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Jim Curtin confirms Rais Mbolhi won't play for Union anymore

VANCOUVER, B.C. - Spending time in Major League Soccer's most northwestern outpost naturally puts visitors at ease. This city's pristine waterfronts, abundant greenery and dramatic mountains make for a superb backdrop to a buzzing hive of modern urbanity.

Jim Curtin and the Union are in sore need of some ease right now. The temperature of the Rais Mbolhi controversy rose from simmering to explosive this week, as the veteran Algerian made a sudden - and seemingly unexpected - return to PPL Park.

But as Curtin made clear before his team headed west, just because Mbolhi is back doesn't mean the Union have to do anything with him.

That's why the Union brought in former trialist and Harrisburg City Islanders starter Brian Sylvestre on a short-term loan from the second-division North American Soccer League's Carolina Railhawks to start Saturday's game against the Whitecaps (7 p.m., the Comcast Network). Trey Mitchell, a reserve from MLS' emergency goalkeeper pool, will serve as Sylvestre's backup.

Mbolhi, meanwhile, was left back in Chester. And when I asked Curtin about Mbolhi's future with the team, Curtin did not mince words.

"He and I have a difference of philosophy right now," Curtin said. "He's not going to play any more games with us. He has a contract, so he'll be training by himself, separate from the team. We'll arrange for that at our facility, but it will be at a different time from when our team is training [and] he won't have any interaction with the group."

I asked Curtin whether there was any particular incident that caused his relationship with Mbolhi to go off the rails.

"There's no one incident to point to, it's just a combination of performance on the field, interactions in the locker room with the rest of the group, the whole package," Curtin said. "I made a decision. I still think he is a talented goalkeeper - there's no denying that. He has proven that on the World Cup stage. But on the club level with the Union right now, we've decided to move on."

Curtin also echoed what Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz - who played a major role in bringing Mbolhi to PPL Park - told the Inquirer's Marc Narducci Friday morning: the team is trying to find a suitor to sell Mbolhi to during the summer transfer window.

Sakiewicz, for the record, has insisted to me many times that he has no role in the team's player personnel matters. But as many people have told me and as many reporters have written, Sakiewicz wasn't seated on the dais at Mbolhi's introductory press conference just for show.

Curtin is well aware of the furore among many Union fans over Mbolhi's failure, as is everyone I've talked to within the Union organization. Right now, the Oreland native is trying to keep his focus on the players he wants to have on the field.

"We have decided to move on," Curtin said. "We're looking to the future, looking at John and Andre now - are they capable starters in MLS, or do we need to address things further?"

It's up to you as to whether you read anything into Curtin's unwillingness to get into specifics about how things got to this point. This much seems certain, though: many of the twists and turns in the Union's surreal season have been beyond Curtin's control.

"You think back to starting the week with tough conversations with C.J. Sapong [after his arrest for DUI ] - people are almost forgetting about that," Curtin said. "You fast-forward to a training session where two goalkeepers get hurt literally 45 seconds apart from each other, and then you're on a scramble to track down the best option to put together two solid goalkeepers to go on a road and go to a tough place to play in Vancouver."

I then asked Curtin a question that has been on so many minds over the last few days: how is it possible for two goalkeepers to get so badly injured within mere seconds of each other?

"Andre's was just a freak one where he planted strangely and his knee locked up on him," Curtin said. "They've since done an MRI - he actually just finished surgery today. It sounds like everything went well, but it wasn't as easy as they had hoped, so it's going to be the full [six-week] recovery period before he's back."

Curtin confirmed that Blake would have started Saturday's game, and that he has been summoned to Jamaica's national team for the Gold Cup and Copa América later this summer.

"It's safe to say this would have been Andre's week to start, and that's why I'm devastated for the kid," Curtin said. "Literally the day of the injury on the field was the day I got the e-mail from Jamaica calling him in. We would have missed him that regard, but he would have had a nice run of games going in."

McCarthy suffered a concussion as a result of clearing a pass back to him straight into fellow rookie Dzenan Catic. The ball ricocheted straight on to McCarthy's forehead, the only part of his skull not protected by the helmet he always wears on the field.

The La Salle and North Catholic product also appeared to suffer a head injury of some kind during last Saturday's 1-0 loss to Toronto FC. McCarthy spent some time down on the field, but never left the game.

I asked Curtin whether the former incident might have had an effect on the latter. Curtin said he did not think so, noting that McCarthy went through MLS' concussion protocol prodecure on Saturday both on the field and in the locker room after the game.

"The one in practice is the one by itself that put him out," Curtin added.

So the spotlight turns to Sylvestre. Curtin said he can't talk too much about the length of the loan because of the emergency circumstances that produced it, but it sounds like Sylvestre could be with the team for a while given Blake's national team duty.

It helps that Sylvestre has familiarity with the Union given his ties to Harrisburg and his trial with the team in January. And it just so happens that he was brought into the pros through the Whitecaps' renowned youth academy, though he never played for the senior squad.

Which means the 6-foot-5 22-year-old's first official MLS start will be against the team that gave him his first official MLS contract.

Sylvestre got the call from the Union on Thursday, and flew to Vancouver from Raleigh separately from the team. Right now, he's still in happy-to-be-here mode.

"It's been a blessing," Sylvestre said. "When I got the call I was ready to go... I have a lot of good friends [on the Union] and good chemistry."

We will find out on Saturday whether that chemistry can propel the Union to an upset of one of MLS' most dynamic and explosive teams.