Wildcat Alumni Jim Curtin Leads MLS's Union to Eastern Conference Finals

After playing for Villanova for four years, Curtin has now coached the hometown Union since 2014.

‘Once a Wildcat, Always a Wildcat’ is the common phrase that goes around at Villanova. It is no different for alumnus Jim Curtin, current head coach of the MLS’s Philadelphia Union, who just led his team to compete for its first ever Eastern Conference Championship. Although a COVID-stricken Union fell 2-1 on Sunday against NYCFC, Curtin’s team reached new heights this year.

Curtin is very familiar with Philadelphia as he has spent a large part of his life in the area. An Oreland native, he began his career at Bishop McDevitt High School. A star on the field, he was heavily recruited by Villanova and joined the men’s soccer team as a central defender from 1997-2000. 

Despite the Wildcats’ unsuccessful seasons throughout his career, Curtin was named Big East Rookie of the Year during his freshman season in 1997 and picked up accolades for first-team all-Big East selection in 1997 and 2000. His success at Villanova and beyond allowed him the opportunity to be inducted into the 2017 Villanova Varsity Club’s Hall of Fame. 

Upon graduation, Curtin was drafted by the Chicago Fire to play in the MLS, the first Villanovan to be selected. Chosen in the third round, he played defense with the team for eight years totalling more than 200 hundred games played. Of those, he played in two U.S. Open Cup championships in 2003 and 2006 and was also named a 2004 MLS All-Star and the March of Dimes/Comcast Athlete of the Year in 2005.

After his tenure in Chicago, Curtin was traded to Chivas USA to play in Southern California. He was soon waived and decided to begin his successful coaching career.

Working his way through the organization starting in the academy in the Union’s inaugural 2010 season, he became head coach of the Philadelphia Union in 2014. He has brought many new successes and achievements to the team, including three U.S. Open Cup final appearances in 2014, 2015 and 2018. 

In 2020, Curtin’s team won the esteemed MLS Supporters’ Shield for the first time in club history. The Shield is an honor given to the MLS team with the best regular season record. The honor was thanks in part to the club’s undefeated record at home, which is the first in MLS history. 

Winning the Shield also allowed a club debut in the CONCACAF Champions League, where the Union earned its first international win, against Deportivo Saprissa. The win was Curtin’s 100th throughout his coaching career and a win against Atlanta United F.C. propelled the club to the semifinals. Curtin also received the honor of MLS Coach of the Year in 2020.

The most recent success comes as the Union advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in the MLS Cup Playoffs after a 2-1 win over Nashville F.C. on Sunday, Nov. 28. The win marked the first time a team has reached the Final in club history. 

Despite its success, the team faced major COVID-19 issues with 11 players in protocol for the final game, which ultimately cost the side the game. Curtin’s team would go down 2-1 in a nail-biting loss to end the 2021 season. 

In a postgame interview, Curtin was optimistic about the future of his team.

“I’m proud of every guy that wore that jersey tonight and stepped on the field and I think made our fans proud,” he said. “I like the direction we’re going, we’re making progress.” 

The season may be over, but Curtin’s future at Philadelphia remains firm. After numerous rumors about F.C. Cincinnati wanting to hire him as its next head coach, Curtin denied the claims and stated that he remains with the Union for at least two more years. Curtin has a big offseason ahead of him to develop his team to accomplish even greater feats, making not only Philadelphia, but also his alma mater proud.