The Union’s U.S. Open Cup contest on Tuesday was the first time in a month that they didn’t blow a lead in a game.
Of course, they didn’t blow a lead because they never had one in the first place. So a problem that has hung over the Union for four straight contests is still up there.
What has happened to a Union defense that pitched four straight shutouts in the games before this ugly stretch? Especially for a team that manager Jim Curtin has long said is at its best when it’s playing with a lead?
“We don’t hide from it at all,” Curtin said after last Saturday’s 2-2 tie at Los Angeles FC, in which his team dropped leads twice. That happened against Major League Soccer’s best team, to be sure, on its home field. And the three previous occasions — at Nashville, home vs. Montreal, and at Toronto — each had its own circumstances.
“I think each game is different and unique for sure,” Curtin said. “The atmospheres in Nashville and L.A. certainly played a role. The one that we dropped [against] Montreal is the one that I’d say is inexcusable and can’t happen — at home, where we should be the team dictating things.”
But when you have four unique games in a row, maybe they aren’t so unique anymore. Curtin knew it, and halftime in L.A., he gave a stern talk to his team.
“I said, ‘Guys, we’ve worked our butts — I used different language, but I said — we’ve worked our butts off to get leads in the last three games, and we haven’t taken the full three points. This is a moment now where we have to be killers,’” he relayed.
And how did the players take the message?
“They’re aware,” Curtin said, “and they’re not happy, either.”
The Union’s next opportunity to fix this problem will come Saturday, when they host the rival New York Red Bulls at Subaru Park (7:30 p.m., PHL17). It will be the teams’ first meeting since the first round of last year’s playoffs, when they high-pressed each other into a stalemate and no one scored until Jakob Glesnes’ 123rd-minute blast at the end of extra time.
This game is likely to play out similarly, except it will end after 90 minutes because it’s a regular-season contest. Both teams are still devoted to the high press, and are just as happy to smother each other as to put the ball in the net.
“They’re comfortable not having the ball, which sometimes is the case when you go on the road,” Curtin said, and he knows that from experience. “I think they’ve been very decisive in their transition moments. It’s the way that I think both clubs believe the modern game has gone, into transition soccer.”
But while the Union are riding a seven-game unbeaten streak over the Red Bulls that dates back to 2019, something unusual is happening up in North Jersey.
Not only are the Red Bulls second in the Eastern Conference, just a point behind the Union, but they’ve won all seven road games they’ve played this year — five in the league and two in the U.S. Open Cup. The league wins have come against San Jose, Toronto, New England, Orlando, and Chicago.
This has Curtin on even higher alert than usual.
“There’s certain parts of the field that they pinpoint to press,” he said. “I’m not going to publicly guess what that might be, but the real message is, there’s certain areas in the field where you want to take [a] risk, and there’s certain areas in the field where you don’t. Because if you take a risk in bad areas against them, they will win the ball, they will get numbers around you, they will do it very quickly, and before you know it, you’re picking the ball up out of your own net.”