Analysis / For Pete's Sake

Rotation the name of the game for the Union in the Open Cup

Photo: Ben Ross

Jim Curtin has made clear, many a time, that he’s not a fan of “squad rotation.”

Given research showing a substantial drop-off in performance if a team makes more than three or four changes to its lineup, and Philadelphia Union’s relatively paltry squad depth for much of his time as manager, that approach has made sense.

But tonight’s return to the U.S. Open Cup, the historic knockout competition cancelled for the last two straight years because of the pandemic, will be the exception to that general rule.

Curtin revealed yesterday that at least seven reserves will start tonight’s match at Orlando City: from back to front,¬†Matt Freese, Stuart Findlay, Matt Real, Olivier Mbaizo, Jack McGlynn, Quinn Sullivan, and Paxten Aaronson will all come into the team.

Looking at the big picture

That decision is the right one, at least from this vantage point.

While there’s something to be said about consistency — and about getting back to winning ways, as Philly has now gone four games winless (albeit with good performances against really good teams mixed in there) — the schedule and the roster make heavy changes the right approach.

May is the first real month where fixture congestion becomes a bit of an issue. Tonight’s game comes after a long road trip out to LAFC, and ahead of a home clash against Red Bulls this coming Saturday. Next week features another midweek match (hosting Miami) before a long road trip (at Portland). And a win tonight earns the Union yet another midweek game, a Round of 16 clash in the Open Cup sandwiched between the Portland match and a road trip to face the New England Revolution.

So, it could be as many as seven games in a 22-day span for the Union. That’s simply too many games to trust entirely to the regular group of 12-14 players who are starting (and mostly finishing) every match. This squad has serious ambitions to finish at the top of the Eastern Conference and make a run to MLS Cup, and running the group ragged in May — even with a break coming in the first half of June — isn’t the right approach.

Already some players are dealing with nagging injuries. Star striker Mikael Uhre’s balky hamstring, which has caused him difficulty all season, is lingering. It kept him out of the LAFC match, and he’ll be out tonight too. Getting Uhre right is absolutely essential to what the Union want to achieve, even if Julian Carranza’s sparkling form has helped fill the scoring gap. Jose Martinez will also miss tonight with knee pain, a flare-up after offseason surgery that led to his substitution on Saturday night.

Even players who aren’t injured can’t be expected to play every game. Captain Alejandro Bedoya, in particular, needs careful attention to his workload during his age-35 season. He’s played 804 of 900 possible minutes so far, a pace that could cause problems down the stretch.

Depth charged

The other reason why playing the “second team” makes sense is because there are enough players on the roster who need — and deserve — minutes.

Long gone are the days when phantom players like “Gilberto” and “Kevin Kratz” filled out the Union squad. Among the players with less than 200 minutes this season are a tantalizing trio of Homegrowns (McGlynn, Aaronson, and Sullivan), a Cameroonian international (Mbaizo), and a couple of promising foreign imports (Findlay and Bueno). Only Findlay is over age 24.

In the past, all of these guys would have their opportunities in the Union XI. But the squad is so good that they’ve largely been relegated to the bench or regular opportunities with the development side, Union II.

Keeping these players sharp and hungry is critical to both their development and the club’s big-picture goals. The youngsters need opportunities if they’re going to grow into the players we all hope they can be. And the whole batch is just one injury away from playing critical roles in a squad with championship ambitions. Just look at what’s happened this past week, as both Seattle (Joao Paulo) and Atlanta (Miles Robinson) have lost essential players to season-ending injuries. Philadelphia has been fortunate to avoid that type of blow, but it’s always a lingering possibility.

So the return of the Open Cup tonight will be an exciting one for Union fans. With Curtin dipping into his bench, it will be a fantastic opportunity to see what these players can do as a unit against MLS opposition (though Orlando City will likely rotate, too). Maybe one or two can use this as a springboard into the starting XI — more likely, not.

In any event, with plenty of games to come in May, this is the best available chance to mix things up.

2 Comments

  1. Sadly, some of us will only be able to read about it tomorrow.

  2. Ponied up my 1.5 gallons of gas money to Disney for ESPN+ to watch this tonight.
    Criminal that TV/Cable wont carry a national tournament for one of the biggest sports in the world!

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