If the nearly six-month-long coronavirus pandemic has upended your sense of time, you’re far from alone. It has for Union players and coaches just as much. Perhaps this will help set you straight: When the Union take the field Tuesday night at Subaru Park, it will have been 309 days since the team’s last home game.
And coincidentally, this game will be against the same opponent as that one: the New York Red Bulls (7:30 p.m., PHL17). Yes, that last home game was last year’s historic playoff win.
“That’s actually crazy to think,” centerback Jack Elliott said. “It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, but at the same time, it has.”
Manager Jim Curtin has walked into the stadium a few times this summer, but it felt different when he did so this week.
“I have to admit it felt strange to even walk in the locker room,” Curtin said. “To actually have a training session on the field for the first time in almost, gosh, it’s getting close to a calendar year — I missed it.”
There won’t be any fans in the stands, though a group from the Sons of Ben supporters’ club is going to try to mimic Citizens Bank Park’s Phanatic Crew by setting up a television and socially-distanced chairs outside one of the gates. (With mask-wearing required, the organizer said on Twitter.) We’ll have to wait until the time comes to find out whether they’ll be audible from the field.
Fans have also been able to buy cardboard cutouts of themselves to have placed in the stands, and Subaru added to that by buying cutouts of dogs up for adoption at local shelters.
The lack of atmosphere at fan-less games doesn’t just matter to fans, it matters to players, too. And even if the players got accustomed to it while at Disney World for this summer’s tournament, it’s still strange to play a game at a real stadium — whether Subaru Park or cavernous Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., where the Union played a scoreless draw with the New England Revolution last Thursday. Midfielder Brenden Aaronson said he could hear his voice echoing as he shouted to teammates, and Curtin said he could shout to players all the way across the field.
“I think that’s something that we’re going to have to get used to, because who knows what’s going to happen in the future,” Aaronson said.
Curtin said it’s been a topic of conversation within the team this week.
“We talked to the players a lot about creating the energy and the emotion as if the fans are there,” he said. “It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s something that we all have the responsibility [to do] when we play at home, to play with pride for our fans.”
While the Union enter Tuesday’s game with a clean bill of health — including left back Kai Wagner, who missed the New England game with an unspecified leg contusion — that only extends as far as the MLS team. The USL team has canceled three straight games as it continues to deal with two coronavirus cases within its ranks.
The organization has taken some significant steps to keep the MLS and USL squads separate, which doesn’t normally happen. Curtin often invites the USL team’s top prospects to train with the big-league squad, and MLS players who don’t get much game action sometimes play in the USL group. All of that is on hold now, and could be for a while — and at a notable time, because the USL team has three players who will move up to MLS next year.
“Those are guys that I want training with the first team every day,” Curtin said. “It’s frustrating, but it’s reality now.”