The Philadelphia Union are on the verge of hosting their first home MLS Cup Playoff match since 2011, and could finally claim the first playoff victory in franchise history. But will they do it? Head Coach Jim Curtin is confident his group has what it takes.
Yesterday afternoon, Union Head Coach Jim Curtin fielded questions during his weekly press conference with the media. He explained the mood in training this week, how he and his staff are preparing for Red Bull, and provided injury updates. But the most important question remains unanswered, can this team finally grab that playoff win.
“The excitement and the urgency I think has been there now from the players,” said Curtin of the morale in training. “You have that feeling that it’s a special time of the year. It doesn’t take a ton to get motivated for the playoffs, but I’d say now this week has the real feel of a playoff week.”
That should be a positive sign for Union fans everywhere. But perhaps more positive is how Curtin and his staff are taking full advantage of the increased rest between the end of the MLS regular season and the playoffs.
“I do have to give credit to the league for the format and structure. I think it is a positive,” said Curtin. “There’s more of a build-up. Teams have more time to prepare and it’s healthy for the league. There’s a ton that goes into the selection process and it’s not an easy one. Now it’s the fun part.”
That fun part includes taking on one of the more decorated franchises in all of MLS Sunday afternoon at Talen Energy Stadium. Red Bull not only are familiar with winning big games in this league, but their roster also contains players with actual MLS Cup Playoff experience – perhaps the most worrying advantage Red Bull have with them heading into this match-up. This trip to the 2019 MLC Cup Playoffs is a league record 20th appearance.
But Philadelphia has a much-improved roster from years’ past. And the quality of the bench selections Curtin has to dispose of is also at it’s highest compared to recent years. The quality of Curtin’s roster is perhaps causing him a bit of headache oddly enough heading into Sunday.
“We have guys playing in their best form that aren’t going to make the 18,” said Curtin. “That’s hard. That’s different than past years. In past years after you get through the first 12 guys, there was a bigger drop-off.”
Of those 18, a select few will need to elevate their games to the highest possible level in order for Philadelphia to breakdown Red Bull. Players like Haris Medunjanin, Alejandro Bedoya, and Jack Elliott will need to be razor-focused while maintaining the group’s composure throughout the middle of the pitch. In other words, those veterans with loads of regular-season minutes will need to carry even more weight.
And players like Jamiro Monteiro and Kacper Przybylko will need to continue being the game-changing talents they have been all year.
“I mentioned to our guys that the playoffs is where we want to be and its where good players become great players and its where great players become legends,” said Curtin. “It’s why you play, it’s what motivates you. These defining moments are special and as professional athletes, that’s what they live for.”
Curtin has done more than enough to get his guys psychologically ready for Sunday’s big battle. But what he and his staff are still tinkering with is the desired formation and players to select Sunday. But with the added layoff leading up to the match, Curtin has been able to take a deep dive into the numbers during this process.
“A lot of variables go into it, certainly,” said Curtin. “I’m a coach that [tries] to not make it about me and not do something drastic going into the playoffs. Or change something that hasn’t been successful. We’ll put a group on the field that we know will compete,”
But drastic changes may not be needed. Simple changes in their approach can prove wonders. Which is why Curtin and his staff are weighing every possible aspect when crunching numbers. They looked at the success rate they have vs Red Bull when utilizing different formations – the 4-4-2 v 4-2-3-1 for example. They factored in home v away numbers as well as focused on specific players’ impacts on previous matches – Ilsinho as a starter v a sub for example.
In other words, no stone is being left unturned as Curtin tries to figure out a way to get that first playoff win the fan base so desperately needs and wants. Time will tell, but for now, all things seem to be sailing smoothly for Philadelphia as Red Bull await.
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Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports