Philadelphia Union boss Jim Curtin talks fast when the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup comes up. He’s got a lot to say about it and the excitement seems to build in his voice as he looks back and forward. Still just 38, he won the Cup twice as player with Chicago Fire and brought his current club seconds away from glory on two occasions.
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With nearly two decades under his belt as a player and coach in America’s top professional ranks, Curtin has come to know, and cherish, the peculiar magic of America’s oldest soccer tournament. And he took time out to chat with ussoccer.com about the special kind of alchemy – the luck, momentum, moments and balance – needed to set the fuse on a successful tournament run.
(A youthful Philadelphia Union ran over Richmond Kickers 5-0 in the last round of the Cup)
ussoccer.com: Five goals scored. Zero conceded. Long minutes for young players. Was the win over Richmond Kickers a perfect start to Philadelphia Union’s 2018 Open Cup?
Jim Curtin: It gave us a chance to get a good look at some young guys – that’s important. We’re a club that takes the Cup very seriously. But it’s always tough to pick the team and get the balance right. We’d been going hard with games on Wednesday, Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday for a long stretch and it was great to see the young guys step up and treat the game with the right mentality when we needed them.
How important is that “right mentality” going into the first game?
JC: It’s huge and it’s easy to not get it right. Every year you see someone from MLS that doesn’t go out there the right way in the early rounds of the Cup. Upsets happen. MLS teams get picked off. You saw it last year and this year too, and you’ll see it every year there’s a Cup. But I was happy with the professionalism we showed. All five of our Homegrown Players [Anthony Fontana, Derrick Jones, Mark McKenzie, Matt Real and Auston Trusty – all teenagers] got valuable minutes.
How do you get players that young mentally ready for the intensity of a Cup game?
JC: There’s no way to prepare them for the intensity that comes with these games of consequence that need a winner. You put them out there and see how they respond. And our guys, they got through it and treated it the right way. We got five goals and kept a clean sheet – there’s a lot to be happy about.
(Jim Curtin won a pair of Open Cups under Bob Bradley at Chicago Fire)
What’s the secret, as a coach, to striking a balance between youth and experience in a team with designs on making a deep Cup run?
JC: It starts with having a deep squad. You’re seeing teams now – not just MLS but USL too – having more than just a starting eleven to lean on. Between international duty, injuries, a congested schedule, you need to have players beyond the starters and a few subs. Now, of course, you’re always nervous when you start a 19-year-old in a do-or-die game, but I wasn’t that nervous because all of these guys [Homegrown Players] have gotten starts in the league [MLS] before. I wasn’t nervous that they wouldn’t get the job done. Not one bit. With that said, it’s crucial to have experience in the spine of the team on the day. I do believe this, and we had it. Haris Medunjanin [33-year-old Bosnian international] was a real leader for us.
It’s clear that you have an appreciation, even a deep affection for the Open Cup. Did this grow out of playing with the Chicago Fire under Bob Bradley –a two-time winner and proud Open Cup evangelist?
JC: That’s 100 percent of it. It all grew out of playing for Bob Bradley – he instilled a passion for the Cup in all the players and coaches who came through his system. It’s no coincidence that guys like [Chris] Armas, [Jesse] Marsch, CJ Brown [Curtin’s former Fire teammates] are all in coaching today and that they all take the Open Cup very seriously. They treat it with the right mentality – the same way we try to at the Union. It’s just a special trophy.
What makes it special?
JC: The Open gives a little something more. For players, coaches and for the fans too. That little something extra. Fans get a little closer to the field sometimes. They can feel what’s going on and the stakes get higher and higher the farther you go. There’s only two trophies you can win in this country – Bob Bradley always said that. I believe it and preach it to this day and I’m still chasing that elusive win as a coach.
(Curtin has nearly 20 years experience in MLS on both sides of the touchline)
What’s the secret sauce you need to get a good Cup run going? Is it luck, momentum, individual performances?
JC: There are some things that need to break your way, for sure. But usually if you get on a good run, there’s a player who isn’t having the best season in the league – maybe a ‘keeper or a striker – and he’ll get hot. You can ride the kind of form they get on in the Open Cup. Usually he’ll have a say in a tough game – probably on the road – to get you over a hurdle where you have to push through adversity in the quarters or the semis. Then you just get that feeling like it’s going to go your way. You get through that shootout in Dallas and you just know you’re going to win it. There’s always a defining moment like that. Someone will emerge in the Cup this year who shows a little more and it will seem like it’s coming from nowhere.
Does a player – or a moment – like that stick out for you in either of your two Cup-winning years in 2003 or 2005?
JC: It felt that way when Damani Ralph scored in the Open Cup Final at the Meadowlands [Giants Stadium in New Jersey 2003]. It was a miserable night. The weather was terrible. His goal went in and we just had that feeling like we were going to do it even though there was twenty minutes to go. Our defense started playing so high and with so much confidence and I remember a couple guys laying out in the last few minutes and making these huge blocks. There were a lot. Our guys left everything on the field that day. There was nothing left in the tank. We knew after that goal went in; we just had that feeling that it would be our Open Cup. I was just a kid and you know the first one’s always best. I was just 22 and I thought you’d get one of those every year [laughs]. That was some feeling. And lifting the trophy – yeah that’s pretty good too. You can’t know it until you’ve done it.
While you’ve won two Open Cups as a player, you’ve been a losing Finalist twice with Philadelphia Union as a coach. 2014 and 2015 must be bittersweet memories – going so far and coming up short…
JC: We were close those two years. We were really close. We were an extra time session  and a PK shootout  away from lifting the Cup. But we’re still hungry for a trophy as a club.
(Curtin guided the Union to a pair of Open Cup Finals in 2014 & 2015 but still has yet to lift the trophy as a coach)
They were very different Cup runs, but both ended with the Union in the Final…
JC: That’s the way it is. Each year is different in the Cup. Those two years we got to the Final back to back, they were both so different. I’ll tell you this, it’s very tough to get to a Final. And they’re very, very rare. You never know when your last chance is going to come. To go all the way there and lose to Clint Dempsey and Oba Martins in 120 minutes is still difficult to take – and then to follow it up by losing in a PK shootout at home to Kansas City, that’s tough too. But as hard as those losses are, I always preach to my players you learn the most from the hard times. A real winner gets back up and wants to get right back up and get at it. They know how intense it is – that final hurdle. And there’s still a long way to go. But you play for those moments and those nights. You never know when the last one’s coming, so you have to cherish them.
Growing up in Pennsylvania – a state with a proud Open Cup tradition going back a century – did you know about the tournament and its history early on?
JC: I was just a kid when I won the Cup as a player in Chicago for the first time and I really had no idea what the competition even was back then [laughs]. I admit it. But I grew to love it. It’s not just great for the players and fans but for the coaches too. You can try new things. You get challenged in a lot of different ways and many different types of games. And nothing brings out the best in players like pressure. Absolutely nothing.
People often talk about a spiked level of intensity in the Cup, with it all on the line in every game. How do you prepare for that?
JC: You have to put a lot into it as a team. You have to get your preparations right and to be aware that you’re one mistake away, or one missed penalty away, from going out. It puts everyone on high alert. It can make certain players cautious and then you get to learn a lot about your guys when you’re in extra time or in a shootout or down a man – and those are the kinds of things that happen a lot in the Cup. That intensity is always there and it’s a competition that I really love for it.
(Curtin has described lifting the Open Cup as something you can't know until you've done it)
You’re up against a former teammate, Jesse Marsch and his New York Red Bulls in the Round of 16. You guys won a pair of Open Cups together in Chicago. What’s it like when you go head-to-head with an old friend like that?
JC: Well, Jesse’s won more Open Cups than I have. But we shared two together and I can tell you there’s no better feeling than lifting that trophy with a bunch of guys you work hard with. It’s permanent and forever and no one can take it away. I want our players here at the Union to feel that. Jesse is a very close friend and we’ve been rivals as coaches for about nine years now in MLS. So we know each other very well and our teams know each other very well. There’s always some crazy moments and this is the Cup, so we’ll just have to see how it plays out.
So many of your former teammates from the Chicago Fire have gone in to coaching or front offices in MLS. This must be satisfying in some way…
JC: The list is long – and it’s an awesome feeling to know how many of the guys from that great Chicago Fire team have gone on to coach and have an impact on our league. Chris Armas [Assistant coach at New York Red Bulls], Josh Wolff [Assistant coach at Columbus Crew], Carlos Bocanegra [Technical Director and VP at Atlanta United], Jesse Marsch [Head Coach at New York Red Bulls], CJ Brown [Assistant coach at Orlando City], Ante Ravoz [Assistant coach at LAFC] – just look on down the line and they’re everywhere [In all, 17 players from the 2003 Chicago Fire have gone on to careers in coaching]. I was so lucky to be surrounded by guys like these as a young player, as a rookie. That’s where I learned that when you step out on the field in an Open Cup you have to play 100 per cent. I pass that on to my own players and I’m sure they all do the same. It’s always special to run into some of those guys from the old days and see the things they’re doing in the game. Our schedules are busy so it’s not always easy to sit down to a meal and reminisce with them but we do still share those moments, share a beer after a game and those old memories. They never go away.