When the Union signed Matej Oravec in January, the expectation was that he’d become the team’s starting defensive midfielder.

Ten months into his time here, he has yet to play a minute.

The pandemic obviously is a big factor in that, and not just because of Major League Soccer’s four-month shutdown earlier this year. Oravec would have gotten playing time with the Union’s USL team by now if not for a rule that MLS teams can’t move players to and from the USL without a 10-day quarantine period.

The Union sent academy products Cole Turner and Jack de Vries down but preferred that Oravec practice with the first team. Their only move with Oravec was letting him go to his native Slovakia’s under-21 team in late August and early September. He quarantined for 10 days upon returning to Philadelphia.

Of course, the biggest factor in Oravec’s lack of playing time has been José Andrés Martínez locking down the starting job. Warren Creavalle has done better than many expected, too. But heading into this past Wednesday’s game against FC Cincinnati, Martínez was out of the country, and Creavalle wasn’t fully healthy. On top of that, the Union were playing their second of five games in 16 days, and Cincinnati isn’t very good.

So the time seemed right for Oravec, who had been on the bench in the two previous games, to finally get on the field.

Not only did he not play, Union manager Jim Curtin changed his tactics to avoid having a pure defensive midfielder in the lineup. Jamiro Monteiro and Alejandro Bedoya took the two deep midfield roles in the 4-2-3-1 formation.

Jamiro Monteiro (right) played a defensive midfield role in the Union's win over FC Cincinnati on Wednesday.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Jamiro Monteiro (right) played a defensive midfield role in the Union's win over FC Cincinnati on Wednesday.

The switch worked, breaking Cincinnati’s stubborn resistance after just under an hour. After Bedoya scored the game’s second goal, Creavalle entered to play next to him. With 10 minutes to go, the score was 3-0, and Curtin gave Bedoya the rest of the night off.

But Oravec still stayed on the bench.

What gives? The question came to Curtin a few times Friday as he previewed Sunday’s home game against the Montreal Impact (7:30 p.m., PHL17).

As Curtin offered his answer, it took him a while to get to Oravec. He went to Creavalle first, saying that the veteran is “certainly more of an option now to start than he was previously.”

Then he pitched the idea of staying with the 4-2-3-1 and pairing Monteiro or (more likely) Bedoya with Creavalle so that each wouldn’t have to shoulder the full burden.

Then he said he had thought about putting Jack Elliott at the bottom of the usual 4-4-2 diamond since Elliott played some defensive midfield in college at West Virginia. But that can’t happen Sunday because Jakob Glesnes is in the league’s concussion protocol. Glesnes sustained some big hits Wednesday night, including a head-to-head collision with Mark McKenzie, and was replaced by Elliott at halftime.

After all that, Curtin finally said “certainly, Matej is in the discussion for the position.”

The Union’s Jack Elliott heads the ball against Cincinnati on Wednesday.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
The Union’s Jack Elliott heads the ball against Cincinnati on Wednesday.

Curtin noted along the way that the numbers in a formation don’t always matter in the end, and he has a point. No matter how many defenders or midfielders or forwards the Union play, they’re going to press opponents and try to force turnovers.

He has also said a few times lately that he’ll play Oravec if he’s needed. But the signal is clear that Curtin hasn’t reached that point yet, and he said Friday that there might be “unfair expectations” on the player.

That signal came through clearly, too.

“He’s working hard to get on the field, and when we feel he’s ready, we always put the group that we feel can get the most points‚” Curtin said. “It’s a question that comes up every week, it seems. But he’ll certainly play when the time is right, and we’ll see when that is.”