TORONTO — General manager Ali Curtis is happy to stay in the background as the MLS Cup final spotlight shines on Toronto FC.
He wants just one thing Sunday when Toronto takes on the hometown Seattle Sounders in the championship game for the third time in the last four years.
Victory — and hold the kudos.
"I’d like to win and I don’t need the credit on anything — on any signing, on any strategy, on any plan, any result. I sincerely mean that," he said.
But that doesn’t mean the 40-year-old Curtis isn’t enjoying the ride.
"(I’m) really happy, excited, grateful — just kind of a range of emotions in terms of being able to play for MLS Cup and win a trophy," he said. "And proud of everyone’s work to get us to where we are … it feels really really good."
Curtis landed in the deep end in January, when he was appointed Toronto GM after Tim Bezbatchenko left to take over Columbus.
Toronto president Bill Manning, who had drafted him 18 years earlier at Tampa Bay, wasted little time texting Curtis when the job came open.
"Ali’s name just jumped at me … Ali was the guy," Manning recalled.
There were big shoes to fill. Bezbatchenko had overseen the turnaround of a franchise that had gone from league doormat to MLS Cup finalist in 2016 and winner in ’17.
Curtis, the former sporting director at the New York Red Bulls, found himself inheriting a team in turmoil with stars Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez soon departing for greener pastures after the team’s disappointing 2018 season. Training camp was fractious, thanks to Giovinco’s salary demands and a bustup involving Dutch defender Gregory van der Wiel, who was soon dismissed.
Curtis is a man with a plan. But circumstances soon overtook his blueprint.
"Everything changed within 31 days, really," he said. "With Sebastian and Gregory and Victor."
Curtis found himself reacting to new, unexpected situations, digging deep into his experience "in trying to navigate in the moment."
Ten months later, the journey has taken Curtis and his team to the championship game.
Born in Philadelphia, Curtis grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., where his father earned his doctorate at the University of Michigan. His mother worked as a nurse.
For Curtis, the youngest of three kids, Ann Arbor was a melting pot. Neighbours came from South Africa, Nigeria and Brazil, to name but a few countries. For many, soccer was their game.
"That’s how I learned the game," recalled Curtis. "It was a lot of fun. We played all the time."
Curtis was surrounded by good players and coaches. Playing against a brother two years older also upped his compete level.
At eight or nine, Curtis tried out for a local older-age group team and thought he had impressed. But the coach told him he was too small, too young.
"That was crushing to me in that moment, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me and to my soccer career," he said.
Within a week, he found himself with a new club — Vardar — some 30 to 40 minutes away. "And that’s kind of where things became more accelerated. Better team, better club, more competitive. And things kind of took off."
"And so in a moment where you feel down and things like that, it was a moment where things turned for the better. You take those types of little life experiences and hold strong in difficult moments because you never know what’s around the corner."
Curtis’s Vardar jersey is framed in his office.
Curtis was raised with a healthy respect for education. "You had a better shot at being a doctor or a lawyer than to be a professional athlete," he said.
While his family had ties to the University of Michigan, soccer wasn’t a varsity sport at the time. Curtis checked out Michigan State but was recruited by Duke.
He chose the Blue Devils, believing the school gave him "the best chance to succeed."
"It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made," said Curtis. "Lifelong friends, great soccer experiences. Competitive, competitive soccer experiences."
The ACC proved to be a real testing ground — "an opportunity to really develop, grow and see what you’re made of."
"Duke meant that for me, from an academic perspective in terms of what I wanted to do post-soccer. But then also it gave me the platform to see if I could cut it as a soccer player."
A forward with a nose for goal, Curtis finished his Blue Devils career with 134 points on 53 goals and 28 assists. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. As a sophomore, he suffered a bad medial collateral ligament sprain. Upon his return, he hurt his ankle and needed off-season surgery.
"Those are things that you have to deal with — the highs and lows," said Curtis, who recalls the excruciating knee pain.
To this day, Curtis believes he came back too early from the knee injury. He has not forgotten the consequences. It reminds him "to do the right thing and be thoughtful about how I’m dealing with my staff and players."
Curtis was honoured with the Hermann Trophy Award in 1999 and the MAC Player of the Year Award in 2000 (when he was the Hermann runner-up). The awards merged in 2002 with one honour — the MAC Hermann Trophy — going to the best NCAA soccer player.
In the classroom, Curtis majored in political science and sociology with a minor in economics. The summer after his junior year, he interned at Merrill Lynch in New York City.
"And that gave me a very good window into what I wanted to do post-soccer," he said.
Taken second overall in the 2001 MLS SuperDraft behind North Carolina’s Chris Carrieri, Curtis began his MLS career with the Tampa Bay Mutiny.
"He was very high-character," said Manning. "He had a lot of confidence in himself but he did believe in people — and a team."
In choosing soccer, Curtis turned down a full-time job from Merrill Lynch.
He went on to spend three seasons in the MLS with Tampa Bay, D.C. United and Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas). They were not winning campaigns.
Tampa Bay was a league-worst 4-21-2 in 2001. D.C. United was in the league cellar in 2002 at 9-14-5. He finished the 2003 season with Dallas, which ended up a league-worst 6-19-5.
In 65 games (36 starts), Curtis collected nine goals and eight assists.
He had told himself he would play for four of five years, longer if he could crack the national team. If not, he would change careers.
In the off-season, he would go to New York and re-connect with people he had worked with at Merrill Lynch, some of whom had moved on to J.P. Morgan and other companies.
The economics of North American soccer were different back then. And while people dream of being a pro athlete, he realized the job meant missing out on other life experiences.
His takeaway from his pro career?
"A lot of times it has to deal with not just the talent and the players but it has to deal with the culture within the club. The skill of your coaches and your staff is important. How vested the organization is in the on-field performance and things like that.
"There are a lot of different experiences from my time as a pro that I still draw on to this day."
After soccer, Curtis joined J.P. Morgan in 2004 as an analyst in Chicago and Los Angeles.
"They were passionate about banking and finance in the same way that a lot of the people that I played with on the soccer field were," he said.
Days often stretched from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.
"It built muscles I didn’t have at the time."
While he enjoyed the challenge, he learned how difficult the transition from pro sports to the corporate office was. The real world is different from school and internships.
"I had a lot to learn in terms of my first year working at J.P. Morgan."
It’s a life lesson that has stayed with him.
"Which is why in my role now I appreciate and respect that. And it’s important that we build up programming for our players such that when they want to retire or finish playing, they have at least some idea as to what it’s like."
At J.P. Morgan, he learned to appreciate that "there is a real financial cost to every single decision."
Another experience that would prove useful in the salary-cap world of MLS.
Curtis, who has long realized the value of networking, had reached out to Don Garber and kept in contact with the MLS commissioner. It turned into a job in 2007.
Leaving J.P. Morgan, he spent 7 1/2 years at the league’s head office. He served as special assistant to the office of the commissioner as well as senior director, player relations and competition, learning the byzantine ins and outs of the single-entity league.
Living in New Jersey, he had a 35-45 minute train ride to work. He would spend the commute reading the league’s collective bargaining agreement and competition guidelines cover to cover.
Experiences like jumping on a plane to go to Madrid to sort out a targeted player’s buyout clause would come in handy with Toronto in February as the club looked to extricate Alejandro Pozuelo from his Belgian club.
Curtis says he is in debt to Garber for giving him, and other former players, the opportunity.
"He put me at the table in a lot of rooms that I probably didn’t necessarily deserve or (had) earned. But he gave me an opportunity to be exposed to all areas of the business."
"As my career grows, I need to remember that," he added. "To give people a seat at the table that may not necessarily deserve to be at the table."
His time at the league taught him he wanted to run a club. He got the chance in December 2014 when he was named sporting director of the nearby New York Red Bulls.
Curtis was responsible for all soccer activities at the Red Bulls from player acquisition and youth development to overseeing the salary cap and data analytics/performance analysis.
He famously arrived with a binder, his blueprint for the Red Bulls.
Head coach Mike Petke was replaced by Jesse Marsch. The Red Bulls won the 2015 Supporters’ Shield, eventually losing to Columbus in the Eastern Conference final. New York topped the conference standings again in 2016 but was beaten by Montreal in the conference semifinal.
Curtis had supervised the league’s homegrown player program and the Red Bulls profited in that area under him. But his departure was announced in February 2017 with the club saying they had "mutually agreed to part ways."
Curtis has not said much about the Red Bulls breakup. "One of these days," he said with a hearty chuckle.
But the job clearly consumed him. It also meant a lot to his family — the Red Bulls jersey was the first for his young kids.
"I don’t know the best way to articulate how I left Red Bull because I don’t think that would honour that club, the experience that I had, the people that I met. And until I’m comfortable with that, I kind of let it be," he said.
"What I will say is it was an incredible learning experience. I’m proud of the work. We had tremendous success. There were a lot of good people that I met, that I still keep in touch with to this day."
The Red Bulls "prepared me for where I am right now (career-wise)," Curtis said. Leaving also allowed Curtis precious time with his family.
"It was eye-opening for me that I had this great family and I need to spend more time with them and learn more about them and ingratiate myself in a healthier way. And I got that. That’s something that I will never forget."
Curtis met his wife Aubree at Duke. When he left to play pro soccer, she headed west to the USC film school. The two kept in contact, eventually reunited and today they have two kids — nine-year-old Adam and five-year-old Norah.
The family stayed in New Jersey but did a lot of travelling. His schedule was free.
Leaving the Red Bulls forced him "to rethink everything," he said.
"To refresh, recharge — all these different things that have re- in front of them — in a really really good way."
In Curtis’s office at TFC’s north Toronto training centre, a shelf houses books on Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali (after whom he was named), among others.
Above his desk, a photo shows Curtis tangling with Robin Fraser, the former Toronto assistant turned Colorado head coach, in a D.C. United-Colorado game back in the day.
Curtis was sad to see Fraser leave in August but happy to see him progress.
"He’s a very very good human being … and he’s a good coach and he deserves it. He has earned it," said Curtis. "And he’s a person of colour. That’s not lost on me. I’m rooting for him in every single way because of all those things.
"It’s really important as a person of colour to try to succeed … because hopefully someone else that kind of looks like you can say, ‘You know what? If that guy can do it, then maybe I can do it."’
Like all of us, Curtis remains a work in progress. But his life experiences have clearly taught him to be a good GM and a better man.
"The most important thing is working hard and being a good person. Looking people in the eye, having integrity … if there’s one thing, I don’t want to win at all cost. I want to win the right way, I want to be around the right people."
"There’s good people here at Toronto," he added.