As he always does after unwanted results, Union manager Jim Curtin apologized to Union fans for the team not winning.
“Any time you take the field, you want to win,” he said. “This group is very competitive, and tonight, it hurts that our Open Cup run comes to an end.”
But underneath the conciliatory words, he knew the reality. Union fans should, too.
It wasn’t just that the team was coming off Saturday’s 2-2 tie in Los Angeles. It’s not just that there’s another league game coming Saturday against the rival New York Red Bulls.
It’s also that the Red Bulls are just a point back of the first-place Union in the Eastern Conference standings, with Montreal and Orlando just one point behind New York. On top of that, the Red Bulls are stunningly a perfect 6-0-0 in road games this year: five wins in the league and a 3-0 rout of D.C. United in the U.S. Open Cup on Tuesday.
So of course Curtin prioritized Saturday’s game over the 2-1 loss at Orlando City on Tuesday. And for as much as the Union value the U.S. Open Cup, next Tuesday’s league home game against lowly Inter Miami is probably more important, too.
Let’s note this, too: It was an unusual circumstance for the Union to have to play Orlando instead of a northeastern team in the Open Cup’s regionalized setup.
The reason why the Union didn’t play D.C., New England or any of the New York clubs is that the Union were one of eight MLS teams that got byes into the round of 32 based on their success last year. The rest of the league entered in the round of 64.
The eight teams with byes became seeded teams in pots of four teams each from which the regionalized bracket was drawn. New York City FC and New England also were seeded, which meant they all had to be in different groups. Because the Union were the southernmost of those three, they got drawn into one of the two groups in the southern half of the eastern seaboard. (Nashville topped the other one.)
From there, it was bad luck of the draw that the Union had to go on the road.
“This is as unfortunate as it can get,” Curtin said. “We apologize to the fans because it’s not good enough — we wanted to give them more memories in the Open Cup. But at the same time now, we regroup quickly. ... I really love this group of players; I think they’ll have a good response against Red Bull.”
As for Curtin’s view of the play Tuesday, the decision to go with a 4-3-2-1 formation was obviously a focus. It’s obviously not the first time the Union have used the setup, but it’s the first time they did so with that specific set of midfielders behind striker Cory Burke.
“Our final decisions were a little bit off, which you could expect when you have a group that played together in high-intensity games like this, so there was a bit of a feeling-out process,” Curtin said. “I thought with the ball, a lot of the young guys were very, very good. Against the ball, that’s where it was a little bit challenging.”
But he didn’t regret his choices.
“Maybe, look, it’s a little harsh and unfair to judge when so many young guys are on the field together,” he said. “But that was the choice that we made, because we believe in these players. And again, tonight hurts, but at the same time, I think everybody will improve because of it.”