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Union facing big COVID-19 concerns ahead of Eastern Conference final, but Jim Curtin can’t yet say how big

“Whether or not they’ll be part of things in the in the 90 minutes is still to be determined,” Curtin said. Players can be cleared to play up until an hour before kickoff Sunday.

Union manager Jim Curtain could have a problem on his hands with a number of his players now in MLS’ health and safety protocols.
Union manager Jim Curtain could have a problem on his hands with a number of his players now in MLS’ health and safety protocols.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Two days before Sunday’s Eastern Conference final against New York City FC at Subaru Park, Union manager Jim Curtin announced Friday that his team has been suddenly hit hard by a group of players falling into MLS’ health and safety protocols. The group is so big that Curtin said the team could not hold a practice Thursday.

Those protocols cover COVID-19-related matters, but also other matters. And when it comes to COVID-19 specifically, players must state publicly whether they’ve contracted the virus before their teams can do so. That meant Curtin couldn’t disclose who the sidelined players are, or even how many of them there are.

“There’s been a lot of emotion, a uniqueness to the week — you could probably insert 10 different other adjectives,” Curtin said in his last news conference before Sunday’s game (3 p.m., 6ABC and ESPN Deportes).

“We will follow the league’s protocols, obviously, with the hope of having as many players available [as possible],” Curtin said, later adding: “There’s things I do know, there’s things I don’t know, but I’m really not withholding anything other than the specific names and numbers, which I hope you guys can respect out of privacy [rules].”

Curtin has said in the past that all of his players are fully vaccinated, which doesn’t automatically prevent them from contracting the virus but mitigates any symptoms they may have.

The league published a set of health and safety protocols in April which say that individuals with symptoms must be cleared by team medical staff, and be 24 hours since recovery and 10 days since symptoms; and individuals without symptoms must go 10 days symptom-free since the first positive test, get a cardiac screening, and be cleared by team medical staff. But it’s not clear whether the protocols have changed over the last eight months as the pandemic has evolved.

A league spokesperson said Friday that players can be cleared to play at any time until an hour before kickoff, when the lineups are given to the referees.

ESPN also reported that the Union were waiting on a further round of COVID-19 test results to come back.

» READ MORE: Yes, you can get COVID-19 more than once. Here’s what to know about reinfections, including how vaccines help significantly.

“Whether or not they’ll be part of things in the 90 minutes is still to be determined,” Curtin said. “That part is difficult, no question about it. But I said it to the group: This is why you get paid money to play a sport. [The] literal definition of what it means to be a professional is always being ready.”

The only piece of good news is that right back Olivier Mbaizo is officially cleared to play after missing the Union’s first two playoff games under health protocols, a situation he landed in after playing for Cameroon’s national team during the November FIFA window.

Various news reports’ photos and videos showed that players at Friday’s practice included Paxten Aaronson, Jesús Bueno, Jack Elliott, Stuart Findlay, Leon Flach, Anthony Fontana, Dániel Gazdag, Nathan Harriel, José Andrés Martínez, Mbaizo, Jack McGlynn, Jamiro Monteiro, Kacper Przybylko, and Quinn Sullivan. That would imply they are also cleared.

No one else’s status was known. The official list of names in the protocols won’t be published until the team’s game notes are made public, which is expected to happen Saturday morning.

“We’ll put the best possible team out there on the field to try to limit a very, very talented New York City FC team,” Curtin said. “As the leader of the group, it’s my job to get these guys ready. There will be no excuses. We’ll go out on the field and we’ll give an effort that makes the badge proud.”

Curtin also addressed his name’s being in the news this week for an entirely different reason. On Monday, The Athletic reported that FC Cincinnati made a brazen attempt to buy Curtin out of his Union contract and bring him to the Queen City to be the club’s new manager.

In October, Cincinnati hired former Union technical director Chris Albright to be its new general manager. He then took over the search for the club’s seventh manager in its three years in MLS — with Cincinnati finishing dead last leaguewide each time.

Top Union assistant Pat Noonan has also been one of Cincinnati’s candidates and would seem from the outside to be easier to land if desired. But Albright aimed for his longtime close friend, going back to the two Philadelphia-area natives’ playing days in the league.

The odds of Cincinnati’s attempt succeeding always seemed long, because Curtin is under contract with the Union through 2023. It certainly seems to have ruffled the Union’s feathers behind the scenes, though, and from all indications the team gave Cincinnati a quite firm “no.”

Curtin then put some equally firm remarks of his own on the record.

“You know my relationship with Chris and how ambitious their ownership group is there,” he said. “I have two years left on my Union contract, guys. So again, this is where I’m going to be.”

» READ MORE: Eleven key games in the Union's run to the Eastern Conference final

» Join The Inquirer’s soccer staff for live coverage of the Union’s Eastern Conference final showdown with New York City FC on Sunday in Union Gameday Central. Kickoff is set for just after 3 p.m.