Curtin’s side has a chance to prove itself Saturday against the league’s top team, which is coached by his former manager, Bob Bradley. Curtain played under Bradley with the Chicago Fire in 2001 and ’02.
“Every coach emulates the best teams and right now that is LAFC,” Curtin told Pro Soccer USA. “My own players are probably sick of hearing me talk about LAFC and how big this opportunity to play against them is. We’ve done really well in a lot of our past challenges and tests. This is a whole different level. Their point total and goals they score speak for itself. I’m sure the players have heard me use LAFC as the example of our league.”
Curtin’s conversations about LAFC are similar to how Bradley talked about the 1990s AC Milan teams to the 2001 Fire squad.
“In Bob’s day, he used an old AC Milan team,” Curtin said. “He would religiously study and make us watch film. Probably our players got a little bit sick of him too. It’s a little bit of the same thing and how much they get after the ball and press and turn you over in tough spots. Not just turn you over, but turn that into goals.
“This was [Paolo] Maldini, [Franco] Baresi, [Marco] Van Basten. It was an unbelievable collection of players. They just ran and pressed. People think pressing is this new idea. If you watch some of those AC Milan vidoes, that was his team that he used as an example for us in being relentless for 90 minutes and playing the games on your terms. It’s funny to watch now because it’s not high definition, but if you put in the tapes of the old AC Milan teams with Franco Baresi and Maldini, you’ll see some pretty special things.”
Some of Curtin’s coaching qualities come from the time he spent with Bradley, who he likened to New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich as the head of an extended coaching tree.
The 2001 Fire featured New York Red Bulls head coach Chris Armas, Atlanta United sporting director Carlos Bocanegra, Red Bull Salzburg manager Jesse Marsch and newly named Austin FC boss Josh Wolff, among others.
“We had success,” Curtin said. “If you look at Bob’s own staff, you have Ante Razov and Mike Sorber who played there. Josh Wolff just got named head coach [at Austin FC], Chris Armas, Jesse Marsch, Carlos Bocanegra, you go through the whole list. C.J. Brown. Zach Thornton.
“The one thing that each guy had in them was they were winners. If you lost in an old Chicago Fire training session, you went off the field and you were pissed off the rest of the day. I was only 21 years old and I walked into a locker room of 28-to-30-year-olds, and they ingrained that in me to really hate losing.”
Bradley discovered Curtin through coaching connections he developed before entering MLS. Curtin was taken in the third round of the 2001 MLS SuperDraft out of Villanova, and almost instantly, the current LAFC boss noticed the type of intelligent player he was.
“Jim was a player who understood the game,” Bradley said. “As a defender, he was smart, he was a good passer. I had different people who had told me about him. I think when we selected him, he was probably shocked that we even knew who he was.
“When he came in with the Fire, he was in a way nervous, but he had a good understanding of the game. When you’re around guys like Hristo Stoichkov and Peter Nowak and Ante Razov, Chris Armas and Jesse Marsch, they’re going to test you to see if you understand the game. All of them could see that was the kind of player Jimmy was. So when you have a player like that, it’s never a surprise that he wants to stay in the game.”
Before leading LAFC to the brink of the Supporters’ Shield, Bradley traversed the globe with stops managing the United States and Egypt men’s national teams, Stabaek, Le Havre and Swansea City.
“The trait I admire most in him is how brave he was to take the risks that he did with different jobs that he had,” Curtin said. “Going to Egypt and a country that was unstable at the time. Going to Swansea. Coming back to MLS after all these years. What he did with the national team.”
Curtin and Bradley have been mentioned in the coach of the year discussion, but in the eyes of the Union boss, there is no question who should receive the award.
“All those experiences add up to an incredible resume and a guy that I look up to a ton and for me is the coach of the year this year. It’s no contest,” Curtin said.
While Bradley did not go as far to proclaim his pupil coach of the year, he had high praise for the job Curtain has done with the second-place team in the Eastern Conference.
“Jimmy has done an excellent job,” Bradley said. “Jim was always a smart player, a really good teammate, a guy who just understood sports and how the chemistry in teams work. And I think he’s been able to put all those things together and provide great leadership and do an excellent job with the Union. I’m excited for all these guys, but I really think Jim deserves a lot of credit for the way he’s grown as a coach and the job he’s done.”
Saturday’s clash at Talen Energy Stadium gives both clubs a test with playoffs berths already clinched. The Union are trying to follow up a come-from-behind win over Atlanta United, while LAFC can clinch the Supporters’ Shield with a victory if other results fall the right way.
“I would expect a very difficult game,” Bradley said. “We all took note that when they had a good win against Atlanta two weeks ago, that immediately after the game, they were talking about LAFC. And so we know that they are certainly very focused on this game. We hear it will be a sellout. And you know, we feel like a game like this is an excellent test for us at this time of the year.”
“Philadelphia has played very well, they have a way of playing where they’re hard to play against. They create chances in different ways. And I think everyone on our staff, we’ve gone through games and talked about them, see all the good things that they’ve done throughout the season.”