There are times when Union manager Jim Curtin likes being in the spotlight and getting attention and praise from across Major League Soccer for how well his team is performing.
But there also are times when he doesn’t mind being a little out of the way, winning quietly instead of loudly.
That doesn’t mean he’s happy that the Union suffered its first loss of the year last weekend, 2-1 at Toronto FC, ending their brief stand as the league’s last unbeaten team. But he sees the silver lining heading into Saturday’s home game against Montreal (3 p.m., PHL17).
“Maybe an early, tough loss where some choices go against you humbles you a little bit,” Curtin said. “It’s about how we respond now in the next game, and I think we need to now start a new streak. That’s what the challenge is to the group: let’s start with keeping a clean sheet, then see how long we can go on in another new streak of keeping zeros and getting points.”
He noted, too, that his players are “really angry about how things went in Toronto.”
Curtin said he talked with his players about teams in Europe that win endlessly and the pressures they face. In Germany, Bayern Munich is soon to clinch an unprecedented 10th straight league title. In England, Liverpool sometimes looks like it’s on an endless sprint-speed treadmill as it keeps up with Manchester City.
And in Portugal, FC Porto has won a staggering 58 consecutive league games. With a win on Monday, it can set a record for the longest ever unbeaten league run in any of Europe’s big nations — topping AC Milan’s Italian dynasty of the early 1990s.
But those teams are able to do what they do in large part because their leagues are too lopsided. There are barely any competitive-balance rules and no salary caps. The big powers win, make a lot of money, spend it, win again, and leave everyone else behind by miles.
MLS probably has too many rules, but that doesn’t mean it should have none. (The Union surely would agree with that, having earned their success while spending far less money on top players than other teams.)
It just leads to the league rarely having superpowers. And in the short term, it means the Union were due for a loss. Now it’s time to get back to winning.
“The best teams are the ones that do it with consistency, they do it with the continuity and cohesiveness of the group,” Curtin said. “They do it because if some adversity comes against them, like a missed red card, they pick up in the next game and have a real response. And I think this group is — look, we’re not Porto, we’re not Liverpool, but at the same time, I think we have a strong mentality and I think we challenge each other every day to get better.”
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That missed red card, by the way, still has ramifications. It wasn’t surprising that MLS’ disciplinary committee suspended Toronto’s Jayden Nelson for one game after the refereeing crew chose not to send him off for his early-game tackle on Kai Wagner.
But it was surprising to hear Curtin reveal that a league official called him this week to confirm that the refs got their decision wrong.
“The league called me and confirmed that and told me it was a blown call on all levels, that the whole VAR process failed,” Curtin said. “We I guess accept the apology — it doesn’t help us; it’s such a big call and a big moment early in the game, and such a clear one for everyone to see. … There’s no excuse for it; it was a mistake, and they apologized.”
So it’s on to Saturday’s game against Montréal, a rare afternoon kickoff at Subaru Park. Fans, as well as Union defenders, will want to pay attention to the visitors’ playmaker — Djorde Mihailovic, a 23-year-old Illinois native with terrific skills.
Mihailovic has four goals and two assists in 11 games so far this year, and leads all American midfielders in the league in chances created per 90 minutes. There is a growing drumbeat for U.S. men’s national team manager Gregg Berhalter to call him up for the June swing of four games in two weeks.
“He’s a great player — great technique, great on the ball, can finish plays off in the box, and there’s a real premium in the in the game of soccer for midfielders that can get you goals,” Curtin said. “He’s a special player. I don’t say a special American player, I don’t say a special international player — he’s a special player that has a ton of talent, and can win a game by himself.”