Press Conference / Union

Against MLS leaders LAFC, Jim Curtin faces the “hardest selection” of his coaching career

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin faces a unique challenge ahead of Saturday’s showdown with Los Angeles Football Club.

No, it’s not how to slow down the runaway MLS Supporters’ Shield leaders.

It’s choosing the 11 starting players who will square off against manager Bob Bradley’s LAFC.

“This is the hardest selection I’ll have in my coaching career,” Curtin said to the assembled media at Talen Energy Stadium for his weekly press conference Wednesday afternoon. “We are healthy. We have a lot of guys in form that are playing well.”

In the midst of a franchise-best season, the coach will have all 26 of his players available at a time when injuries typically begin to pile up. Midfielders Warren Creavalle and Ilsinho were full participants in training. The former returns from a hamstring injury while the latter has recovered from a tweaked knee.

As far as form, the Union’s last regular season win was their biggest in club history. The 3-1 victory over Atlanta United on Aug. 31 legitimized Philadelphia’s claim as the best team in the Eastern Conference. The Union followed that result up with a comprehensive 3-0 win over Mexican powerhouse Pumas UNAM last Saturday. Speaking to Philadelphia’s depth, only forward Fafa Picault and center back Jack Elliott started in both matches.

The game against LAFC will also mark the return of Union captain Alejandro Bedoya, who was unavailable against Atlanta due to a suspension from yellow card accumulation.

“The competition to get into the 11 is really hard,” said Curtin. “The competition to get into our 18 is just as contentious. These are hard decisions to make. I might get some right. I might some wrong. That’s the reality of things.”

The Union aren’t the only side heading into the weekend’s clash at full strength.

LAFC’s attacking superstar Carlos Vela was questionable to make the trip to Philadelphia while dealing with a strained hamstring of his own. Unfortunately for the Union, Vela was spotted warming up with his teammates by some media members following Curtin’s press conference.

“He’s the clear-cut, runaway MVP of our league,” said Curtin of Vela. “I think there’s no real discussion to even have.”

It’s impossible to dispute the manager’s assertion. The Mexican international’s 15 assists rank third best in the league.  With 27 goals, Vela has MLS’ Golden Boot award, given to league’s top goal-scorer, all but sitting on his mantle. And in the two games Vela has missed due to injury, LAFC have managed just one point.

The southern California club’s recent results against Minnesota United and Orlando City SC offer fool’s gold for those hoping LAFC’s dominance is waning as the season winds down, according to Curtin.

“Anyone who says that there’s a blueprint now because [LAFC] lost the game to Minnesota and tied a game with Orlando is kind of full of it,” said Curtin. “You’ll watch them on film, and they’ll do a lot of things better than any team in our league.

It’s also not a blueprint Curtin would want to emulate.

“We’re not going to sit at the top of the 18 [yard box] with all 10 field players,” said Curtin. “That’s not something I believe in. That’s not something I think our players would respond to, so we’re not just going to pack it in. I think that’d be disrespectful to my players, would be disrespectful to the game, and it’d be disrespectful to LAFC.”

Despite the positive approach, Curtin will have to get more right than wrong when making the hardest selection of his career if the Union are to get all three points.

Curtin’s tidbits
  • While the Union will be at full strength come game time, they’re still awaiting the arrival of midfielder Marco Fabián and right back Olivier Mbaizo. They’re returning from international duty with Mexico and Cameroon, respectfully.
  • One of the players who’s fighting to be in the starting 11 is winger Sergio Santos after impressing against Atlanta and Pumas:
    • “Santos, for me, looked like he was playing for a contract with Pumas. [It’s] as good as he’s played with that kind of speed and that kind of service.”
  • LAFC’s Bob Bradley can take some credit for the Union’s current success. Curtin had this to say about his former coach and longtime friend’s impact on his career:
    • “I think probably as early as my second year in the league, I realized I wanted to become a coach just because of the environment that Bob created. The list of his coaching tree is an incredibly long one so I was lucky to be in that locker room in Chicago.”
  • And finally on what Bradley has built in Los Angeles:
    • “They play a style and brand of soccer that has a true identity. It jumps off the page right away when you turn on one of their games. That’s kind of the ultimate praise you can give a coach— that his team has a true way of playing.”

2 Comments

  1. So there is no excuse for the union to field a game plan with all personnel available that is capable of giving their best to beat LA. I think Curtin will get it right.

  2. It’s pretty clear that, at the present time, this team should be playing in the 4-2-3-1. Not only does that maximize our available talent, with so many excellent midfielders, but it also gives Medunjanin the defensive cover he needs so he can be the regista (which is something I’ve wanted since the season began). Also, I love that he’s given the Monteiro the job of playing next to Haris, which is another thing I’ve been wanting ever since Monteiro began playing for us.

    We already know the keeper and the back 4. Assuming the 4-2-3-1, Medunjanin, Bedoya, Monteiro, and Kryzbylko are automatic starters. That leaves 2 midfield spots, which should very likely go to Aaronson and Fabián. I could see him potentially leaving Fabián on the bench given that he’ll just be getting back from international duty (and hasn’t been playing fantastically); if he does that, I think Aaronson moves to the #10 spot and Picault gets the start on the left wing. Santos could also play there, but we probably need someone who will get back aggressively on defense, given how explosive LAFC is. This is the same reason I don’t think Ilsinho will start the match. (Plus because he’s so effective as a supersub.)

    Now if Jim wanted to REALLY throw out a wild card, and do something slightly crazy and unexpected… he could bench Gaddis and start Bedoya at RB. That frees up the R wing position, which could be filled by Ilsinho; and then, with Bedoya willing to get up into the offense and mix up passes better than Ray, you’d have the opportunity to do some serious offensive damage on that right flank. This would be a high-risk, high-reward kinda move. I’d kinda love it. They’ve had a week off, so that’s extra time to work on something they’ve never done before…

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