After proving skeptics wrong by finishing second in the East, some of the Union’s iron men finally get to rest
“We didn’t play perfect all year,” manager Jim Curtin said, “but we also showed a lot of toughness, a lot of resiliency."
NEW YORK — Union manager Jim Curtin knew his team didn’t play well enough in Sunday’s regular season-ending 1-1 tie at New York City FC. But he also knew that for most of the afternoon, it wasn’t necessary.
Like the fans in the stands, the players and coaches on the sidelines at Yankee Stadium knew that Nashville SC and the New York Red Bulls spent most of Sunday afternoon locked in the same score. So they knew that the Union only needed a tie to lock up the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 playoff seed. And Curtin knew that it affected how his team played, even if it left the Union walking a tightrope in the game’s final minutes.
“I’m supposed to say we were just focused on the 90 minutes and just on New York City, but I’ll just say both teams knew what was needed,” Curtin said. “The information comes in quickly, things change quickly, but overall it stayed pretty calm on the sidelines and we got the job done.”
» READ MORE: Union’s 1-1 tie at New York City FC is just enough to earn No. 2 playoff seed
The calmness on the sidelines wasn’t a given for reasons beyond what was happening on the field. Curtin had promised his players a night of pizza and beer if they could deliver a shutout, a move reminiscent of a famous similar promise made by longtime Premier League manager Claudio Ranieri in September 2015 when his Leicester City squad’s defense was struggling.
It took the Foxes 10 games to do it, but after they finally did, Ranieri delivered on his promise. And the following spring, Leicester won the Premier League title in one of modern European soccer’s greatest underdog triumphs.
The Union will play at most four games in the playoffs, which start Nov. 20. (The educated guess here is their first-round game will be Nov. 21, a Sunday.) But if there’s a parallel beyond that … well, let’s not go there yet.
“Andre [Blake] was just yelling at me that he wanted beer and pizza,” Curtin said in his postgame news conference. “But I said, ‘You guys gave up a goal, and we were up a man. So you’re definitely not getting any beer and pizza.’”
Curtin indicated that everyone involved was able to laugh it off afterward, a sign of the strong chemistry in the Union’s locker room.
“We didn’t play perfect all year,” he said, “but we also showed a lot of toughness, a lot of resiliency in what was, I think, probably one of our more challenging years in terms of players moving on to other places — to big clubs — injuries, international call-ups, the Champions League.”
He’s right about that. After the sales of Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie and the retirement of Ray Gaddis in the offseason, few pundits picked the Union to follow up last season’s first-place finish by finishing second this time. The team’s doing so has established it as a well-respected club in MLS after so many years as an afterthought.
Of course, the ultimate verdict gets rendered in the playoffs. (And too much selling without too much replenishment leaves the cupboard bare, as it was at times this year when many injuries hit at once.)
But now the Union get a reward whose significance trails only the ability to host two rounds of the playoffs: a significant stretch of rest during this month’s FIFA window for players not going to national teams.
That group includes five of the iron men of this team: Kacper Przybylko, Alejandro Bedoya, Jack Elliott, Jakob Glesnes and Kai Wagner.
“I think we are really grateful for the rest, and if everybody’s back at some point, we will continue to work hard and we will prepare ourselves for the playoffs,” said Leon Flach, who has also put in some long shifts this year.
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Of course, plenty of important players are headed to their national teams, too, for World Cup qualifiers.
Andre Blake, Cory Burke, and Alvas Powell are on Jamaica’s squad that will host the United States in Kingston on Nov. 16, after visiting El Salvador on Friday.
Olivier Mbaizo and Jamiro Monteiro will be with Cameroon and Cape Verde for the final games of African World Cup qualifying’s penultimate stage — and both nations have a chance to reach the final round.
Dániel Gazdag will be with Hungary, and José Andrés Martínez will be with Venezuela.
And Paxten Aaronson, Quinn Sullivan, and Jack McGlynn will be with the U.S. under-20 team for a mini-tournament in Mexico that marks the U.S. youth national team program’s return to action for the first time since the pandemic started. That is badly needed, because next summer’s Concacaf Under-20 Championship tournament will serve as qualifying for both the next Under-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics.
The players heading abroad will have to make the most of whatever down time they have amid their games and travel.
“To be honest, there’s no time for rest,” Blake said. “It is what it is, and as professionals we have to find ways to figure it out and just manage our bodies, and see how well we can get the best of finding stuff that can help us with recovery.”
At least they know that once they get back home, they won’t have to go anywhere for a good while.