On Thursday afternoon, Philadelphia Union Head Coach Jim Curtin addressed the media for the first time in the 2024 season to give some insight on how pre-season is going, some highlights from both the first and the second team (there’s actually a LOT of talk about Union Youngsters here) so far this off-season, looking ahead to CCC against Sparissa, and some overall depth questions heading into the season.
Here’s every word said by Union Boss Jim Curtin
Jim Curtin: “Greetings from Florida, where we have had for this past week the full group together for the first time, with the exception obviously of Leon Flock and Isiah LaFloor, who both are recovering after successful surgeries. It’s been an exciting group to work with, a group that obviously is very familiar. Some new faces sprinkled in as well that are getting up to speed quickly. The work that the players have put in has been impressive. Obviously, there’s some tired legs and some fatigue and some soreness and the natural things that happen during a preseason.
But overall, I think the technical staff has done a really good job. The sports performance department has done an excellent job. And all the support staff has really made the trip a good one so far. Obviously, now we have two tests against a strong Cincinnati team, where we’ll play 120 minutes tomorrow.
We’ll then turn around and push, again, against another Champions Cup opponent in New England, or, I should say, not an opponent, a team that will be in the Champions Cup as well. So two really strong tests before we start for real against Saprissa. The players are anxious to get going, excited to get going. We have some good, healthy competition at all spots.
If I was to step back and say, go through each line from the goalkeepers to the back line, to the midfielders, to the strikers, I think everybody has been their solid, natural self. But if there was from each line to pick someone to stand out, Andre’s being Andre. I think Damian Lowe has had a really, really strong preseason and seems, I’ll just say, motivated by a lot of things this year and what will happen in the summer with the Copa America for him.
I think Quinn Sullivan in the midfield has stood out and done really well on the attacking side and really improving on the defending side, too. And up top, Julian’s been our leader and a guy that has been really consistent and dominant in training sessions each and every day. So all in all, the whole group looks strong. If I was to give you guys a little nugget into each line of the team, those three have stood out.
So, I’m happy with where we’re at. Obviously, we get judged on when it starts for real. But this group has been pretty consistent through the years and we expect a really, really tough test down in Saprissa where the stadium won’t be empty this time, and I’ve worn my players of that over and over and over again. It’s a whole different animal down there playing in front of that crowd that is great supporters, but a very hostile environment, I’ll just say. But we look forward to the challenge.”
Julian Caranza’s future with the Union
Matthew De George: “Hey, Jim, you mentioned Julian[Carranza]. What was kind of your process in this off-season of prepping for this year, not knowing whether he was necessarily going to be back? And what does it feel like to now know that he’s back for at least a portion of this season?”
Curtin: “Yeah, look, Julian is the first and foremost a player that I love working with every day. It’s been amazing to watch his development in our environment and watch him get better and better. The, I think, 14-goal seasons consistently back to back. And I will say, if he was involved in penalty kicks too – I know Danny’s so good at them – but if Julian was involved, you’re looking at probably a Golden Boot winner last year, which also would help with the sale, but that’s a whole different discussion.
Julian is a pure goal scorer. He ended last year with a lot of rumors and deals that were very close to getting done at top-level clubs in the world because he’s a top-level striker, and everybody wants a top striker. We have a great one here in Philly. I think if you were to do the prototypical striker while Julian is still very young and will get better and better, he fits kind of exactly what we are about.
So yes, you see the great finishes in the box and the hard runs. But you also see the work rate defensively against the ball to turn the other team over, to start counterattacks. And he does everything for the team to win, which is, I’ll just say, a really important thing for a striker. You can also go to the MLS website and click on Just Fouls Committed.
And I think Julian led the league in Fouls Committed last year by quite a bit, which for a striker, I’ll just say shows you he’s willing to do the dirty work and the physical part of the game as well. So I like that from my striker. Great killer instinct. We’ll see what the future holds.
It’s always difficult, but selfishly as a head coach, I’m really happy he’s here and I get to work with him. I know he won’t be forever, but he’s going to score goals as long as he wears this badge. And whatever the future holds, I think both sides did a really good job in his taking the next step, which is what it’s really all about. If we step back and take off our Union hat.”
Updates on loans and injuries
Jose Nunez: “Hi, Jim. Good afternoon. Two quick questions. Do you or does the team have any updates in terms of the reported loan of Brandan Craig over to El Paso? And then with LaFlore, is he being added to the season-ending injury list? And if so, will you and [Ernst] Tanner put your heads together to find some replacement and take advantage of that budget relief that is provided by the roster rules over the last couple of years?”
Curtin: “Yeah, first with Brandan, obviously there’s still things in the works. You guys know and have read the different things that he does need an opportunity to get minutes and get games that didn’t work for us in Philly. Obviously, he has good center backs that are ahead of him at this time. Did some good performances and work with the Union II, but is also maybe a little bit ahead of that level. So he’s somewhere in that middle zone where we want to see him tested a little bit more.
Some things didn’t work out in Austin, in Europe, but now we’re trying to find the best solution to get him minutes against high level opponents. I think you guys have seen where the rumors have him, where he will playing against, I’ll just say, older, more experienced pros that are in a growing league that isnt our Union II league. So I think that’s a good next step for BC. I think he needs to get those types of games, because it’s not quite time for the first team here.
Again, with Isaiah [LeFlore], we don’t have to be compliant exactly until the day before the Chicago game. So there’s ongoing discussions, adding a piece in his absence. You feel awful for the kid, first and foremost, because he has a lot of similar characteristics and while it was only a very brief tjme where we saw him, a lot of similar characteristics to Nathan [Harriel]. On that other side where they’re very dynamic going forward, they’re athletic enough to play 1v1 defensively.
Obviously, he picks up an unfortunate injury, which was a non-contact injury, which are always the worst ones, and now has to have an ACL surgery. The first in union history of my medical staff has the told me, by the way, which is actually an amazing feat, unlucky for him. But I know Isaiah will work hard. He’ll come back stronger. He’s still a guy we believe in a great deal.
With the roster spots, obviously, an ACL is not coming back in five games, so we’ll put him on a part of the roster where he’s still in our future plans. But to be honest, he’s probably not going to help us. I’ll never say never on this season, but it will be more for the future now, just because of the extent and the rehab.
And we all know that, yes, you can put a seven, eight, nine-month timetable on it, but you know those last two months are really the ones that you’ve got to get on again. So we’ll make the right decision there. And you’re right – We have to maybe explore someone with a similar skill set, we’ll just say, in his spot.”
Youngster David Vazquez singing with the 1st team?
Jonathan Tannenwald: “Hi, Jim. Wanted to ask about David Vazquez, who I think you said a few days ago before you guys went to Clearwater, that it was something you wanted to get done soon – I don’t remember the exact words, but was something along those lines. Where is that at the moment?
Curtin: “Yeah, look, David first, the player, has done really well with the first team in his time here (in Florida). He’s certainly a top prospect from our academy. He’s one that did pick up an ankle injury, so he’s missed the last couple of weeks here. Actually trained back fully for the first day today. So in terms of where we see him, we see him as a player that is going to be a first-team player soon. So again, that’s our hope for him.
Obviously, now there’s interest, as there are in any good players from different countries. So he has a decision to make. We think our environment is one where if he comes in, I think he’ll develop. And I think we’ve shown that over the years that players get better here. And ultimately, if he does want to go to Europe, that will still be there for a player of David’s quality.
So yeah, he’s still a young kid. Has worked really hard with the group, has improved a great deal in the short time here. And I know he’ll only get better and better if he does choose to stay in our environments. So we’ll see what happens on that one, Jon.”
A generational talent coming through the Union ranks!
Tannenwald: “And also this one, I’m sure, won’t surprise you at all – I don’t think I’ve heard you mention his name yet here today, but speaking of guys with decisions to make, Cavan Sullivan’s in Union 2 Camp at the moment, have you gotten the opportunity yet to go over and watch him?”
Curtin: “Yeah, of course, I was at the game the other night. Cavan stepped on the field and was one of the best players on the field, if not the best, right away in the second half, which was good to see. Look, he’s a player I’m already quite familiar with. I think you guys have heard me speak now for several years. I’m on record over two years ago talking with the league office and talking with everyone that will listen, that he is a generational talent. He is a unique talent.
So look, ultimately, he’s such a talent, I think he will be in Europe one day. There’s no question about that, at the very highest level, where let’s be honest, Europe still is a higher level than MLS, and all young players should aspire to be that. What happens in the middle, that’s still to be determined. I’m not sure on that. But ultimately now, he’s a guy that is a 14-year-old kid still, as well, Jonathan.
So his only job is to be a kid, have fun when he plays every day, and if he does that and will continue to do that, because that’s what comes natural to him. So his pathway, he’s on a great trajectory. Again, I read the same rumors and different things that you guys do. So again, I’m in the middle of it, I guess, and I have to answer the questions.
But there’s still a lot of moving parts, incredible talent. I think I’m on record as saying that for, again, several years now, I think we all know that, and one where we’d love for him to play in Philadelphia. I think that’s clear, and we’ll see what happens in the future.”
Talk on the Union’s centerback depth
Joe Tansey: “Hey, Jim, how are you? Where does the center-backed depth chart stand now? You have three, Brandan is going to go out on loan. Where does it stand? Because you’re going to need more when Damion [Lowe] is playing this summer with Jamaica.”
Curtin: “Yeah, obviously, you have Jack Elliott. You have Jakob Glesnes You have Damion Lowe, who are all in good form right now. [Olwethu] Makhanya is learning, is getting up to speed with the group. I would say a player like Neil Pierre is really impressed this preseason and done good in his minutes against top competition.
So again, I’m happy with where he’s at as well. There’s always a way you can call up your Union 2 players to that first team, and we’ll see if he continues to progress in a good way. So I mean, four on the roster there. And that’s probably good enough to get us through that stretch, but you bring up a really good point.
We’re going to be extremely, extremely shorthanded this entire summer. It’s a busy schedule. It’s going to be one where we’re missing let’s call it what it is, our top players for a lot of the year, no question about it – You’re going to be missing Blake. You’re going to be missing Lowe, right up the spine. Jose Martinez, you’re going to be missing Gazdag. You’re going to be missing, most likely, McGlynn, Harriel, Quinn Sullivan, with the Olympics.
However, that shakes out. So yeah, we’re going to be very, very shorthanded. We’re going to need everybody. Keep giving that speech to the guys – Well, yeah, maybe you’re not in the starting 11 right now for tomorrow’s exercise against Cincinnati. It is a long year. We’re going to need everybody, and that summer is going to be absolutely brutal for us. There’s no question about it.
Could we see another Union centerback signing?
Tansey: “Would you prefer to bring in another center back, because it seems like you’re one injury away from a massive drop-off and experience there?”
Curtin: “I mean, if you’re asking an old center back, if you’d love an amazing new center back, of course(laughs). That’s always going to be my answer. But within the roster rules, the restrictions, the cap, all these different things, that’s just not something that is realistic, and I understand and know that.
I would say, Joe, internally, when you look at our roster, though, in the games, Nathan is still here. He can play as a centerback. Kai can do that as a centerback. Matt Real’s taking reps as a left-sided center back. I would say, and Mbaizo could come in in a pinch and do a job there. So we have guys to get through it. Is it ideal? No, because you guys know what’s made us great over the last five, six years is the continuity of our group and the knowing each other, strengths and weaknesses, and knowing exactly where you are in the field.
So we’ll cross that, there’ll be a game-by-game situation who’s available, who’s healthy, who’s away on international duty. It’s going to be a real challenge for us, no question. And that death will be really, really tested this year.”
Thoughts on the first phase of preseason
Kyle Almoney: “Jim, when you look at this early preseason compared to 2023, what stands out to you the most with the progression of the squad and where you still need to go?”
Curtin: “Yeah, the good news is we have a consistent experience group back together, again, where when they get clicking, it’s really fun to watch in training. There’s been an injection of some good young players that have stood out as well. A kid like CJ Olney has been a real surprise and bright spot in the preseason. And again, you have a little competition now in the striker spot that’s healthy and normal, where a kid, Markus [Anderson], has joined the group and he steps in and has had a good couple days. It’s very early, but it pushes the rest of the guys. So I think that competition in pro sports always brings out the best of the team.
When Damion, as an example, steps up and plays the way he does, it raises Jack and Jakob’s play as well. So I think that part is good. There’s a couple of young guys that have stepped up and surprised. The challenge for any young player now is to not have a feeling of complacency. You want to keep them hungry and motivated and continuing to push so they don’t have a good preseason just with the first team, but they’re guys that we start to rely on to play first-team minutes. That’s their ultimate goal. I think you’re starting to see that.
And I think I mentioned it the other day, the environment that these guys and the players deserve the credit for this, the environment that they’ve created in the locker room, on the field, in the meal room, having a beer maybe. Some of them can’t have beers, but having a beer maybe after training to get that bonding, that’s the real stuff. And those guys control the environment. And we’re just coaches here to facilitate it.
And I think our track record has shown that more times than not, the players tend to get better. And when the time’s right, some of them go to Europe and play at the highest level. So that’ll be the continued focus on the group. And I think the quality of people and players that we have here and the culture is what really drives that.”
12 days until the Union kickoff CCC play!
Roberto Vincenzo: “Hey, Jim, how are you? I wanted to ask you about Deportivo Saprissa. I know that they started their season. I believe they’re like five games in. I just wanted to see what stands out or what’s stood out from them so far.”
Curtin: “Yeah, look, a lot of familiar names because there’s a lot of older MLS players that used to play in a league on that great club. So Saprissa is a team that is the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees, insert whatever you want. They’re the biggest club in their country. And they have a lot of trophies and hardware to prove it. When I say how hostile and crazy and scary the environment is, I speak from that as a player who experienced it and now as a coach.
But I say that with love for the country and the people of Costa Rica, so make sure that point gets put out there. It’s my favorite country to go and visit. It’s where I just was this offseason, celebrating my 20th anniversary. And it is incredible people, incredible beaches, incredible cities, downtown, culture, everything about the country I love.
But I also know when we walk into that stadium, we’re the enemy. And it is going to be really, really difficult. And we’re going to be treated that way. So really the good team, really tough, tough test for the first leg. But look, this is the Champions Cup, so there’s no easy games. And you’ve already seen in the competition if you’re not on your game, upsets happen. And it’s a dangerous one. Everyone in this competition won a lot of games last year and is there for a reason.
So we have to be at our max. Recognize that not conceding, a goal down there is really the main objective. And knowing that when we come back to home in Subaru Park, we can beat anybody. So great test, great country to go to first off, and one that we’re really excited for.
And again, I’ll stress it again, it’s going to be different than the COVID empty stadium year where we got the better of them. What did the players say this time? Now that you said that the first time you guys went down, there was an empty stadium. How are they taking it now that you’re mentioning that it’s going to be filled. They know. They understand. And even when it was an empty stadium, there was a tackle to it at the end of that game, if you guys remember that, I’ll just say we remember each other very well. The rivalry on the field was incredibly intense.
But afterwards, their players were great, even in defeat. So big tests, like I said, a lot of familiar experience, old MLS faces in that group that have won a lot of things together. So we’ll, again, have to be really, really respectful of just how good they are as a team and know that we can’t make any mistakes, especially them being already in season, a little bit further along, us being our first real test. It’s a real dangerous thing for us.”
Curtin’s take on the Union’s goalkeeper depth
Renee Washington: “Thanks, Nico. Hey, Jim. How are you? So I know you’ve been talking about, of course, the schedule and the depth. I wanted to talk specifically about goalkeeper position roles in terms of how you’ve been seeing others stepping up. Oliver [Semmle], a huge addition recently. How has he been performing? And what have you been seeing in terms of the other goalies outside of Andre?”
Curtin: “Yeah, so look, it’s an important position this year because we lose the best goalkeeper in MLS for a significant stretch, right? He’s going to be gone for the COPA America, World Cup qualifiers, I’m guessing, but somewhere in the ballpark of probably 10 games or so, which is a big chunk of the season. So we knew we had to be proactive and add a player of Oliver’s quality.
He comes to us from Louisville, where we have some good relationships, we have a real level of trust. He’s coming off of a really, really strong season and is getting now acclimated into a new group. I love his demeanor, I love his presence in the goal. He’s a big German – There’s no question about it. When you look at him and you shake his hand, he’s got broad shoulders, the prototypical German goalkeeper that is a presence. And that is something that I like.
And he’s a really good teammate in the short time we’ve had to work with him. And it can’t just be on the field, too, right? With our group, we want him to be a good teammate, a leader. So all that character stuff matters as well. It wouldn’t make sense if we brought in a guy that was going to really disrupt things or come in and just not be someone that was fit the Philadelphia Union kind of way of doing things.
But he’s been really good so far. He’ll get some big minutes tomorrow in our test against Cincinnati, which will be great. Some live action for him. But he’s been good in training and is a real presence in the goal. And we’re going to need him a lot this year.”
Curtin’s thoughts on the Union’s loan process
Jonathan Tannenwald: “Thanks, Nico. Jim, let’s go back to Brandan and Craig for a second. I don’t think the deal’s become official yet, even though the word’s gone around. It’s been a few days since it did. Was there any temptation to try to keep him here this year for that summer stretch? And is there a recall clause in that loan deal? Because there wasn’t with Austin. Will you have that opportunity this time?”
Curtin: “Yeah, look, there’s always different pathways in everyone’s development. So as recently as a player like Matt Freese, where he has Andre blocking him. He’s a great young goalkeeper, but he’s not Andre. And this is life, guys. This is pro sports. And it’s hard when you have great players that play your position. I’ve had to have this conversation with Matt Real 100 times. Because unfortunately, Kai has done better than him. And that is something that happens. So there’s two ways to do it – You can either move on to a new opportunity at a different place, where you’re still part of Austin, and we still believe in you for the future.
Or in Matt’s case, we did kind of, I’ll say, the morally right and ethically right thing because he’s a kid we had since he’s eight or nine years old. And we wanted to see him get a chance to start. And so we let him go to New York City. Didn’t work early. And then this just shows how hard it is to become a starter in this league. It really is hard. I think sometimes we lose sight of that. Because we do good at a youth level, it doesn’t guarantee pro success. And every team, every environment, every formation, every system is going to play a role in that too.
And sometimes timing, luck, all those things come up as well. So in Matt’s instance, eventually he got the starting job there. And now I saw him last week. And you say, great job, but don’t lose the hold of it. And he’s going to have to fight every day to be a starter for New York City. Does it kill me to watch Matt Freeze wear a New York City jersey? It does a little bit inside. But I still think it was what was best for the kid. And he’s still a great person. And we wanted to do the right thing.
With Brandan Craig, he hasn’t surpassed those two guys. And sometimes that happens in pro sports. I’d say three guys, including Damion now too. So he needs another opportunity. And we’re trying to make it work. The market tells you who wants you and who doesn’t. Or whether you play or whether you don’t. And the game is honest, guys. It tells the truth. So if you want to blame me, for example, you want to blame the formation. If you want to blame US soccer, if you want to blame Austin, whoever you want to blame, you can blame.
But the game ultimately tells us the truth over time. And that goes for all players in every league, in every sport, everywhere in the world. So hopefully he can get a good season under his belt, where he gets real, real minutes. He gets battle-tested. And then he comes right back to us, Jonathan. That’s the perfect story to tell. And I know people can be frustrated that he’s not just starting with us. But it’s merit-based. And we watch it every day.
The staff watches every day. And this is what we’ve chosen as our top guys. And we’re going to try to facilitate a loan that helps make him get an opportunity to get minutes. Because that’s what he needs at this stage of his career. As a still a teenager, he’s still got a long way to go.”
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