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Union manager Jim Curtin has real pressure on him for the first time as season kicks off

There's pressure on Union manager Jim Curtin to win this season, not just get the best out of a limited team. And he knows it.

Jim Curtin has been the Philadelphia Union's manager for 4 1/2 years.
Jim Curtin has been the Philadelphia Union's manager for 4 1/2 years.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Jim Curtin has been the Union’s manager for 4 1/2 years. In his early seasons, he learned the ropes after being promoted from an assistant role. Then, in Earnie Stewart’s tenure, Curtin was constrained by Stewart’s rigid tactics and owner Jay Sugarman’s rigid budget. So he focused on building locker-room chemistry, and proved quite good at it.

Now, Curtin has better coaching chops, respect from his players, and freedom from sporting director Ernst Tanner to be tactically flexible. And at long last, he has a genuine match-winning star in Mexican playmaker Marco Fabián.

“These are the types of players who can win you games from nothing,” Curtin said ahead of Saturday’s season opener against Toronto FC (1 p.m., 6ABC). “It makes coaches look good that in games where margins are so small, he can make a play on his own and win you a game."

Curtin also has something else this year that he’s never had before: pressure on him to win, not just get the best out of a limited team. And he knows it.

“There is a greater sense of urgency with the group,” he said. “Most teams would be happy with [last year]'s playoff berth, a points record and an Open Cup final, but it didn’t have that feel — from the fans’ point of view, and also from our players and coaching staff. We all want more.”

Much of the pressure comes from outside the organization, not Curtin’s bosses. Fans are fed up with the Union’s lack of winning and their small-time mentality in a big-time city. While the 76ers, Eagles and Bryce Harper-fueled Phillies command the local spotlight, the Union are often nowhere near it. Fabián’s arrival was a rare and welcome exception.

Not all the Union’s woes are Curtin’s fault. The team’s lack of local online streaming of games for another year and the perennial absence of easy public-transit access to Talen Energy Stadium are the responsibility of members of the business staff. But their names aren’t read with the Union’s starting lineup at games. Curtin’s is, and he is regularly booed.

Tanner added a bit of heat last autumn when he gave Curtin a new contract but made it for just one year. Curtin acknowledged that it matters.

"Security is helpful, but at the same time, this kind of keeps everybody on their toes,' he said. “The timing of [Tanner] coming at the end of a year, there’s not an instant familiarity with each other. I think that’s natural, and I think the relationship is a healthy one so far. … If we execute and play the way we’re capable of, the contract stuff takes care of itself.”

We’ll see if that happens.