May 6, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin (L) and New York Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch (R) talk as they take the field for a game at Talen Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
When Jim Curtin stepped on the training field for the first time as a Chicago Fire player in 2001, it didn’t go very well.
“I had a real bad day,” Curtin said of his first training session.
However, there was one teammate in particular who saw something different. Jesse Marsch identified Curtin’s abilities right away and the two formed a bond right away, one that sticks to this day even as they take charge as managers of rival clubs.
“On Day 1, he put his arm around me and taught me what it was like to be a pro,” Curtin said of is friend.
“I would argue he actually had a really good training session,” Marsch said. “When we first saw him we were like, Who’s this big, goofy looking, tall, lanky guy. Then when we started playing, you could see he could play.”
Marsch remembers a particular moment in training that immediately turned his focus to Curtin among an extremely competitive group of players in Chicago.
Bob Bradley separated the team into two groups for small possession games, putting all the best players in one group to battle each other. Curtin was put in that group on his first day, along with Marsch and Polish veteran Peter Nowak, among others. About halfway through the exercise, Curtin tried to get the ball from Nowak, but Nowak was too quick and blew past his new teammate. Curtin clipped Nowak from behind and he came crashing down.
“Peter went down. And Peter never took much time, and he kind of took a second to get back in,” Marsch recalled. “When that little part of the session was over and we were walking to get water, Jim Curtin comes over to me and says, ‘Well, at least I can say I kicked Peter Nowak,’ like that was going to be his last day of training. Right away I kind of liked his personality, and I could see from that training session that he fit in with that better group. And for being a tall, lanky guy he had a real ease for the way he could play.
“Did I go out of my way with Jim? No question, but I think I did that because I saw he had some really good qualities as a person and player, and I think they served him well in his career.”
Curtin and Marsch were Fire teammates from 2001-06, and they reunited at Chivas USA for the 2008-09 seasons.
The friends went their separate ways after the end of their playing careers, but they soon ended up alongside each other multiple times a year. Marsch took the New York Red Bulls managerial position in 2015, when Curtin was promoted from an interim coaching role with the Philadelphia Union.
Although they’ve established their own coaching identities, it’s hard to ignore the similarities between the Union and the Red Bulls, especially when they line up across from each other.
“Red Bulls are a rival, so it’s always so hard to talk positive about them,” Curtin said. “They’re similar to us in that they do believe in young American players. We’re really starting to see the fruit of our academy now in young guys that are actually on the field contributing.
“They have about an eight- to 10-year head start on us in terms of things. We have some growing to do, and I think it’s going to be accelerated now. It’s an exciting time for our club. The similarities in terms of American players, Jesse and I are on the same page with those thoughts and the importance of really growing the game in this country.”
The coaching intricacies of Curtin and Marsch come from the Bob Bradley coaching tree. Both played under the current LAFC boss with the Fire.
Not only did Bradley influence the duo, but so did the players in that Fire group — Novak, Carlos Bocanegra, Hristo Stoichkov, Eric Wynalda, Zach Thornton, Josh Wolff and many others — who shaped the personalities of Curtin and Marsch.
“It probably goes back to the environment I was drafted into in Chicago, I was fortunate enough to be thrown in,” Curtin said. “When I came into the Chicago Fire team that was coached by Bob Bradley, and now several players you see sprinkled throughout Red Bulls — Denis Hamlett, Chris Armas, Jesse Marsch — and you could go through the list and I think it’s 18 players who are now coaching or involved in the league.”
Marsch said they knew that group “was special because there was talent, there was some of the biggest competitors.”
“And I mean almost too much crossing the line. Training sessions were like deathmatches,” Marsch said. “It was just great to have. That kind of training made you better and it just challenged you every day. We couldn’t take a day off, and no one liked to lose.
“That was the biggest group of winners I’ve ever been around. We had a good coach, good organization. We had a lot of good things, but the main quality that team had was winners, absolute winners. And it showed with the success the team had over those years.”
Marsch, who at 44 is six years older than Curtin, interviewed for the Union job before he was hired by the Red Bulls and Curtin took over on a permanent basis in Philadelphia.
Although he’s watched from afar, he understand and appreciates the steps Curtin has taken to get the Union to where they currently stand.
“I interviewed for the job when Jim got the job, and you could see how much they were putting into the academy with Richie Graham and YSC and the development. I really liked what they were doing, and still do,” Marsch said. “Their academy school and everything they’re doing down there is really neat. It’s a really great environment and culture they’re building down there, and now Jim has clearly shown a commitment to play young players and develop, and that in many ways is like us. We’re each doing our own thing, but I have a lot of respect for what they’re doing down there.”
Curtin, who like his club is the little brother in the comparison to Marsch’s Red Bulls, similarly admires what’s been put together two hours north on Interstate 95.
“[Marsch] was a guy who wanted to win everything every day,” Curtin said. “He was very intelligent on the field, could get under an opponent’s skin, and I think you see his players can kind of bring that out in other teams. They have a way of frustrating you because I think they embody what their coach is about: competing the right way every day, getting better every day. That’s what you saw from Jesse every day on the field.
“We won some trophies together. I think that adds to the bond you have with a teammate because those are forever. He’s taken a lot of the same principles and put his own twist on it and has done some pretty special things with Red Bulls.”
In their most recent league games, the Union and Red Bulls combined to start 13 American players, including Homegrowns Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie on defense for the Union and Red Bulls academy products Tyler Adams and Sean Davis in midfield.
While some clubs might not go all-in on the commitment to produce the next generation of American players, the Union and Red Bulls have.
“I think it’s critical,” Curtin said. “At the Philadelphia Union and Red Bull, the goal and the first priority is to win games, but within that I think there is a certain responsibility in our league to have American players on the field, to have them develop and get better. To have them play for our national team is the ultimate goal. If our national team has success, the league is only going to grow, the game is only going to grow in our country, so I do think it’s critical.”
Said Marsch: “When we played them in preseason, we played three [45-minute periods], and the last 45 was almost like two academy teams. Afterward, I saw him and [Union sporting director] Earnie [Stewart] and said, ‘Isn’t it great to have two clubs that say that they believe in young players and actually do it?’
“Philly’s got certain limitations, in terms of what their resources are. But in terms of what Jim’s doing to maximize what they’re trying to achieve from a philosophical standpoint, I think they’re doing great.”
In the years since Curtin and Marsch took over their respective clubs, there have been plenty of memorable matches in MLS play and during the U.S. Open Cup.
In the latter competition, the teams have met the last three seasons, with two games going to penalties. The Red Bulls got the upper hand at home in 2017, while the Union won in 2015 and 2016.
Last year during MLS’ regular season, each team earned a shutout victory and the third match resulted in a 0-0 draw. In 2015 and 2016, the Red Bulls held the upper hand in the regular-season series.
No matter where the games take place, or which competition brings them together, there always seems to be the same heightened level of intensity.
The latest chapter in the rivalry between friends and Eastern Conference foes takes place Saturday at 7 p.m. ET in Harrison, N.J., at Red Bull Arena.
“There’s always something extra in them for sure,” Curtin said of the matchups. “They’re competitive. I think any win we get there, which is a hard thing to do, those are the most memorable, and I think he’d say the same thing. When he comes here and beats us, it’s a good feeling [for him], and he’s going off the field and our fans are cursing him off after he gets a red card, or whatever it might be.
“You remember certain moments. The Open Cup ones have been a little crazier … there’s always something wild in those Open Cup games. I don’t know what it is, but they’ve been pretty special and they’ve been really competitive. They got the best of us in the last one, so we owe them one. But there’s definitely something to the Philadelphia-Red Bull rivalry.”