Jim Curtin opened his postgame news conference after the Union’s 1-1 tie at New England on Saturday by quoting Rasheed Wallace.
“In the words of the great Philadelphian,” the manager said of the basketball legend, “the ball don’t lie.”
Curtin’s quip was meant to celebrate the goal Mikael Uhre scored mere seconds after New England’s tally on a controversial penalty kick.
But Curtin, who spent the night wearing an eye-catching Mitchell & Ness Union varsity-style Philly jacket, then applied the same standard to himself. He soon revealed that he hadn’t intended for Uhre to be on the field at all, until New England scored.
“If we kept a zero [defensively], we probably wouldn’t have changed anything and brought Mikael on,” Curtin said. “We would have had to change shape, and that would have been a lot changing three times in a game.”
What were those shape changes? Let’s dig into them.
The Union started the game in a formation that was written down as a 4-4-2 but played like a 4-3-2-1, with Paxten Aaronson the wild card in the deck. When the Union had the ball, he dropped back to an attacking midfield line with Dániel Gazdag, and when New England had it, Aaronson pushed up to a high-pressing front line with Sergio Santos.
In the second half, the Union shifted to a 4-1-4-1 formation that they’ve rarely used. José Andrés Martínez was the “1″ in front of the midfield “4″ of Leon Flach, Gazdag, Aaronson, and Alejandro Bedoya, with Cory Burke replacing Santos as a target man up top.
That setup stood until New England’s goal, at which point Curtin sent in not just Uhre for Aaronson, but also Jack McGlynn for Flach.
When Uhre was asked how much he thought he could contribute from the bench, he was pretty honest, too.
“We were talking about 10-15 minutes, but then again, you never know how those 10-15 minutes are going to look like,” he said. “This was really a lot going back and forward, so I got a lot of meters in me. I think it’s always difficult coming off the bench, because you have to get into the tempo with the ball.”
He sure did that. While the television broadcast didn’t show him taking the field, he entered in the 76th minute and scored in the 77th. Uhre said it was the first time in his career that he’s scored with his first touch of a game after coming in as a substitute.
With Uhre and McGlynn on the field, the Union played with the kind of attacking aggression that wasn’t just missing from this game, but a fair few of them this year.
“If this team gets clicking on all cylinders, we have some really good attacking weapons,” Curtin said. “I think in the second half of the season, after these next three weeks, if we build [Uhre] up the right way, there’s going to be a lot of goals.”
“I’m looking forward to having a break away and really build my fitness, but then I’m also sure that I’m going to be 100% ready for when we reach the next game,” he said. “It’s been really frustrating for me sitting out. Because I really started to feel like I was finding my momentum, and I was finding my position in the team, and the guys were getting to know me, and we saw that in Nashville.”
Although that Nashville game was the only other one in which Uhre has scored, everyone in MLS who’s paying attention has clearly seen his talent by now.
It bears saying again that the Union have had all four of their strikers available for a game just once in 14 games, and that was nearly two months ago.
That’s part of why the Union aren’t in first place in the Eastern Conference as the league enters a two-weekend break for national team games. New York City FC went to the top on Saturday, with 26 points to the Union’s 25.
But it’s notable that while NYCFC (8-3-2) has more wins than the Union (6-1-7), the Pigeons also have more losses. The points the Union gained in all those ties could end up helping down the stretch.
Or, of course, they could hurt.
“We don’t like ties either, trust me,” Curtin said. “It’s been too many ties, and in the second half of the year, we have to turn the ties into wins. But it still is important to say, not getting beat shows the character of a team.”
We’ll just have to wait until mid-June to start finding out.