Yesterday the Philadelphia Union returned to their home training grounds along the Delaware River in Chester. It was the first team training session at the Power Training Complex since March 12th when Major League Soccer officially announced a suspension of the 2020 season.
The team was training just over the PA/DE line in Wilmington at the state of the art 76ers Fieldhouse and at local club Kirkwood FC’s grounds the past few weeks. But now, Head Coach Jim Curtin and his team are thrilled to be back “home.”
“Today we did officially return to Chester which was a great step forward in the process,” said Curtin. “The fields are in great shape and it was nice to be back home.”
Those fields were dormant for three solid months but the players gladly welcomed a return to near pristine playing surfaces, running around with a “buzz and a bounce” according to Curtin.
Curtin, fresh off his 41st birthday, is working perhaps the hardest he’s ever had as a professional coach in prepping his team and staff for the MLS is Back tournament set to begin July 8th in Orlando.
But recently, the schedule, tournament seeding format, and flight plans have been solidified helping to sure up a few loose ends.
The newly updated seeding format should create some more motivation in the Union locker room considering the top three in their group, Group A, will advance to the knockout round since there are 6 teams in their group.
The team will take a charter flight to Orlando next Thursday, July 2nd – the last possible day to travel down to the Wide World of Sports at Disney. Some teams have already arrived, hoping to get some practice matches under their belts inside the presumed safety of the MLS bubble.
Others, like Philadelphia, are deciding to wait as long as they can, hoping to gain extra fitness and chemistry on their own grounds as opposed to a semi-foreign atmosphere in Orlando.
One solid reason to avoid travel to Orlando until the last minute revolves around training time slots. In Chester, Curtin and his staff can schedule any type of session at any given time of any given day. However, down in Orlando teams will need to basically apply for certain time slots – with no guarantee their scheduling will fall into place as easily as they’d like.
In what could be a “scheduling nightmare” according to Curtin, MLS clubs will try their best to plan efficient training sessions – each club will have three time-slots each day: a morning session, a mid-day weight room session, and another evening session.
The next week of training is easy-going but come July 2nd it becomes more of a headache for Curtin.
Teams can use all three or just one on any given day, it’s totally up to each club’s staff. And with roughly three fields being utilized solely for matches, that leaves around 14-15 fields for training which will be used by 26 teams. Surely, there will be some scheduling issues.
But it will come down to each club’s flexibility and willingness to work out the kinks in what is an otherwise less than ideal return to soccer.
For Philadelphia and Curtin, they at least can take solace knowing the team is fully healthy.
“Everyone is healthy in training and going full,” said Curtin. “We have no positive tests at the moment. Keeping guys healthy before we go down there is going to be critical. We really still have to be diligent.”
Curtin mentioned he has warned his players against relaxing in terms of their safety precautions. Although training may be back to ‘normal’ in some aspects, his players need to remain highly alert and safe to avoid positive COVID tests.
Last Friday, the club pushed with maximum effort during a 45-minute session. Tomorrow, they’ll hope to increase that to a 60-minute session, and by next Friday a full 90.
“It feels like the group is ahead of where we were in the pre-season in terms of soccer, in terms of fitness, in terms of sharpness,” said Curtin. “Part of it is, the new players understand the principles and style of play that we have with our team. Guys like Jose Martinez and Jamiro Monteiro are way ahead of where they were in pre-season.”
Martinez and Monteiro were late arrivals to pre-season camp in January, but it sounds like that’s a non-issue currently.
Other players like Norwegian center back Jakob Glesnes returned home and have since arrived back for training. Glesnes was permitted a return home to be with his newborn child. But Curtin did mention the missed time is something to consider.
For now, he’s back in the United States and should be safe from any extraneous visa issues which the current administration has become notorious for (ie Cory Burke’s literal never-ending visa issues).
Matches are scheduled for 9AM, 8PM, and 10:30PM with three games in basically a week’s time at the start. Avoiding injury while finding ways to keep his team fresh for the early morning and late night games is a challenge.
“I can safely say I’ve never played at either time in a professional soccer match. There’s no coach’s manual. There’s no blueprint. There’s no real way to get an advantage. We’re doing our best in terms of preparation knowing now that it will be a 9AM kickoff that first game. We will have guys training pretty early in the morning so we will be acclimated hopefully to the heat and that time of kickoff,” Curtin said. “Is it going to be unique to have your pre-game meal around 6am? Absolutely.”
And maybe ‘unique’ is the only appropriate word to describe this little tournament in Orlando. Either way, you look at it, those first three games are meaningful and it seems like Curtin and the Union are determined to make the most of it.
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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union.