Three years ago, Jim Curtin set out to do something bigger than just coach the professional soccer team in his hometown.

While taking U.S. Soccer's pro coaching license course, he developed a vision to build a certain kind of culture in the team.

"I want us to be known as a club that develops players for the United States national team," Curtin said after completing the course at the end of 2016.

At the time, those words seemed empty. How could a young coach of a team that never won anything aspire to such high standards?

Well, look at the Union now. Three of their players have played for the national team in the last 12 months, headlined by Fafa Picault's second career cap earlier this month. Others have youth national team experience at multiple levels: Auston Trusty and Derrick Jones played at last year's FIFA under-20 World Cup, and Matt Real and Anthony Fontana are leading candidates to play at next year's tournament.

Most important, the Union are winning. They've set records for points and wins this year, have clinched their first playoff berth in two years, and will likely get their first home playoff game in seven years if they can beat the New York Red Bulls at 3 p.m. Sunday at Talen Energy Stadium (6ABC).

This isn't to say the Union are going to win a championship this year. Curtin might be booed by the same group of fans that has booed him at almost every game this season. But the vision he laid out in 2016 has become reality, and his own work is a big reason.

The organization has had four heads of player personnel since Curtin joined John Hackworth's staff as an assistant in late 2012. Earnie Stewart could easily have brought in his own coach; Ernst Tanner will have the right to this winter.

Yet Stewart proved to be Curtin's greatest champion, and Tanner recently backed Curtin's vision and style. Which means he's doing something right.

"I think we've laid a lot of good groundwork," Curtin said over breakfast at a cafe near his house in Queen Village. "It still has room for improvement, for sure, but I think you can see it's clear what we want to be. We want to be a team that promotes young players, plays young players, believes in the American player, has a pretty cohesive system."

Jim Curtin watches over a recent practice on the fields outside the team’s stadium in Chester. The Union are close to securing their first home playoff game in seven years.
Jose F. Moreno / Staff Photographer
Jim Curtin watches over a recent practice on the fields outside the team’s stadium in Chester. The Union are close to securing their first home playoff game in seven years.

It hasn't always been easy. When Curtin started that coaching license course, he had only a year and a half of head coaching experience under his belt. He got the job in the first place out of almost nowhere, as the interim boss when Hackworth was fired in 2014.

"I was nervous on the way, no question," he said. "I won't lie and say all along I knew this was going to work out perfectly. … That first year was just … I admit I was not ready. You're juggling a million different things, you're juggling interviews, dealing with off-the-field stuff from players that you didn't realize [existed] as an an assistant. It's completely different as the head guy."

Curtin has come a long way since then. If the Union win both of their remaining regular-season games and claim the East's No. 3 seed, there's a good chance he'll get serious consideration for MLS coach of the year. He might even get a few votes if the team finishes fourth.

"If you go through all 30 players [on the roster], I think a lot of them are playing at their max right now." Curtin said. "It's a group that's given everything, it's a group that I'm really proud of."

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As Curtin spoke, he pondered not only his soccer team but the scene around him.

Before arriving at the cafe, Curtin had dropped his children off at the public elementary school down the street. His son and his two daughters all play youth soccer. The neighborhood league has grown from 120 players four years ago to more than 600 now.

When soccer isn't on the agenda, Curtin and his kids ride bikes around the neighborhood together. His wife, a music aficionado, enjoys the many establishments nearby.

They live walking distance from the city's most famous soccer bars, the ones packed with fans of English, German and Italian teams on weekend mornings. They have soccer-crazed neighbors from Albania and Turkey.

These days, those fans are watching the Union, too.

The owner of a Queen Village fabric store recently told Curtin that her son is a Union fan. This past week, a few people wished him well as he waited to order breakfast at the cafe.

"When I'm on a run, a family will stop me and they'll say, 'Really good season,' and that sort of thing," Curtin said. "We moved into a really nice area where the community is strong. And then as you get to meet more and more people, and [they] open up and talk to you, there's a lot of Union fans in the city."

It means a little something extra to him, because his roots in the region are so deep. Curtin grew up in Oreland, attending Bishop McDevitt High and Villanova before embarking on a nine-year pro career in Chicago and Los Angeles.

He watched from afar as Philadelphia's current renaissance began. He and his family wanted to be part of it, and moved here after he retired from the field.

They landed in Queen Village accidentally, he said, and at a time when his old college friends were moving out. But the family quickly fell in love with the heart of the city. Now they don't want to leave it.

"We're city people. We won't be going back to the suburbs," he said. "This is something that's really working for us, and we couldn't be happier here in Philadelphia. It's home."