Curtin, Elliott, and Union prep for Orlando

Union center back Jack Elliott spoke with reporters yesterday about his experience the past three months, he and his teammates return to training, and his outlook on the MLS is Back Tournament next month.

Mandatory Credit: PhiladelphiaUnion.com

The Philadelphia Union is ramping up their full team training routines in anticipation of the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando starting July 8th. And center back Jack Elliott and his fellow teammates are feeling sharp and ready to go.

“The first few days of team training that we’ve had have been very good,” said Elliott. “I think the quality of football has been not what you’d expect from people who have not played football together in a few months. I think everyone has stayed in great shape and even progressed.”

Union head coach Jim Curtin echoed similar sentiments Wednesday afternoon when speaking with reporters.

“I’m excited with where we are in terms of fitness,” said Curtin. “I thought we would lose a little bit having such a long lay-off but the players have impressed.”

The team recently made a very welcomed transition back to all-natural grass playing surfaces thanks to local connections in Delaware at Kirkwood Soccer Club – just a few minutes down the road from where training resumed at the 76ers Fieldhouse complex in Wilmington.

The switch from turf and its tendencies to inflame already hot temperatures with heat from the sun radiating back up from the artificial playing surface is something both Curtin and Elliott touched on this week.

“We have started training on grass out in Kirkwood, still in Delaware,” Curtin mentioned. “Overall the training sessions have been really intense and really sharp from the players.”

For Curtin, a return to Kirkwood brought back memories from his youth days – as young as 8 or 9 years old, playing club matches there. For young midfielder and Union homegrown Anthony Fontana, it’s a return to his youth club fields. And for center back and fellow homegrown Mark McKenzie, it’s a familiar place as well considering he was able to utilize those grass fields through club connections for personal training the last two-three months.

With turf comes unnatural bounces of the ball, an odd pace of play, and the above-mentioned heat. But with grass, many of those concerns are erased.

Elliott joked that many guys had problems with that turf heat, some may be experiencing close to “third-degree burns” on their feet with a chuckle. But grass is where it’s at. “I think every footballer enjoys being on grass,” said Elliott.

So with access to grass training fields and a green light to continue full team training, as usual, Curtin and his staff have a plan in place that will hopefully kick his squad into first gear by July 9th for their opening match-up against Nashville SC.

“Our goal moving forward is to work in three-week blocks,” explained Curtin. “Each week will end on a Friday where we have a build-up in our minutes. We’ll try to log just over 45 minutes this Friday. Hopefully, we can build to 60 the following Friday and then ultimately 90 before we prepare for that most important first game…”

For now, the plan seems clear: enhance the already impressive fitness levels of the group while attempting to get everyone up to full match readiness. All while trying not to fixate on the fact that players are to be isolated in their own hotel rooms and lobbies for 6-8 weeks.

It’s a real concern. As Elliott mentioned.

A hotel room by yourself “can be a little bit soulless in there” said Elliott, and most people who’ve had extended stays in hotels can echo that sentiment.

But it’s not all that bleak. Elliott did mention the team chemistry should be something that increases considering teammates will rely on each other to spend free time together.

It’s an interesting experiment really. How will professional athletes handle such an unprecedented idea such as a 6-8 week tournament with no fans and no real personal free time to unwind with family or friends? Will those odd circumstances affect players’ performance levels?

Elliott doesn’t seem to concerned about the latter.

“These games are all going to count for something, they’re all going to be important games,” said Elliott. “They count for the league and obviously we’re trying to do as best we can and go on to win the tournament. We all have that view. We prepare for it like any other game.”

From a fan perspective, some may worry that the general atmosphere inside an empty stadium may lessen the competition levels on the pitch. And maybe there’s some credibility there in that claim. But ultimately it’s up to the athletes on the field to realize matches can be played at high levels with no fans.

“It will certainly be a different atmosphere than we’re used to. The complex and the stadiums might have a pre-season kind of vibe but I don’t think the competition will,” said Elliott.

But the most challenging aspect of this little tournament in Orlando may come from odd kick-off times. Though the times of matches have yet to be confirmed Elliott mentioned 9:00 AM, 8:00 PM, and 10:30 PM timeslots are being thrown around.

For him, and most likely other players, those odd start times may cause the most difficulties in terms of getting up for a 9:00 AM clash or staying calm and patient throughout the day in the build-up to a 10:30 PM kick. Elliott repeatedly used the word “interesting” which seems very fitting.

“Right now for me days of the week almost blur into one,” joked Elliott. “The times are the thing that’s going to be different for a lot of players. Obviously we all train at that time [9:00 AM] but game-days are a little bit different than getting up for training.”

Either way, they’ll have to find ways to be ready whenever they’re called upon. And that’s a unique skill that Curtin and his staff have showcased the last two seasons.

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Mandatory Credit: PhiladelphiaUnion.com

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