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Cory Burke returning to Union after a year and a half of visa issues; Union had deal to keep José Martínez here during FIFA window

After an extended and not-always-pleasant set of negotiations, the Union finally struck a deal to keep Martínez — arguably their most important player this season — in Philadelphia this month.

Cory Burke, center, hasn't played for the Union since April of last year.
Cory Burke, center, hasn't played for the Union since April of last year.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

UPDATE: The day after this story was published, FIFA ordered the Union to release José Andrés Martínez to Venezuela’s national team. Click here for that story.

It’s been so long since Cory Burke last played for the Union that at this point, most people have given up asking when he’ll be back. But there’s finally an answer: the Jamaican striker is returning to Philadelphia this week.

Burke hasn’t played for the Union since April 20 of last year, when visa issues forced him to leave the United States. The Union were initially told he’d be gone for three months, then his paperwork got stuck in an immigration bureaucracy logjam.

Burke spent the last few months of last year on loan at Jamaican club Portmore United, then went to Austrian club St. Pölten from February through July. He has been stuck at home in Jamaica since then.

His 10-day quarantine means the first game he’s likely to be eligible to play in is Oct. 18 at New England. But given his lack of playing time since leaving Austria, the Oct. 24 home game against Toronto seems more likely.

“He is about to be in Philadelphia, which is the most positive news I can give — and the most positive news for quite some time,” Curtin said. “But until I see his face, I cannot confirm or deny he’s in Philadelphia.”

Curtin also confirmed that starting left back Kai Wagner is finally back at full health after playing just one of the team’s last seven games due to a leg injury, but right back Ray Gaddis is still out with a hamstring injury.

» READ MORE: Union preparing to welcome fans back, but don’t have a date set yet

Union had deal to keep José Andrés Martínez here during FIFA window

After an extended and not-always-pleasant set of negotiations, the Union finally struck a deal with Venezuela’s national team to keep key midfielder José Andrés Martínez in Philadelphia this month.

Martínez was called up for his country’s opening two games of South America’s World Cup qualifying campaign, Friday at Colombia and Tuesday at home vs. Paraguay. It was only his second national team call-up, and his good form with the Union earned him a real chance at his first national team cap.

Had he gone, he would have missed five of the Union’s last eight regular-season games, including a 10-day quarantine enforced by MLS upon his return here.

The agency that represents Martínez tweeted on Sunday that he “did not receive permission” from the Union to go to Venezuela. But the matter wasn’t settled yet at that point, in part because the denial wasn’t legally enforceable under FIFA rules.

» READ MORE: Union’s José Andrés Martínez caught in FIFA-MLS tug of war over South American World Cup qualifying

FIFA usually mandates that clubs release players to national teams during national team game windows. It allowed an exemption this time because of the coronavirus pandemic, specifying that clubs could keep their players if there is a government-enforced quarantine period of at least five days in the club’s location, the national team’s location, or the site of a national team’s game.

MLS teams in states or cities with quarantine mandates were thus able to keep their players. But Pennsylvania doesn’t have a mandate, only a recommendation that incoming travelers from certain areas quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.

On Monday, Martínez tweeted that he would not be going to Venezuela. He noted his sadness over not yet fulfilling a dream he’s had “since I was a little kid.” But even at that point the matter still wasn’t officially settled yet.

“A lot of dialogue has happened between Venezuela, between MLS, between the Philadelphia Union, between José's side,” Union manager Jim Curtin said Tuesday. “Things changed and were fluid and were certainly going back and forth, but at the end of the day, all I can report is José is available for selection right now.”

Curtin didn’t offer many details about how the deal got done. The biggest was that “the itinerary that we received [from the Venezuelan federation] just wasn’t adequate enough that we could guarantee the safety and health of the player.”

There have been no direct flights from the U.S. to Venezuela since the U.S. government suspended them in May of last year. Martínez would have had to connect through another country to get to Caracas to meet the team before its trip to Barranquilla, Colombia, for Friday’s game. He would then have returned to Venezuela for the Paraguay game, then returned to the United States.

Now the Union must focus their diplomatic efforts on keeping happy a player who’s been arguably their most important this year. Martínez has brought everything to the defensive midfield role that the Union hoped for when they got rid of Haris Medunjanin and signed Martínez and Matej Oravec — who was on the bench for the first time in Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to Toronto FC.

“It’s a difficult situation, but these are unique times,” Curtin said. “Yes, there’s disappointment, but when the 90 minutes start he’s a guy that just wants to win. He’s a guy that doesn’t want to let his teammates down. The emotions of things by then will be hopefully worn off.”

» READ MORE: How Ernst Tanner, José Martínez and others helped the Union grow into a team MLS respects