By Ridge Mahoney
In presenting the Philadelphia Union with a daunting run of games one-third of the way through the 2016 season, those who formulate the MLS schedule have provided an ideal field test for this question:
Just how good is the Eastern Conference leader?
The Union plays in Orlando Wednesday, five days after beating D.C. United, 1-0, on a last-minute goal by defender Richie Marquez. Then it flies halfway across the country to play the league’s top team, Colorado, on Saturday. Next up is another long flight to host Columbus a week from Wednesday.
After this gauntlet, the Union could still be atop the East, or muddled in the middle. In any case, it will much more of a known quantity.
“I’ve always believed that you start to get an assessment of your group, and an assessment of the rest of the teams in the league, after about a third of the games,” said head coach Jim Curtin during a conference call with reporters Monday.
“I think that’s a good barometer. I believe we are starting to form an identity as a team that is very tough to break down defensively, is very good at home. Now we need to carry that mentality on to the road in two very hostile places. It sets up a little weird, you don’t love going down to Florida and then straight from Florida all the way cross country to Colorado, to altitude, [it] is challenging.”
Though Philly has played fewer games than most of its Eastern Conference foes, such is not the case with Orlando. Both teams have played 11 games and the Lions are in sixth place, only four points back of the leader. They are also unbeaten in six home games though four of those results are ties. Orlando came back to beat Montreal, 2-1, Saturday at Camping World Stadium (formerly the Citrus Bowl) with a pair of Cyle Larin goals.
“The good news is that we’re on similar rest, it’s not a game where we’re going down to Florida and they’re well rested and prepared,” said Curtin. “But, we plan to continue to play the same way: high press. We’re a team that we don’t do well when we sit back and absorb, and are kind of reactive instead of proactive. So, we’ll go there, we’ll be proactive, and we’ll try and play the same way as we do in our building.”
Former U.S. international Earnie Stewart, hired as the team’s sporting director in November, is drawing accolades for his role in transforming Philadelphia, which joined MLS in 2010 and has qualified for the playoffs just once, into a competitive entity. No longer are talented pros such as Sebastien Le Toux burdened by inadequate support.
“Earnie’s come in and brought a confidence and certainly that has translated on the field,” says one of his former U.S. teammates, Fox Sports analyst Alexi Lalas. “Philly is confident right now that they are a better team and that translates into the way that they play each and every game, with the belief that they are going to compete in every game and find a way to get points. I think that has been missing.
"Guys like [C.J.] Sapong are consistently performing now. You make a couple of trades, [Chris] Pontius comes up from D.C. and not just plays well but plays consistently. In MLS, one or two little things can dramatically change the way that you are able to compete."
Offseason trades yielded experienced players such as Pontius, and the 2016 SuperDraft shunted former Georgetown teammates Keegan Rosenberry and Joseph Yaro straight into the starting lineup, much as the Galaxy did in 2009 with ex-Terrapins Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza. Call it brazen or bold or risky or all of the above, but in terms of cohesion and communication -- essential elements in a back line -- it makes sense, but only if those players can make that severe jump. So far, the baby-faced back line has not faltered.
“There is something to be said for that coordination and understanding, when players know each other and know all the good, bad, and ugly of each other,” says Lalas. “It can help and it’s not easy to do, especially in the United States, but if you can have some kind of relationship that has been formed previously, it can translate into a better performance.”
The former Hoyas, both 22, have meshed nicely with Marquez (23), the 44th overall pick in the 2014 SuperDraft taken out of a Division III school, the University of Redlands in Southern California). Marquez crashed the far post to score his first MLS goal -- from a great serve by Le Toux -- against United; Rosenberry's first professional goal knotted up the Galaxy, 2-2, two weeks ago.
Along with veteran left back Fabinho (31), they backstop a team that is tied for second with Toronto FC in fewest goals-allowed per game (1.0). It has three shutouts and has conceded one or zero goals in eight of 11 games. Yet with a 5-3-3 record and 18 points it is in no way clearly superior to its conference rivals though it is on place to finish with about 55 points, which would certainly secure a playoff berth.
A young, resilient defense could help power Philly through this rough stretch of games prior to the Centenario break despite inexperience that could be costly against Larin and Kaka, and/or the high-flying Rapids. “They are young, [and] young legs do recover quicker than old legs, that is a fact,” said Curtin. “So, yeah, with Keegan, he can turn around and play two quick games, I don’t think that’s a factor.
“Ken Tribbett is also very young and getting back to a hundred percent here. Marquez is kind of a physical specimen, bench presses more than probably most NFL linebackers, but he’s a handful, his body can take it. Yes, they’re young, but they’re good, and that’s kind of all I care about; I don’t believe in 'Ah, this guy’s too young,' or, 'This guy’s too old.' I think there’s only good players and bad players, and they’re very good players.”
Marquez was taken 43 picks after goalkeeper Andre Blake, who in his rookie season backed up Zac MacMath and last year played just six games as Philly determined that both it and Algerian international Rais M'Bohli had made a terrible mistake, and Blake was the best of several good options in goal that also included Bryan Sylvestre and John McCarthy.
The upcoming break in the schedule necessitated by the Copa America Centenario could work in Philly’s favor. Jamaica has agreed to let Blake play against Orlando City and Colorado before he joins his national team, while Rapids midfielder Jermaine Jones is with the USA preparing for tune-up games this week against Ecuador and Bolivia. (Jones could still be released to play Saturday for Colorado, which does not have a midweek game.)
“First of all, Jamaica’s been excellent with us, great to work with,” said Curtin. “We came to the conclusion that what is best for both parties is that he is with us up until the Columbus game [June 1]. The Columbus game is the only game he will miss.”
Curtin is nearing the second anniversary of his appointment as head coach -- as an assistant coach he replaced John Hackworth in June of 2014 -- and he’s climbed a steep learning curve dealing with international conflicts and exhausting travel and MLS officiating and front-office upheavals such as the dismissal of former team president Nick Sakiewicz last October. The retention of Curtin and influence of Stewart has forged stability in an organization blessed with an excellent stadium and rabid fans yet constantly plagued by its own missteps.
“Whether he realizes it or not,” says Lalas of Curtin, “he’s gone through some really beneficial, tough situations: the whole Sakiewicz thing and the goalkeeper thing and all those other things. I think those will make him a better coach going forward.”
Right now, the way forward is through Orlando, which as a Eastern game probably takes on greater importance of the two road tests despite the fact that on Saturday the conference leaders will face off. Not summoned by their national team are left back Brek Shea (USA), Kaka (Brazil), and Cristian Higuita (Colombia), so a strong opponent can be added to the list of obstacles Philly must scale on its climb out of mediocrity.
“I think I saw it’s 89 degrees,” said Curtin, “and everybody goes, “Oh, you guys play at night, it’ll be down around, it says, the low 70s.” The low in Orlando comes at about two in the morning, so it’s going to be about 85. That turf traps the heat in, that building is tough, the people are loud, they’re in your face — we’ll just say it nicely that way. It’s a very hostile environment, it’ll be a tough place to go to get points, but we’re going to be up to the task.”
The approach to a rough three-game set is not based on philosophies or styles or tactics. For each game, the setting and conditions and circumstances likely will differ radically. The Union must react accordingly.
"You might have to win won ugly, you might have to steal a restart goal," said Curtin. "Maybe one of them we play attractive and we’re on the ball and out possessing teams. I don’t know how it’s going to go [but] we’re going to need to have all three kinds of ways of winning games in our bag."