The Union will cross paths with old friend Haris Medunjanin on Wednesday, and they’ll do so at a time that shows how far they’ve come since they got rid of him.
Not only are the Union in second place in the Eastern Conference, they’ve lost just once in seven games since the MLS regular season resumed just over a month ago. The player who took Medunjanin’s starting spot in defensive midfield, José Andrés Martínez, is a big reason why.
Medunjanin’s lack of defensive bite was the biggest reason the Union discarded him. Martínez ranks No. 3 on the team in tackles (2.3) and interceptions (1.8) per 90 minutes. The Venezuela native also has been a fine passer, which was Medunjanin’s strongest suit. He has the second-best pass completion percentage among the Union’s starters, at 82.4%, and the second-highest average passes per 90 minutes at 48.4.
Medunjanin’s influence was as strong off the field as on it. He was a locker room leader and a great teacher to the team’s young players, and manager Jim Curtin has never hidden how unhappy he was to see him go. Medunjanin was also quite upset when the Union made their decision. But Curtin knew it had to happen for his team to properly play a high-pressing style.
“I’ve spoken about what I feel about Haris the player, just how important he was to our success here, how professional he was, how great he was with Brenden Aaronson and his growth and development,” Curtin said. “It was hard and difficult, and I was upset about it. ... At the same time, there’s a professional element to it.”
After many years of getting big moves wrong, the Union got this one right. In fact, the team has been so good that it convincingly won when Martínez was suspended Sunday due to yellow card accumulation. Fate has it that he returns for this matchup.
“José, after a little bit of an adaptation period of getting used to the league, has shown that he’s a very aggressive ball-winner — sometimes too aggressive. That’s why he was suspended with all the yellow cards,” Curtin said. “But he wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s very passionate, which is also similar to Haris, and both guys want to win. At the end of the day, that’s what they’re on the field to do.”
Medunjanin hasn’t won all that much this year, as Cincinnati’s regular-season record is just 3-6-3 (12 points). But that’s good enough to hold the last playoff berth for now in this year’s expanded postseason field.
Individually, the Bosnian is having a good season. He’s Cincinnati’s most prolific passer with 55.4 per game, has an accuracy rate of 83.2%, and scored a spectacular game-winning goal at the New York Red Bulls on Saturday. It was a corner kick that swerved straight into the net. On top of that, he and his wife just welcomed their first child.
Major League Soccer set the rest of its regular-season schedule on Tuesday, a few days after the Canadian government extended its U.S. border restrictions through late October.
Each team will play nine more games after this weekend, with the last coming on Nov. 8. Five of the Union’s nine games will be at home, which helps correct an imbalance of home games but won’t fix it. The Union will end up with nine home, 12 away, and three neutral-site regular-season games.
The good news is that the team’s longest flight will be to Columbus, Ohio, for a Nov. 1 game that will be televised nationally on ABC. It will be just the second time the Union play a national TV game on an English-language, over-the-air network. The first was the 2012 regular-season finale on NBC.
“I can sit here and complain about things. There’s a long, long, long list of those things I could bring up. But it’s not going to do me any good, and I don’t think it sets a good example for our team,” Curtin said. “We’re doing pretty well. And we want to keep that mindset and mentality that, yes, there’s a lot of moving parts and things going against us or around us, and maybe making things challenging. But every team is going through tough times.”
Wednesday, Sept. 23: at FC Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m. (PHL17)
Sunday, Sept. 27: vs. Inter Miami, 7:30 p.m. (PHL17)
Saturday, Oct. 3: at Toronto FC, 7:30 p.m. (at Rentschler Field, East Hartford, Conn.; PHL17)
Wednesday, Oct. 7: vs. FC Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m. (PHL17)
Sunday, Oct. 11: vs. Montreal Impact, 7:30 p.m. (PHL17)
Wednesday, Oct. 14: at D.C. United, 8 p.m. (PHL17)
Sunday, Oct. 18: at New England Revolution, 7:30 p.m. (PHL17)
Saturday, Oct. 24: vs. Toronto FC, 7:30 p.m. (PHL17)
Sunday, Nov. 1: at Columbus Crew, time TBD (ABC)
Sunday, Nov. 8: vs. New England Revolution, 3:30 p.m. (PHL17; could move to ABC with flex scheduling)