Nine years ago, ESPN soccer analyst Alejandro Moreno was in the starting lineup for the Union’s first ever game. Six years ago, he was the team’s local TV color analyst, his first full-time gig on camera after ending his playing career.
On Thursday night, he’ll be present for another piece of history. Moreno will be the color analyst on ESPN2′s national broadcast of the Union’s Eastern Conference semifinal at reigning MLS champion Atlanta United. Kickoff is set for 8:08 p.m., with coverage starting at 8. The winner will host the Eastern Conference final on Oct. 30, thanks to Toronto FC’s upset of New York City FC on Wednesday.
Though Moreno only played one season here (and only scored two goals in 26 games), he has paid plenty of attention to the Union over the years. He watched this past Sunday as the Union achieved their first ever playoff win, coming back from 3-1 down to beat the New York Red Bulls, 4-3, in extra time.
“Sometimes, it’s so easy to stray away from something that could potentially be successful, in thinking that things are going to get better quickly,” Moreno told The Inquirer. “In this case, Jim Curtin and his staff and the organization have done a wonderful job of putting together a group of players that from the outside looking in, people may doubt what their skill level and talent level truly is. But more importantly, inside the locker room, it’s also very clear that they believe in what they’re doing and that there is no substitute for that.”
Moreno has been particularly impressed by Curtin’s handling of star midfielder Marco Fabián. The Mexican playmaker hasn’t fit into the Union’s tactical setup as well as the team hoped he would, and since his contract is only guaranteed for this season, he’s probably leaving this winter. But he’ll go as the team’s No. 2 scorer this year, and the most recent of his eight goals was the biggest in team history.
Whatever has gone on behind the scenes, in public things have been cordial. As Curtin said Sunday, he takes responsibility for his lineup decisions; and as Fabián said before the playoffs started, he does his best to be a good teammate.
“It takes some backbone to make those decisions, and it takes character to make those decisions, and it takes support from the organization as well," Moreno said. "There’s something to be said about the fact that a player that would expect to be starting for the Union does not start and still comes off the bench and is productive. That also tells me that Jim has created an environment in which competition is encouraged, and also an environment in which the players can trust [that] what the manager is telling them is something that they can believe.”
As for Atlanta United’s side of the field, the big story is midfield playmaker Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez. Signed this past winter for a MLS record $14 million transfer fee, he did not play at all in Atlanta’s 1-0 first round win over the New England Revolution. When United manager Frank de Boer was asked about his decision after the game, he ranked Martínez below four other players on the roster.
There were signs of trouble throughout the regular season, and Moreno said he was not surprised by the benching.
“The relationship is hot and cold, but it’s colder than then hot most of the time, and I don’t think either party is really willing to give in — and in the end, Frank de Boer is the one who makes the decision," he said. “But this is going to be a big decision [Thursday], because you would think that the reason you bring a player like him would be for games like this … I think there’s a mistrust there between the two, and when that happens, then you’re going to find it difficult to be out on the field with any sort of consistency."
Philadelphia Union at Atlanta United
When: Thursday, Oct. 24
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
Time: 8:08 p.m. kickoff, 8 p.m. broadcast start time
Streaming: ESPN.com/watch (requires cable authentication), YouTube TV, Hulu + Live TV, PlayStation Vue, AT&T TV Now, Sling TV (all paid subscription services)
Mobile: ESPN app
Betting odds (via SugarHouse, for result after regulation): Atlanta 7/10, Philadelphia 18/5, tie 3/1
Since you’ve made it this far, here’s a bonus item: video of the only goal Alejandro Moreno ever scored for the Union at Talen Energy Stadium.