Curtin counting on change to shake ‘the funk’
The Philadelphia Union are in the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs, barring a rather sizeable soccer miracle.
You could be forgiven for not knowing that, given the mood surrounding the club in recent weeks, or the six-game winless streak, or the guaranteed sub.500 record. Or, the way in which manager Jim Curtin has taken to describing Sunday’s visit from the New York Red Bulls (4 p.m., TCN).
There’s not much to play for Sunday, save for the avoidance of catastrophe and a starring role in a “30 for 30” short film. (“What if I told you, that New England needed just 13 goals…”) The Red Bulls (15-9-9, 54 points) will win the Eastern Conference. The Union (1113-9, 42 points) will end up either fifth or sixth, a trivial distinction that regardless puts them on the road for a wild card game.
With a one-game playoff looming Wednesday or Thursday, the Union have bigger fish to fry than securing that elusive celebratory feeling Sunday. And after last week’s 2-0 collapse against Orlando City that improved their playoff hopes but consigned the playoff chase to an utterly joyless conclusion, the larger objectives may permanently prevent any smiles being cracked at the Union’s accomplishments.
Curtin is expecting the Red Bulls to field close to a first-choice squad, Jesse Marsch opting to have his guys hum along into the conference semifinals next weekend against the winner of a wild-card matchup. Curtin, though, is less likely to risk his players on the precipice of full fitness with an eye toward the midweek challenge. (And if you can’t cobble together a reserve side capable of staying within six goals of Red Bulls, what’s the point of going to the playoffs?)
“There’s discussions, the guys that are banged up,” Curtin said Wednesday. “You have to do what’s best, obviously, to get out of the funk that we’re in and find someone in the group to spark the group. Maybe it’s a new face, a change or a tweak.”
Those discussions surround some prominent names. CJ Sapong (concussion) hadn’t practiced as of Wednesday, nor had Josh Yaro (concussion). Leading scorer Chris Pontius (hamstring tightness) didn’t train Wednesday, while Tranquillo Barnetta (knee) was limited precautionarily. It’s possible none of that group starts Sunday.
Curtin is generally averse to squad rotation, but this might be a decent week to tinker for discretion’s sake. Roland Alberg is an easy switch for Barnetta. Fabian Herbers could start up top with Ilsinho on the wing, or Ilsinho and Herbers could man the wings with Charlie Davies as the forward. Then there’s the possibility of introducing Maurice Edu.
“I don’t know how teams tinker around at this stage,” said Alejandro Bedoya, dealing with a rib injury that could make him a candidate for a lightened load. “… I don’t care what they do. For us, it’s important to get back on the right foot and get back some momentum going into the next round.”
It’s a balancing act, particularly against an opponent that last lost July 3. Curtin doesn’t want to continue this prolonged stumble into the postseason. But he also doesn’t want to jeopardize the Union’s ability to perform once they get there.
“The timing of this whole thing is strange,” Curtin said. “It’s a unique feeling, you know, because it’s unfortunate that our players didn’t get the feeling of coming off of our home field and getting the applause they deserved for the season. We understand why we didn’t because we had a bad performance but, at the same time, it’s a strange one in that there’s no real celebration.
“It’s going to be a quick turnaround against Red Bull. … We just want a good performance, and I think that for confidence, that would go a long way to get a result against the top team in the East, and I think that that can build a little bit of momentum moving forward.”