Union set for U.S. Open Cup title match vs. Seattle
The MLS team is coming off a key tie against New York in a game in which several starters were rested for a half.
IN THE thick of the MLS playoff hunt and 3 days before the biggest game in the Union's young history, Jim Curtin was willing to gamble.
Ahead of tomorrow's U.S. Open Cup final at PPL Park against Seattle, Curtin elected to start Saturday's game against the New York Red Bulls - who have one more point than the Union in the MLS standings - with a few starting 11 mainstays on the bench.
Leading scorer Sébastien Le Toux, midfielders Cristián Maidana and Vincent Nogueira, defender Sheanon Williams and new goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi all watched Saturday's kickoff alongside Curtin on the Union bench.
And thanks to Le Toux's equalizing penalty kick in stoppage time, Curtin's gamble paid off as the Union earned a much-needed 37th point, all while conserving tired legs before tomorrow's game. The point kept the Union in the same playoff position they were in before the kickoff - tied for fifth place in the Eastern Conference with Columbus. The top five teams in each conference qualify.
Le Toux, Maidana and Nogueira all entered the game in the second half with the New York leading, 2-1. The trio provided an instant spark, fueling the notion that if Curtin had started his strongest 11, the Union may indeed have earned three points instead of one.
"You can always second-guess," Curtin said. "You can always have hindsight. You can judge me after the Open Cup final and then you can judge me whether we make the playoffs or not."
The U.S. Open Cup, started in 1914, is the trophy awarded to the winning team at the end of a long knockout tournament featuring teams within the United States Soccer Federation.
Its importance was clearly on display given Curtin's lineup decisions on Saturday. The chance for the interim manager and Oreland native to put some hardware in the trophy case of his hometown club superseded all thoughts of an MLS Cup for the time being.
"There's still six more games in the year," Curtin said of the MLS season and playoff race. "I knew that going in. I wrestled with it, I'm not going to sit here and say I knew right away that was the way I was going to go. We wrestled with it back and forth."
Le Toux knows all about being in U.S. Open Cup final, having played on Seattle's 2009 Cup-winning team - he even assisted on the game-winning goal.
His penalty kick Saturday didn't just help the Union's playoff chances, it helped justify Curtin's lineup moves and gave the club the momentum it needed heading into tomorrow.
"We're still in the race of the playoffs and that's what matters," Le Toux said. "It's probably better for us to be ready for Tuesday and get the best chance to win the final."
That the Union was still able to draw, and had plenty of opportunities to beat a Red Bulls team led by French star Thierry Henry shows exactly how deep and worthy of a U.S. Open Cup appearance Curtin's roster is.
The Union outshot New York, 13-3, and created nine corners to New York's zero. Though none is a regular starter, midfielder Brian Carroll and forwards Pedro Ribeiro and Fred all provided crucial minutes.
"I don't think there was much dropoff from what you would call our starters to this group that played tonight," Curtin said.
That notion was reiterated by almost every player following the game, which was delayed at the start by heavy rain that soaked the field.
"It speaks to the depth of this team," defender Maurice Edu said. "We've kind of been saying all along it's not about the 11 players that are on the pitch, it's about the squad. We're not a team that just relies on 11 people. We've had to make changes to the lineup due to injury, due to suspensions, due to national team duty. Guys have all had a role to play during the course of the season, and that's how it's going to be the rest of the season as well.
"It shows that we're a team that no matter who plays they can step in and do the job," Williams said.
And with a lineup at full strength tomorrow, that job will be to beat Clint Dempsey and the Sounders - who lead all of MLS with 54 points. The Sounders defeated the Union in Seattle earlier in the season, 2-1.
"We respect them, we don't fear them, though," Curtin said. "We don't fear anybody. My group is not scared."