It’s been less than 2 months since Union’s playoff hopes were crushed by the hands of VAR against FC Cincinnati, but the Blue and Gold are already back on the pitch – even if it’s just for pre-season soccer. The first competitive kickaround of 2024 – a tune-up match against Brazilian giants Flamengo, a strong, early test for Union in their preparations for the 2024 campaign.
5 Takeaways from Union vs Flamengo
Though it ended in a 2-0 loss for Union, Head Coach Jim Curtin was still able to find a few positives to build on and take with them heading into the remainder of pre-season. Here are 5 things we can take away from Union’s 2-0 pre-season loss to Flamengo
1) Big learning experience for the kids
Union is allowing lots of young names to show off their potential this pre-season and to give people like Jim Curtin and Ernst Tanner something to think about in the future, and that mentality stayed the same on Sunday even against a high-quality opponent. Despite the potential of lining up against players like David Luis, Leo Pereira, Bruno Henrique, and Gabriel Barbosa, Jim Curtin showed no fear and threw players like Olwethu Makhanya, Jamir Berdecio, CJ Only, Jeremey Rafanello, Chris Donovan and Quinn Sullivan in the starting lineup in the first half.
Curtin continued to trend in the second half despite being down 2-0, switching the groups and putting opportunities into the hands of guys like Holden Trent, Nick Pariano, Sanders Ngabo, David Vazquez, and 16-year-old Neil Pierre. While it wasn’t a result any of them will be happy with, Curtin says it’s an important exercise for the young guys to get an experience like that, which should be helpful to them and their development in the future.
“For some of our younger players, our new signings, our Union II players, our academy guys – this is the highest level game they’ve been apart of so far, so I think you’re always learning in those moments and I think guys like Neil Pierre stood up and did a really good job, I thought Quinn Sullivan had a good day today as well and was active. So a lot of good little performances, but certainly things we need to clean up and execute a little better, and I know we’ll bounce back and have a good performance against Austin”Jim Curtin on 2-0 pre-season loss to Flamengo
2) The Union still needs to decide on a backup Goalkeeper
After not taking the option on Veteran keeper Joe Bendik’s contract at the end of the 2023 season, Union now has an open hole behind club legend Andre Blake at the goalkeeper position. With the season kicking off for real on February 20th against Deportivo Saprissa in the CONCACAF Champions Cup, it leaves Union with a little less than a month to figure out the backup Goalkeeper situation before they’re playing with fire at a gas pump and just praying that a 33-year-old Andre Blake stays healthy all season. But what if he doesn’t? Well, yesterday we got the first real look at the 2023 MLS SuperDraft pick, Holden Trent in a first-team shirt.
All things considered, Trent did pretty well if you ask me. He proved he’s got some shot-stopping ability, making a few nice saves on attempts from distance, and wasn’t shy to shout out directions and communicate with his defenders. That being said, I’m just not sure Holden Trent is ready for first-team action just yet if anything does go wrong with Andre Blake. But at the same time…what established, proven goalie is going to be OK sitting behind one of the best keepers this league has ever seen? Maybe Holden Trent IS the backup plan?
3) Injuries are going to be a problem again, and depth is going to be needed
I try really hard not to let my thoughts around this team get too high or too low during the off-season and pre-season because there’s plenty of time to do that once the regular season kicks off. So truly, one of the only things that bummed me out yesterday was learning that a few players were already missing from the first tune-up game of the pre-season due to injury.
Both Tai Baribo and Julián Carranza were dealing with minor ankle injuries that kept them from being involved, though it doesn’t seem significant enough for them to leave camp. Leon Flach on the other hand may have a bit more of a serious issue and has returned to Philadelphia to deal with a pectoral muscle injury, per Jonathan Tannenwald of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Not only was I disappointed not to get a first glimpse of Leon Flach and Tai Baribo ahead of a big 2024 season for both players, but I’m nervous that early injuries are a sign of more to come with another jam-packed season ahead. Having depth options at every position is going to be needed this season if the Union doesn’t want to see a significant drop-off in quality when someone inevitably gets injured or is away on international duty.
4) Head into the new season with an open mind and without bias
It’s easy to rag on some players, and maybe at times, those players are deserving of the criticism. But I think it’s worth going into 2024 with an open mind towards every name on this roster. Lots of people, myself included, have been harsh towards Joaquin Torres – and many of us thought Union was ready to move on from Torres this off-season. But he’s still on the roster, and Union desperately needs a backup #10 to Daniel Gazdag, so clearly Union hasn’t given up complete hope on him yet, and I thought he showed some positive signs in his 45 minutes against Flamengo on Sunday.
Tai Baribo is another guy that comes to mind here – A guy who played less than 2 full games worth of minutes last season, so no one quite knows what Tai Baribo has to offer. Even if he can add 5-8 goals across the MLS season, that’ll be a big help to Union in the long run. And guys like Chris Donovan, who might be the most meme-worthy player on this roster at times, have shown some real progress over the last season, coming up with some big goals in important moments for Union in 2023.
My point is, you never know what turning a new leaf can do for someone. People were ready to ship Daniel Gazdag back to Europe after his first half-season – now he’s likely to become the Union‘s all-time leading goal scorer this season. Let’s not write anyone off before they’ve given us a reason to.
5) Take game 1 with a grain of salt
It’s never fun losing, but this is one you really shouldn’t take with more than a grain of salt. How teams perform in pre-season rarely translates over to the regular season, so there’s no point in getting frustrated, drafting up angry emails to your ticket reps, or announcing your protest against the club via social media after a 2-0 loss in pre-season against a team who’s value is probably somewhere around triple that of Union’s, if not higher.
The boys have only had less than a week of training before their first tune-up game and went into it with a few starting XI-caliber players missing. You’d love to start the season off on a high note, but as Jim Curtin said – there are still a few positives to take away from the first kickaround of the season, and they’ll be ready to bounce back with a good performance in their second pre-season game against Austin FC on Jan 23rd.
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