For Pete's Sake / Union

Everything’s coming up Union

Photo: Stephen Speer

For a club so often snakebitten in the early years of its existence, there’s an unfamiliar thing happening to Philadelphia Union right now.

Everything is going their way.

With New York City FC’s defeat of New England Revolution on Tuesday night, the Union will host the Eastern Conference final at home in Chester – rather than take a road trip up I-95 to face the top-seeded Revs on turf.

Even better, City’s top scorer and MVP candidate – Valentin Castellanos – managed to get himself needlessly sent off in extra time, meaning that he’ll be suspended for Sunday’s match.

Since Jakob Glesnes scored his earth-shattering golazo in the first round of the playoffs, the Union have benefitted from two straight matchups where they have two more days’ rest than their opponent.  They haven’t had to leave Chester at any point along the way.  And, thanks to some upsets on the Western Conference side of the bracket, most of the strongest cup contenders – think Seattle, Colorado, and Kansas City – have been cleared aside.

There’s even a chance that the Union could host MLS Cup.  All it would take is one more upset by Real Salt Lake to give hosting rights to the Eastern Conference.  Philly could kick off on Sunday knowing they’re 90 minutes from playing for a championship on home soil.

Maybe this really is a team of destiny.

More on the Pigeons

Of course, NYC FC aren’t simply going to roll over and play dead.

The Citizens may play on a baseball field and be as unlikable as the Philadelphia Parking Authority, but they’re a good side, running up a +20 goal difference in the regular season before dispatching Atlanta and New England so far in the playoffs.

What can we glean from the head-to-heads between the two sides this season?  Less than you’d think.  In the first game, the Union conceded to Jesus Medina after just five minutes, and Jose Martinez saw straight red eleven minutes later.  City controlled most of the second contest in mid-August, but Andre Blake kept a clean sheet and a great goal by Alejandro Bedoya gave the Union all the margin they needed.

And the less said about the final match of the regular season, the better.  At Yankee Stadium this time, it was City who got an early red from Gedion Zelalem, and the Union led at halftime.  But Philly came out flat in the second and conceded a tying goal to Castellanos.  It was just enough for the Union to earn the all-important second seed in the playoffs.

So the two teams have barely played a game and a half at full strength so far this season.  (They might double that on Sunday if there’s extra time.)  And it looks like an even matchup – the Union have done well to shut down a potent City attack, but haven’t had tremendous luck breaking down their opponents.  That’s why the absence of Castellanos is so key.  Without him, it will be easier for the Union to frustrate NYC, keep the game low-scoring, and get the one or two moments of magic needed to advance.

Or maybe it’ll finish 4-3.  Who knows.

Curtin on the move?

Of course, there’s always something to fret about, and that came Wednesday morning in the form of an unexpected news item from The Athletic’s Sam Stejskal.

Stejskal reports that former Union technical director Chris Albright, now the GM over at FC Cincinnati, is targeting Union manager Jim Curtin to fill their coaching vacancy.

To briefly summarize, Stejskal reports that Cincinnati have made at least one offer to the Union to buy out the last two years of Curtin’s contract, and that the club is “committed to trying to bring Curtin to Ohio.”  The Union, per Stejskal, have no plans to let Curtin leave.

What to make of this story?  First, I think there’s a long shot that Curtin actually leaves Philly for the Cincinnati job.  Cincy has resources, sure, but they also have a pitiful roster and a ton of work to do to become a cup contender.  It’s not clear why Curtin would want to take over such a total rebuild.  Curtin’s local ties make it unlikely that he’s going to leave the Union for anything other than a perfect scenario, whether that’s somewhere domestic or overseas.

So why is this news out there?  This is all speculation, but Curtin may hope to parlay genuine interest from Cincy into a raise from the Union (which wouldn’t be undeserved).  Or Albright may be trying to establish to a demoralized Cincy fan base that he’s willing to take big swings to turn the club around.

Finally, what if Curtin does go?  That would open up a world of unknowns – Curtin has managed the Union for seven full seasons, over half the club’s existence.  It would be fascinating to see whether sporting director Ernst Tanner looked to promote from within (longtime assistant Pat Noonan) or went outside the club for someone new.  And would a new man or woman behind the bench take a more proactive approach than we’ve seen from Curtin’s defense-oriented tactics?

Curtin’s departure is very unlikely.  But it says a lot about how much this club’s fortunes have turned that the idea of the manager being poached is even a topic of conversation.

28 Comments

  1. I think it makes all the sense in the world for Cinci to go after Curtin. But I’m with you on it not making much sense for Curtin, unless it was for a great big raise or some other really big perks. And, Yes. It is nice to have a coach that other teams want.

  2. is there any official word on Sands or Gray? NYCFC might be down three starters. Gray looked like he pulled his hamstring pretty badly.

    • Gray could have had a really horrendous cramp in his hamstring, not necessarily a tear.
      .
      The reason I suggest caution is that Bedoya has looked like he’s pulled or torn three or four times in the last couple of years but has played the next match.
      .
      MLS’s website has a Player Availability Report that is usually updated a day or two before the match. It’s not official, but it’s better than nothing.
      .
      Usually in the late afternoon of the penultimate day before, the Union’s website will have a game guide. You have to dig for it. Open “club.” Then open “press box.” Then open “almanac.” Then open “game guides.” Look for the one updated most recently with the two teams abbreviated in the file extension. Then post what you have found for the rest of us in a comment on PSP, please.

      • Gray is tweeting that the game will be more difficult without Tati. He has commented that it was a cramp. So he is likely to play. No word on Sands

  3. First, it’s not surprising that New England couldn’t get past NYCFC. Since 2019 there has been an international break between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs. 6 teams have played their first game against a team that had already won a game (including the Union last year). Of those 6, only LAFC in 2019 advanced.
    .
    I read that article about Curtin as well and I agree that it doesn’t make sense for either the Union or Curtin. From his point of view, he’d be leaving his hometown where I assume his kids are reasonably happy in school. He’d be going from one of the most stable clubs from a manager’s point of view (3 head coaches in 12 years) to one of the most unstable (he’d be the 6th coach including interims in just over 3 years).
    .
    The timing is also a bit icky. I’m a New York Rangers fan (yes, I know most of the PSP readership hates me for that) and in 1994 when they won their first cup in 54, the only thing that marred things was when it came to light that Mike Keenan was in contract talks with St. Louis during the finals. Let’s just say that he may have been the only person booed during a ticker tape parade where he was one of the honorees.
    .
    As far as the team goes, it seems like they would need some pretty hefty compensation to make up for the loss. As part of the Keenan deal, they got Peter Nedved (23 years old at the time) as compensation. The Union would need a pretty damn good young prospect in return (or a big star where Cincinnati picks up part of the compensation).
    .
    If Curtin were to go somewhere like England and try to turn Newcastle’s season around, I think every one of us would wish him good luck and many would watch as many of their games as feasible. But if he were to make a lateral move in MLS he would be somewhat unwelcome in his hometown (and Albright would go from someone we respected and accepted that he left for a promotion to public enemy #1).

    • How people would react is an interesting (and, we agree, extremely hypothetical) question. I genuinely don’t know. My first instinct was that Jim has been here long enough, and accomplished enough, that there would not be hard feelings if he wanted to move on to something new. It’s also not quite a situation, like Wenger at Arsenal or Ferguson at United, where Curtin is the club. If he left, Ernst Tanner would still be here — and I think it’s pretty clear that Tanner is an exceptionally talented executive who has really upgraded the Union’s roster in his three years.
      .
      But I can see what you’re saying — it could feel insulting if Curtin makes something that seems to fans like a lateral (or worse) move. And maybe college football is the right analogy, where (for example) Oklahoma fans seem pretty peeved that Lincoln Riley left to go to USC. It would be very frustrating to long-suffering Union fans if a key part of the club left just as the team finally entered a period of stable, consistent success.

      • I agree that college football is the better analogy, but (no offense to Cincy) it would be more like if Riley left Oklahoma to coach Kansas or Vanderbilt. IE: it should never happen. That’s why I don’t think the reaction would be toward Albright or Curtin at all but toward cheap-ass Sugarman for being unwilling and/or unable to provide the pay or resources required for a coach and team that wants to continue to compete. I know that would be my reaction. I’m not even that big of a Curtin fan, but I’ve got my pitchfork sharpened and a case of torches from Amazon on the way.

      • This is the exact correct answer. If it’s a matter of ownership not paying to keep him, it will just revert the club to the Nick S days, and they do NOT want that. From an ownership perspective, it’s good business to not lose Jim to a lateral move, simply due to more money.

    • Excellent detective work in the first paragraph, Andy. Well done.

    • Maybe Albright is just trying to get his friend a raise?

  4. Rooting for Salt Lake. MLS Cup in Chester?! Would be incredible!!

    • Providence Park is a tough place to win.

    • Completely agree Guido, just with one big sense of nerves. I don’t know exact stats off hand and someone correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t we traditionally have a rough go with RSL? Maybe it’s all the times going to Rio Tinto and getting flamed over the years. Again, I could be wrong but my memory has them always scrapping some kind of result at Subi too. Oddly, part of me feels we would deal better with Portland…..

      • Back when the Union were terrible I used to track which teams the Union hadn’t beaten yet. I lost interest in it, but of the long standing teams it was both Dallas and RSL that it took the Union the longest to beat. Currently I don’t think they have beaten LAFC or Austin- of course they haven’t played Austin yet.

      • Thanks, and it is a different day in Unionland for most of what I’m remembering that is for sure. I’m an Arsenal fan as well and over the past decade watching every match with a“ how are we going to f—k this up?” attitude maybe a part of this. Haha. That 3-3 in LA sure felt like a win though didn’t it?

      • That 3-3 LAFC game might be my favorite Union regular season game ever. Off top of my head there was at least 2 infuriating RSL non-wins including one in Salt Lake that saw (I think) Farfan give up a game tying stoppage time PK to an RSL player at edge of 18 yard box who was headed back toward midfield. Doesn’t seem like we’ve played RSL in a while but you are correct that Union’s history vs them is poor.

      • Haha- I got curious so had to go back and look. It was 2013 and Gaddis that gave up a pk in 90+5’ which RSL converted to tie it and RSL got a 60’ red card in that one. Also found Mo Edu gave up an 85’ pk in 2015 that RSL converted for the draw in Philly. Great times.

      • I believe the RSL game in 2013 was about a week after they gave up a 90+5′ goal against Dallas at Talen when those were the only 2 teams they hadn’t beaten yet.
        .
        On a more positive note, they have never lost to Cincinnati, Austin, and Chivas USA (and suffered their first loss to Nashville and Minnesota earlier this season.

      • The origins of “ that was soooo Union”……….haha!

  5. No way JC goes to Cincinnati. He’ll have a shot at euro mega bucks if he continues to do well, and Cincinnati could derail that path quickly.

  6. If I was Curtin I would be eying the next USMNT position. Barring disaster, berhalter will keep the job through Qatar, but its likely the federation will want an upgrade for 2026. I imagine Curtin would be thinking about a RB salzburg or Leipzig move in the next couple years, but 0% chance he leaves Union for another MLS club. 0

  7. When Castellanos got his first yellow, I began to hope — no, to pray — for three things.

    First, that the NE / NYC game would go to extra time.

    Second, that NYC would ultimately win.

    And Third, that a second yellow would come out and Taty would be bye-bye.

    All three came to pass.

  8. I can’t imagine Curtin moving to another MLS squad. There’s no upside to him making a move to rebuild Cincinnati. Ok…maybe a wheelbarrow full of money. But I also think the U front office would do whatever it takes to keep him here. As for the game on Sunday,it’s not a given that they win but momentum is with the Union. So come on the U!

  9. OneManWolfpack says:

    Someone talk me out of the classic Negadelphia take here: everything lining up, game at home with a packed stadium of 95% Union fans, beatable team missing their star, perfect weather for the game… is it just the usual, “it’s Philadelphia we’ll blow it – we always do” nervousness I’m feeling?
    .
    And as everyone has said – there is absolutely ZERO chance Curtin leaves for the dumpster fire that is Cincy. That article is just classic, “look at me I wrote an article”, speculation.

    • There’s always some nervousness about games at this stage of the season, especially when the two teams finished their season series at 1-1-1.
      .
      Upsets sometimes happen, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

    • welp this post aged well. check the COVID article…no practice yesterday, 6 starters missed practice today include centerbacks goalie and captain

      • I’m blaming Wolfpack for bringing up the idea that something would go wrong 🙂 🙂 🙂 .

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