Each season, the Philadelphia Union host a friendly (exhibition) against a pro team from leagues outside the country in an attempt to not only grow connections between leagues but to also provide opportunities for younger players in the organization to shine. But should you care? Maybe. Maybe not.
Jim Curtin, Head Coach of your first place Philadelphia Union, mentioned earlier this week he was hoping tonight’s friendly with Pumas UNAM would be a perfect opportunity for him and the organization to flex their youth development muscles by fielding a starting lineup of mostly Homegrown signings.
But, in a bittersweet turn of events, Curtin is without a large chunk of those Homegrowns thanks to USMNT call-ups at the U-17 and U-23 levels – eight contracted players received call-ups overall.
“This Pumas game was an opportunity to field a starting XI basically of all homegrowns, which would’ve been something that was special,” said Curtin. “For a good reason that won’t be able to happen.”
Sure it’s a good reason. And it would be foolish to say the youngsters should decline the international call-up too. But it sure would’ve made tonight’s friendly much more intriguing for fans and media alike.
In addition to losing the likes of the team’s newest Homegrown signing, Jack de Vries, to the U-17’s, Curtin is without a slew of other regulars as well.
“We’re thin right now coming off a very good performance from the group – one of the bigger wins in our franchise’s short history,” said Curtin. “We are eight guys down with the national team. A couple of guys were excused for some personal and family reasons. We’re thin. We have 14 field players today. “
Back-up goalkeeper Matt Freese, center backs Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie, and midfielder Brenden Aaronson all received call-ups with USMNT U-23’s. The four of them tie Real Salt Lake’s four players as the most from any club on the 24-man roster.
Starting goalkeeper Andre Blake received a call-up from his home island nation of Jamaica which is no surprise. Blake can enjoy some much needed catching up with Union striker Cory Burke and Steel FC’s Chavany Willis – both also received call-ups with Jamaica as the Reggae Boyz enter the CONCACAF Nation’s League for the first time.
Right back – perhaps of the future – Olivier Mbaizo joined Cameroon’s U-23 group as they push to qualify for the 2019 U-23 Africa Cup of Nations. Mbaizo earning the call-up is a great sign considering the nagging injuries he’s suffered the past two seasons.
Mexico called upon Marco Fabian to join the club ahead of their friendlies, which is surprising considering Fabian’s age. But the 30-year old has been in a great run of form the last month and a half with the Union. Fabian did not play against USMNT last night though.
Warren Creavalle received yet another call-up from his native country of Guyana, but had to decline due to a hamstring injury he picked up the Friday before the Atlanta match.
International Call-ups: Good or Bad?
According to Curtin, the call-ups are almost always positive. An opportunity to rep your home nation’s crest at any age level, whether it’s a multi-day training, international friendly, or a match with heavy implications, is always something the Philadelphia Union has encouraged its players to chase after.
Overall, it’s a great sign for the club and its players.
But, in the case of a player like Fabian, an international call-up could raise concerns. He struggled early to recover from injury. Now he’s in great form. Some Union fans would want him with the team and not with Mexico because of that.
With a week off before LAFC come to Chester, having Fabian in camp ahead of the friendly tonight could’ve provided Curtin a chance to manage his minutes in order to keep him fit for the big clash on the 14th. Instead, Fabian sat out all 90 minutes of Mexico’s match last night. Hopefully, he doesn’t sit again on the 10th when Mexico plays Argentina in San Antonio.
So, should you care about tonight’s friendly?
Yes. And here’s why.
When the friendly was first announced, the reception was lukewarm. Some fans were excited for an opportunity to see a team from outside the country while welcoming their traveling supporters to Talen Energy Stadium. Others were a bit upset the team scheduled a friendly in the first place – bringing up the question of why it’s needed.
Ultimately, it’s a great opportunity for both the MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX to continue mingling in hopes of a future where the two league’s are battling for North America’s attention.
“It’s no secret that the league is moving toward a lot more competition between MLS and Liga MX,” said Curtin.
Another main point of interest for Curtin and fans is the potential of playing in the CONCACAF Champions League if Philadelphia’s elite season continues.
“If we continue to finish the season strong we can be in the conversation for a lot of those competitions,” said Curtin of the pop-up tournaments between MLS and Liga MX clubs. “We want the Philadelphia Union playing in any competitions – whatever they come up with for next season.”
On top of the budding relationship between MLS and Liga MX on display tonight in Chester, Curtin mentioned Andrew Wooten will be playing. Which for Union fans should be exciting. It’s an opportunity for Wooten to show what he can provide with five games remaining and playoffs on the line.
“You’ll see Andrew [Wooten] as a striker,” said Curtin. “He’s done everything we’ve asked of him. He’ll hopefully be rewarded with minutes down the stretch here.”
If you’re wondering why Wooten’s integration wasn’t as smooth as maybe was expected, think of Kacper Przybylko’s first few months with the Union. Curtin explained Wooten came to the club during an off-season period which forced some fitness woes. But now, Wooten seems set to challenge for minutes.
So in short: yes, you should care about the friendly tonight. If none of the above was convincing, here’s the last point: 19-year old Michee Nglaina will hopefully earn meaningful minutes tonight. The back-flipping goal scorer from the Democratic Republic of Congo is perhaps Philly’s best-kept secret and has enormous potential. Keep an eye out for #20 tonight.
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Mandatory Credit: Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Graduate of Pennsylvania State University ’16. Interests include sports and history. Follow on twitter for Philly sports news – @MMcClain_PSN
Philadelphia Union writer.