In their last game before Halloween, the Union could be visited by a few ghosts of their past.
The Chicago Fire squad that will play in Chester on Wednesday (7:30 p.m., PHL17) is likely to include former Union players C.J. Sapong and Fabian Herbers, both of whom have been regular contributors this season. Sapong still holds the Union’s single-season scoring record with 16 goals in 2017.
Chicago manager Raphael Wicky is a close friend of Union counterpart Jim Curtin, going back to their playing days together at Chivas USA in 2008. When Wicky was in charge of Switzerland’s FC Basel, Curtin made a few offseason visits there to watch and learn.
On top of all that, the Fire are the club where Curtin made his name as a player from 2001-08. He helped Chicago win the 2003 Supporters' Shield as the MLS team with the most points in the regular season, the trophy he now aims to bring to the Union.
Even if the Union end up slipping out of first place and finishing second in the East, they’ll still have a significant prize. The top two teams in the conference will face play-in round winners out of the No. 7 through 10 seeds, which means those quarterfinals might start later than the 3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5 games.
That is going to matter quite a bit to the Union, because there’s a FIFA international window between the end of the regular season on Nov. 8 and the planned start of the playoffs on Nov. 20. With MLS mandating a 10-day quarantine for players returning to the U.S., the later the Union’s first game is, the better.
And if you thought it was bad when José Andrés Martínez went to Venezuela this month, get ready for next month to be a lot worse.
Curtin announced Tuesday that the Union will “be missing a lot of guys." He didn’t specify exactly who, but there have been some big hints.
Venezuela named Martínez and five other players in MLS to a 33-player preliminary list for World Cup qualifiers at Brazil and home vs. Chile. Jamaica wants Andre Blake and Cory Burke for two games at Saudi Arabia, the Reggae Boyz’ first action since mid-March.
When Curtin was asked whether more players than those three could be gone, he answered tersely: “Yes, a lot more.”
Who could that be? It’s tough to know for sure, but one of them is Jamiro Monteiro. His agent, Carlos Barros of Belgium-based Prestige Sports, confirmed that to The Inquirer on Tuesday evening.
Cape Verde has called up Monteiro for a home-and-away series against Rwanda in qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations, the continent’s most prestigious tournament. The games are Nov. 11 at Cape Verde and Nov. 17 at Rwanda.
If Monteiro goes, he wouldn’t get back to Philadelphia until late on Nov. 18 at the earliest — and he wouldn’t be available to play until at least Nov. 28. That presumably would rule Monteiro out of at least the Union’s playoff opener, and would come close to the next round.
It’s not certain that Monteiro will go. He has the right to decline the call-up. Barros said his client feels he will let people down no matter what happens.
But the Union are probably stuck. FIFA only allows clubs to withhold players from national teams when government quarantines are mandated in either the club’s location or the national team location. Pennsylvania law remains a quarantine recommendation for travelers from out of the country, not a mandate.
The good news is that the U.S. national team is not expected to call up any MLS players for the Americans' game at Wales on Nov. 12 — the program’s first contest since February. The program doesn’t want to disrupt MLS teams in the playoffs, and there are plenty of U.S. players in Europe anyway.
That means the Union won’t lose Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie. But if Monteiro, Martínez, Blake, and Burke are all gone, keeping Aaronson and McKenzie will only be a small consolation.