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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Jim Curtin is a Philly guy who hits some of the best restaurants for date night, plays whiffle ball with his kids in city parks and counts himself a big fan of Questlove. For a guy who loves his city, Curtin and his team are getting back plenty of admiration.
The Philadelphia Union hit it big this season in Major League Soccer — as leaders in both social activism and atop the standings — and made it cool in the city to root for the team often overshadowed by its four big brothers down Interstate 95. Walk around the city and the suburbs, and the uptick in kids in Union jerseys, pop-up game night parties and beers brewed for the home team have been on the rise — just like the Union.
No worries, the Union (13-5-3; 44 points) are poised to clinch their first Supporters’ Shield trophy — awarded to the MLS team with the best regular-season record — with a win Sunday at Columbus.
The game airing on ABC marks just the second time in the Union’s 11-year history that it plays on national broadcast television.
“We get to show the people that already know, but also to maybe some new viewers, that this is a fun team,” Curtin said.
The Union’s bid for the top spot suffered a blow when star goalie Andre Blake fractured his right hand when he slammed it into a goal post in Wednesday’s win over Chicago; he will miss the rest of the regular season. The 29-year-old Blake, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft, is second in MLS in both goals-against average (0.86) and shutouts (eight) and his 63 saves ranks fourth.
“He’s been so important to us this season,” Curtin said. “It’s a big one to lose. He’s a special player. He’s probably goalkeeper of the year, for sure.”
Joe Bendik, a veteran of four other MLS teams, starts Sunday. He’ll have plenty of homegrown help to steer Philly toward the title.
The Union took the long way toward the top by skipping big-money signings and developing players through their youth academy that yielded stars like 20-year-old midfielder Brenden Aaronson and 21-year-old defender Mack McKenzie. Aaronson and McKenzie already have made their U.S. senior national team debuts. Aaronson was just 11 when he joined the Union Juniors and will play for Red Bull Salzburg (Austria) at the end of the MLS season for a $6 million transfer fee (that could rise to $9 million), the highest one ever paid for a homegrown MLS player.
“There’s a lot of different ways, unique ways you can do things and build your roster and team in MLS,” Curtin said. “You can jump right in like LAFC and Atlanta United did and build beautiful new stadiums and bring in international players for $15 million each. That’s a great way to do it, as well. I’m not knocking that. But our club’s philosophy was more of a slower build.”
The 41-year-old Curtin, a Philadelphia-area native, was the Big East Rookie of the Year at Villanova who played eight years in MLS before he joined the Union in 2010 as a coach in its academy system. The Union had two previous head coaches since its 2010 inception — including one who was accused of spanking rookie players — before Curtin worked his way through the organization and was hired as head coach in 2014.
Ernst Tanner, hired in 2018 as sporting director, has mined international fields for hidden gems like striker Kacper Przybylko, defender Kai Wagner and midfielders Jamiro Monteiro and Jose Martinez.
Curtin survived some early bumps in his coaching career — notably after a poor 2017 and a slow start in 2019 — to become not only the second longest-tenured head coach in MLS but also one widely viewed as one of the best. Led by Jay Sugarman, Richard Leibovitch and Richie Graham, Union ownership stuck with Curtin to develop the young talent even as fans at times believed he should be on the hot seat.
“They allowed me as a young coach to have difficult times and to struggle,” he said. “Too often in pro sports, I see all over our league and all over the world, they say they have a philosophy but they abandon it the second you lose three games. I’m grateful I had the support of them to grow into the job and to have a real belief, a commitment from them that this is the way to do things. It did take a while but now we’re starting to see the benefit of that process.”
The big bummer this season has been watching it unfold in front of a mostly empty stadium in Chester, Pennsylvania. The Union are allowed up to 2,400 fans as part of COVID-19 restrictions, but the atmosphere has paled to previous seasons when 18,000 fans pack the place — notably the rabid supporters group called the Sons of Ben. The group — named after Benjamin Franklin, naturally — formed years before the Union were born to help bring MLS to Philadelphia. They once carried a coffin to protest a disappointing season, which depicted the team’s former CEO with the words “Nick Sakiewicz serial franchise killer.” The popular fan hangout 2SP Brewing Company launched a “Here (Be)For(E) The Beer” pale ale in time for the playoff run. The displaced fans would surely raise a pint to the Union’s record eight consecutive wins at home.
The Union have morphed into a bright spot in a dreary Philly sports scene. The 76ers, Phillies and Eagles all underachieved and the Flyers’ surprising run toward a Stanley Cup took place in Canada because of the pandemic.
As MLS has grown, so has the Union’s popularity in Philadelphia. The Union fell a win shy of reaching the MLS is Back Tournament final when the season resumed in July in Florida, and the wild early morning and late-night start times made games a hit for sports fans going to all-hours watch parties.
“Certainly in Philadelphia, we’re making a lot of headlines, which is really good as the game continues to grow,” Curtin said.
The Union’s push for the championship has blossomed under Durant’s watch in his first year since he purchased a 5% ownership stake in the franchise. Sugarman has said the Union is worth more than $325 million, putting Durant’s stake at $16.25 million, at minimum. The two-time NBA champion has yet to join the Sons of Ben at Subaru Park, but he’s sent autographed Brooklyn Nets jerseys to the team and donated items for auction as part of the Union’s COVID-19 relief fund drive. Durant even jumped on a Zoom call with the Union to break up the monotonous days in the MLS bubble.
“It was nothing off limits. They just picked his brain on what it takes to become a champion,” Curtin said. “That was awesome. He does keep a low profile. But he’s been behind the scenes doing so much for our community here in Chester.”
The Union surprised the league when they walked onto the pitch for the start of the MLS restart tournament wearing “ Black Lives Matter” shirts and names on their jerseys of members of the Black community who were victims of police brutality. They’ve continued their push for civil rights, and Curtin said he’ll give the Union off on Tuesday so players and staff can vote.
“I’m more proud of that and the activism that we’ve shown as a group because it’s more important than the game of soccer,” Curtin said.
Winning their first championship — the MLS Cup — would be the perfect way to cap a splendid season.
“I want to come through with a trophy here for the fans in Philly,” Curtin said.