The Union’s visit to the Chicago Fire on Saturday could be a big game for some players.
It might be Dániel Gazdag’s first playing time since suffering the knee injury that ruled him out of the European Championship. Seventeen-year-old rookie midfielder Quinn Sullivan could see the field again, after a clutch late-game cameo on Wednesday that manager Jim Curtin said was “long overdue.”
But no one on the team will play a bigger game this weekend than José Andrés Martínez, and he’ll do it 4,718 miles from Soldier Field.
Venezuela is on the cusp of clinching a berth in the Copa América quarterfinals going into Sunday’s group stage finale against Peru (5 p.m., FS2, Galavisión). Martínez has started all three of the Vinotinto’s games in the tournament after earning his first national team cap just 10 days before the tournament kicked off. And he has played well, including a highlight-reel assist in Sunday’s 2-2 tie with Ecuador.
There was also a tussle with Brazilian superstar Neymar in the tournament opener. Neymar got the last laugh with a goal and an assist in Brazil’s 3-0 win, but it was still a viral moment to remember.
Martínez’s success has been made more notable by his playing on the right side of midfield instead of in his usual central defensive role. This has the Union’s attention in a big way, and the coaching staff is already coming up with ideas for when he gets back.
“It’s opened our eyes,” Curtin said. “We knew he was versatile but to see it now against real good competition in the Copa América, where there’s so many great players and great teams, it does give us a little more flexibility.”
Sunday’s game should be great theater, as the whole tournament has been and always is. This one has come with the unfortunate side effect of being moved from its planned cohosts, Argentina and Colombia, due to COVID-19′s wide spread in the former and civil unrest in the latter. Brazil stepping in to host was also controversial as the country has seen over 509,000 deaths due to the virus, the second-most of any country in the world.
But, while the protocols have been rigid and the stands have been empty, the soccer has been elite: star-studded, tense, and full of drama and flair. Fox and Univision have made games easily accessible on their TV channels, and fans in the U.S. have feasted on watching the European Championship during the day and the Copa América at night.
“Those games in the Copa América have so much passion because the countries are so talented‚” said Curtin, who has done his share of feasting when not at work in Chester.
At the same time as Venezuela-Peru on Sunday, host Brazil faces Ecuador (Fox29, Univision, TUDN). Brazil has won all of its group stage games so far and is expected to finish the sweep. If that happens, Venezuela would claim second place with a win and likely face Chile or Uruguay in the quarterfinals next Saturday.
With a tie and a Brazil win, they’d finish fourth and likely have to face Lionel Messi’s Argentina on Friday. Chile and Uruguay have their shares of stars — the former has Arturo Vidal, the latter Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani — but Messi is Messi. And he isn’t the only big-time attacker on this Argentina squad. His teammates include Sergio Agüero, Ángel Di Maria, and Lautaro Martínez.
Venezuela is also ready to welcome back some of the 12 players who’ve been sidelined due to COVID-19 protocols, including Atlanta United striker Josef Martínez and Nashville SC striker Jhonder Cádiz. Toronto FC playmaker Yeferson Soteldo has also been out injured, and he’s reportedly set to return.
The returnees could relegate Martínez to the bench if Venezuela wants more attacking punch. If that happens, at least he’ll know how big a contribution he made to get his country to the precipice of the quarterfinals.
“He’s taken his opportunity, and the coach has given him minutes and has shown trust in him, and he’s rewarded him,” Curtin said. “He’s become a guy who you kind of can’t take off the field because he’s playing so well. ... We’re Venezuela fans for right now, and we want him to have a good run and have success there.”