30,000 since 2007.
Curtin has no such luxuries, and he might never here. But his kindred spirits across MLS know how good he is. They know the path he took to the summit on which he now stands, the work it took, and the struggles he overcame. It’s no coincidence that Curtin won 53% of the votes cast by coaches and executives — including from Schmetzer.
He also got a special vote of confidence from Sigi Schmid’s widow, Valerie.
In the hours after the Union’s Shield-clinching win, Valerie sent Curtin a congratulatory text. It came from the number that was Sigi’s before he died two years ago. When Curtin saw it, he was jolted.
He thought of when the two men took U.S. Soccer’s Pro License coaching course in 2016. He thought of the 2015 U.S. Open Cup final, when Schmid’s Sounders beat the Union in Chester. Curtin was just the interim manager back then, and after the game, Schmid gave Curtin a public endorsement to get the job full-time.
“Your heart jumps, because you know it can’t really be Sigi,” Curtin said. “She sent a really, really nice message."
A few days later, Curtin won the award given in Sigi’s name.