The Union can see the light at the end of the tunnel now.
Saturday’s game against the New York Red Bulls at Subaru Park (7:30 p.m., PHL17) will be the end of a brutal stretch of seven games in 22 days. Fortunately, the worn-down players don’t need any motivation to get up for this weekend. In addition to the Red Bulls being a longtime rival, the Union (1-2-2, 5 points) are still looking for their first home win of the regular season.
“I have to give full credit to the players for the demand that’s been put on them with high intensity games against really good teams,” Union manager Jim Curtin said Friday. “They’ve answered the bell every time, and they’ve been up for the challenge we’ve been in every game.”
New York has started the season with two wins and two losses in four games under new manager Gerhard Struber — a former Red Bull Salzburg coach who knows Union sporting director Ernst Tanner well.
White, 25, is in his fourth season with the Red Bulls after spending some time in the Union’s academy as a kid. He was coached by Jim Curtin in 2012 on a Union under-17 team that won the Generation Adidas Cup. Teammates included Downingtown’s Zack Steffen, who’s now at Manchester City; future Union midfielder Zach Pfeffer; and future Penn State football placekicker Joey Julius.
“If Brian remembers, I had him playing right back for the Philadelphia Union academy,” Curtin quipped. “A long time ago. Man, I’m dating myself.”
Harper, 19, moved to Scottish power Celtic at age 16 and was a major U.S. under-20 national team prospect before last year’s World Cup was canceled due to the pandemic. He came back to America this year to join the Red Bulls, and has been a substitute so far.
Amaya, 20, was the No. 1 overall MLS draft pick in 2019 by then-expansion team FC Cincinnati. Unfortunately, he never quite fit in there, and after the 2020 season he demanded a trade. He drew interest from the Red Bulls and Union — so much interest, in fact, that The Athletic reported last month that Cincinnati filed tampering charges against both teams.
But the charges never came to anything, and Cincinnati dealt Amaya to New York for $950,000 plus $125,000 in performance bonuses.
Clark, 17, is the crown jewel of the bunch. A Minnesota native, he grew up playing in a Barcelona-run residency academy in Arizona and joined the Red Bulls last February.
His stock was so high when he turned pro that within a few months, Red Bull’s global conglomerate set him up for a $3 million move to RB Leipzig in Germany next year.
So far, Clark has lived up to the hype. He has six goals in 12 MLS games, including three goals in four games this year, and some of them have been spectacular.
How the Union defend Clark will be interesting to watch. The Union’s defensive system is more of a zone than a man-to-man, and both teams play the same 4-4-2 diamond formation. So while Leon Flach is likely to tangle with Clark a lot, that won’t be Flach’s only job.
“To make drastic changes [to] where guys are just chasing man-to-man, it’s not us,” Curtin said. “Are certain guys in this game, where we’re almost mirrored up to each other, are they going to be around each other quite a bit more than usual? Absolutely … But if it’s 4-4-2 versus 4-4-2, it becomes about rolling your sleeves up, and if you beat the guy that’s directly in front of you more than the Red Bull [player] does, you’re going to probably get on the good end of the result.”
Union loosen rules for fans
Starting this weekend, fully-vaccinated fans attending Union games won’t be required to wear masks anymore. The news comes in the wake of announcements from the CDC and Pennsylvania officials that fully-vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks outdoors or in most indoor settings.
A Union statement said fans are “strongly encouraged” to continue wearing masks, and stadium workers will be required to. But the team isn’t going to force fans to prove they’ve been vaccinated, which basically means any fan who doesn’t want to wear a mask won’t have to.
Also, the Union will expand capacity at Subaru Park to 75% for the May 30 game against Portland, before going to full capacity for the June 23 game against Columbus.