Union manager Jim Curtin knew when the schedule came out last December that May would be his team’s toughest month of the year.
But then the month got even harder.
After playing at Los Angeles FC on Saturday night (11 p.m., PHL17), the Union will fly to Orlando for their first game of this year’s U.S. Open Cup, next Tuesday at Exploria Stadium (7 p.m., ESPN+). Then the Union will come back home to play the New York Red Bulls and Miami in a span of five days, then return to the West Coast to play at Portland on May 22.
“We will have to obviously use the full squad,” Curtin said. “There’ll be opportunities for young players to step up in big games.”
Curtin took the plunge last year when preparing for the Union’s Concacaf Champions League semifinals, and won widespread praise from fans. Will he do it again this year for the Open Cup?
It’s a trophy the Union yearn to win, having reached three finals and lost them all. Curtin won the Open Cup as a player, and knows what it would mean to bring the Philly area its first title in the tournament since the 1966 Ukrainian Nationals.
On top of that, the Union will enter the Open Cup a round later than most of MLS, thanks to finishing second in the East last year. They’d have to win only four games in the tournament to win the title.
“You obviously want to advance in competitions that are knockout,” Curtin said. But he also dropped some big hints that this time, the regular season is more important.
“We’re going to attack the LAFC game first, for sure — we’ll regroup after that one and then kind of see where we’re at,” Curtin said. “We’re going to go after the Open Cup as hard as we always do, so you’ll see good teams on the field for both games. But certainly, our priority right now is going all in for all three points against LAFC.”
He added for emphasis, “There’s no games you can kind of just throw away in this league. Every point is so valuable. You see how tight it is already.”
That the Union are playing the Red Bulls after coming home from Orlando might have something to do with this. New York is not just a rival, but to the surprise of many prognosticators, the Red Bulls are second in the East, just one point behind the Union.
“You can rotate, but the data shows you will lose if you rotate four or more guys, more times than not,” Curtin said. “So you have to find a way to put a balance and put a premium on certain points. … You have to find ways to make the right changes, keep fresh legs when possible, do a great job with your recovery, do a great job with how guys are sleeping, how guys are eating — all those variables go into it when you go through these busy stretches.”
At this point, he was running out of ways to address the subject. So he finished off by saying what he really felt.
“We shouldn’t talk as a league like it’s crazy to play three games in a week,” he said. “All over the world, it happens, and all over the world, it happens at a really, really high level. So we won’t use it as an excuse; we’ll use it as a challenge.”
Saturday’s game will be worth staying up late for, a matchup of the top teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences. LAFC is led by veteran Mexican star Carlos Vela, but he’s not the team’s only key player. Striker Cristian Arango and central midfielder José Cifuentes are big-time, too, and the Black-and-Gold paid big-time to sign them: $2.5 million and $3 million, respectively.
It will also be the Union’s first meeting with LAFC since the wild 3-3 tie at Banc of California Stadium that went viral for Jakob Glesnes’ 40-yard free kick goal. The game was the last one played in Major League Soccer before the COVID-19 pandemic shut the sports world down.