After seven and a half years as the Union’s manager, Jim Curtin finally has the quality of team that he deserves.
In the midfield, there are playmakers in Dániel Gazdag and Jamiro Monteiro, who have shown their talents in MLS and on various international stages. There’s a stopper in José Andrés Martínez who has battled not just the Union’s opponents but also Lionel Messi and Neymar. And there’s a captain in Alejandro Bedoya who has done all that and more, all the way up to the World Cup.
The back line has arguably MLS’s best left back, Kai Wagner; a fine center back duo in Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes; and a right back in Olivier Mbaizo who might become the Union’s best-known player worldwide later this year.
The bench has eight significant young U.S. national team prospects: goalkeeper Matt Freese; defenders Brandan Craig, Nathan Harriel and Anton Sorenson; and midfielders Paxten Aaronson, Leon Flach, Jack McGlynn, and Quinn Sullivan. And that’s before getting to anyone else who’d come off the bench more often, such as Sergio Santos or Stuart Findlay.
Curtin wouldn’t be drawn on whether the first 11 players whose names you read in this article are likely to be his starting lineup. He knows plenty well, though, that it’s a fine starting point for another deep run in the playoffs, for the team that amassed the league’s most regular-season points over the last three years.
“It’s my job now, our coaching staff’s job, to kind of mold this group, get them where we’re maximizing all their strengths [and] maybe hiding some of the weaknesses that we have,” Curtin said. “But certainly, you know, just from training this week, you can see the depth of the roster. We have competition, and healthy competition, at all spots.”
When the season kicks off Feb. 26, so will the pressure to win. But for now, there’s time to enjoy the talent on the field and the diversity of cultures in the locker room. Each of the players in that aforementioned lineup comes from a different country, and Curtin gets to bring them all together.
“I think that’s the great thing about our club, it’s the great thing about the game of soccer,” he said. “It brings people from all over the world together and then the game tends to speak one language.”
In terms of tactics, the Union should return to their preferred two-striker setup this season. As sporting director Ernst Tanner put it sitting next to Curtin on the podium, “last year we were literally running out of strikers” because of injuries.
Now the Union have the best front line they’ve ever had.
“It’s our job not to oversimplify the game of soccer, but it’s our job to put our best players on the ball as much as possible,” Curtin said. “And the way that our system works, when you have a Gazdag finding balls through the lines, I think we get a lot of service into the box, and that’s where top strikers come to life. That’s what we have in Mikael, and we think it’s a really solid fit.”
It’s also the most expensive front line the Union have ever had, a fact that fans are also very happy about. Uhre cost a team-record $2.8 million transfer fee; Carranza will earn a hefty salary while on loan from Inter Miami, which bought him for $6 million in 2019. There should be three Designated Players on the Union’s opening day roster for the first time in history.
Money isn’t everything in MLS, but the Union have finally shed their longstanding reputation of being one of the league’s cheapest teams. And they have done so because the ownership has finally spent big at the position that, as Tanner said, has “decisive quality.”
“If you need somebody there, it’s always a little bit more expensive, instead of buying a midfielder or a defender,” he added with a dash of dry wit.
One more striker may be coming, too. If recent reports prove true, the Union are close to a deal for highly rated 17-year-old Venezuelan José Riasco. Univision first reported the Union’s interest last weekend, and outlets in Venezuela claimed the Union could pay $1 million to acquire him.
There has been progress in negotiations, but no deal yet. When Tanner was asked for an update Thursday, he gave a knowing smile but kept coy.
“I need to disappoint you — I’m not allowed to tell you anything about that,” he said.
Then again, he had already given a hint a few minutes earlier.
“We are already in a very, very good position with the strikers we are having,” he said, “but that doesn’t exclude that we are signing, maybe, somebody else.”
This much is certain: The bar has been raised for the Union not just by outsiders but inside the organization.
“The question is, what are we going to achieve in the future? The goals are getting higher and higher,” Tanner said. “When I came here, the goal was basically to be continuously in the playoffs. And then we won the Supporters’ Shield, and the goal was then maybe even go for MLS Cup. And that’s basically what we are going to strive for.”
Without skipping a beat, he continued: “I know that’s incredibly difficult. I know that maybe it does not seem too realistic in comparison to what others do. But we were very close last year, and got quite abruptly stopped. And we try again, let’s say it like that. And Mikael is definitely somebody who will help us to achieve these goals.”