It’s good that the Union are rotating their centerbacks, even if it’s for a bad reason
Jack Elliott's recent suspension and Jakob Glesnes' injury forced Jim Curtin to do something he doesn't like to do. But his stalwarts getting rest now could pay dividends in the playoffs.
Lots of soccer coaches around the world think that way, not just ones who have their league’s reigning Defender of the Year. They prioritize the continuity and chemistry built by having a centerback pair play together as much as possible, over the risk of burning those players out.
And it obviously helps when such players can start 101 straight regular-season games, the second-longest streak for a non-goalkeeper in Major League Soccer history, as Jakob Glesnes did.
The emphasis there is on did, though. Glesnes has been sidelined by a groin injury that he has been tolerating for a while, with symptoms that Curtin described on Tuesday as similar to a sports hernia. He missed Saturday’s scoreless tie against Los Angeles FC because of it, and it sounds like he’s going to miss Wednesday’s home game against FC Dallas, too (7:30 p.m., Apple TV, free).
“He’s playing in pain,” Curtin said, “so to get him a little bit of a break was important.”
He added that if it was a playoff game, Glesnes would play. But those were not the words of an optimist.
“It’s literally hour-by-hour, day-by-day how he wakes up and feels,” Curtin said. “We have to navigate that pain tolerance and how much load we put on his legs.”
Not just Glesnes
The intrusion of an injury from overuse should be cause for alarm, with an extra decibel on the bell because Leon Flach is suffering from the same ailment. (And with Alejandro Bedoya potentially ringing that bell, because he’s got his own history of being run into the ground.)
But there’s one way in which this is a good thing.
Between Glesnes’ absence on Saturday and Jack Elliott’s red card suspension from last Wednesday’s game at Charlotte, Curtin was finally forced to rotate his centerbacks in a significant way.
The Charlotte game was the first time since May 9, when the Union played their only U.S. Open Cup game of the year, that Curtin ran out a 4-4-2 starting lineup and one of Glesnes or Elliott was not in it. The last regular-season game with such a lineup was three days before then.
That officially counts as the last two-game streak without either player starting, but it came with an asterisk that Curtin rotated much of the lineup for the Open Cup game. When counting just regular-season games, there hadn’t been a two-game stretch like that at all this year until now.
There have been other circumstances, particularly during the Concacaf Champions League run in the spring, when Curtin used a 3-5-2 to spread out the burden. That helped spell Elliott for a night in April, and has kept third-ranked centerback Damion Lowe off the field at other times.
It might get harder
The Charlotte and LAFC games, however, presented real, get-a-full-night-off, rotation, even if Curtin didn’t give the night off voluntarily. Now the Union are about to play their second of three straight midweek games, then face a ferocious stretch with their third: at Columbus on Saturday (7:30 p.m., Apple TV, paywalled), then home games next Wednesday vs. Atlanta and Saturday vs. Nashville (both 7:30 p.m., Apple TV).
Then will come the October FIFA window, then the regular-season finale Oct. 21 at New England, then the playoffs. Add it all up and any rest a player can get right now, even if it’s for an unwanted reason, can be helpful.
Curtin also knows that when the Union won their first trophy, the 2020 Supporters’ Shield, the team had three starting-caliber centerbacks and used them all regularly: Glesnes, Elliott, and Mark McKenzie. Though the pandemic upended the schedule (and the team lost in the first round of the playoffs), the sense has long been that it wasn’t a coincidence.
So it also hasn’t been a coincidence that Curtin has been reminded of this when it feels like his starters are playing too much — yes, by this reporter, but by others, too.
He was asked again Tuesday whether centerback rotation will help in the bigger picture, and answered: “I think so.”
“The job that Damian and Jack did together [against LAFC] was really good against some really good attacking players,” Curtin said. “We’ll see how Jakob’s feeling. If he’s well enough to play — obviously, he’s the defender of the year, we’re better when he’s on the field. But we also have to be smart, knowing that he’s playing through a lot of pain right now.”
More injury news
Striker Julián Carranza is almost certainly out of Wednesday’s game too, Curtin said, because he’s still in concussion protocols.
Defensive midfielder José Andrés Martínez (bone bruise) might be available to come off the bench, but expect Jesús Bueno to start at the position. He’ll have plenty of work to do, because though Dallas (10-10-9, 39 points) is ninth in the Western Conference, it has two big-time attacking weapons in Argentine playmaker Alan Velasco, who can line up as a winger or centrally, and U.S. national team forward Jesús Ferreira.