Analysis / For Pete's Sake

Jim Curtin played his cards right

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Five years ago, the following sentence would have shocked pretty much any Union fan.

The Philadelphia Union just defeated a Liga MX team over two legs in the Concacaf Champions League, including a draw in Mexico, to reach the CCL semifinals for the second time in the last three years.

It remains a remarkable climb for the whole organization, this golden age of Union soccer we’ve been enjoying, and this week’s victory over Atlas FC is another moment to savor.

There’s a lot of credit to go around for the victory, which sets up an incredible semifinal — an MLS Cup rematch against LAFC. (Concacaf announced today that the first leg in Chester will be on Wednesday, April 26 at 9 p.m., while the second leg in California is set for Tuesday, May 2 at 10 p.m.).

And manager Jim Curtin is at the very top of that list.

Trust your squad

At the start of the year, there was much discussion about how sporting director Ernst Tanner’s offseason moves — including trades for Joaquin Torres, Damion Lowe, and Andres Perea — had given Philadelphia an unprecedented amount of depth on the roster.

That depth is necessary to navigate the Champions League, with midweek games and tough travel sandwiched around the regular MLS calendar.

Some of the preseason thoughts about depth may have been a bit overstated. The early stretch of the MLS season has shown the weak points: the Union don’t really have a backup striker, a dependable reserve keeper, or a trusted natural left back. And the club’s unimpressive league form so far can be blamed, in part, on the ways that injury and form have attacked those weak spots, with Julian Carranza and Mikael Uhre looking spotty up top while Andre Blake and Kai Wagner have missed time due to injuries.

But the roster is certainly strong in a few areas. The Lowe acquisition gave Curtin three starting-caliber center backs, including one — Jakob Glesnes — who is the reigning Defender of the Year and the Union’s best player on form so far this season.

And the midfield group is not just deep in terms of bodies — by my count, nine players (Daniel Gazdag, Joaquin Torres, Alejandro Bedoya, Leon Flach, Jack McGlynn, Jose Martinez, Jesus Bueno, Andres Perea, and Matt Real) have started a game in midfield this season. There is a real diversity of skill set in the group, with different players able to influence the game in different ways.

The Curtin of past years may have been tempted to ride his best 12 or 13 guys to get through this past three-game stretch (the two legs against Atlas and the weekend game with Cincinnati). Instead, Curtin dipped into the whole squad, and used it thoughtfully. Consider:

  • Jack McGlynn was the breakout player of the CCL tie, but it was no guarantee that he would start either leg, as Leon Flach has been preferred in midfield for most of the season. But Curtin’s switch to the Christmas-tree formation gave McGlynn the necessary support to shine in the first Atlas game. And, even more significantly, Curtin stuck with the youngster in a difficult road fixture, and was rewarded with a sumptuous assist that gave the Union the critical edge to regain control of the quarterfinal.
  • Jack Elliott has been a nailed-on starter for years alongside Glesnes, so it was a surprise to see Damion Lowe replace him for the match in Chester. But Lowe put in a man-of-the-match performance against Atlas’s most dangerous performer, Julian Quinones. Only a hamstring injury forced him from the second leg.
  • Knowing that Cincinnati has the Union’s number, and needing to protect key players for the second CCL leg, Curtin threw out a wild 5-3-2 formation for the MLS match, handing a rare start to Jesus Bueno and trusting that the defense-heavy group could muck up the game enough to escape with a result. (It nearly worked, too.) That move kept the squad fresh for the high-altitude match in Guadalajara.

The whole roster contributed to the Union’s success in this stretch — and that’s a credit to the manager.

The game within the game

Curtin also got his in-game moves mostly right in the CCL games, though there was a touch of luck involved.

When Atlas went down to 10 men just before halftime, the sentiment among those in the Subaru Park press box (including yours truly) was that the Union needed to push for multiple goals to build a lead ahead of the away leg. So it was surprising to see Nathan Harriel kept on the pitch out of position, hampering Philly’s ability to attack down the left side of the pitch.

But the Union — eventually — got a win. And after the match Curtin said he was happiest about the clean sheet. While normally this fetish for defense above all else can be frustrating, it turned out to matter immensely, as it gave the Union the vital edge in away goals, keeping them on the front foot against Atlas when Carranza scored after 30 minutes.

In the second leg, Leon Flach’s introduction with about half an hour to go gave the Union control over the match that had been lacking in the early stages of the half. Flach did well to spring the counter that put the final nail in the match. If this is the first step toward a more even balance of minutes and starts between Flach and McGlynn, that’s very encouraging for the rest of the season.

One red flag, though: Curtin got very lucky with his fullbacks. It looks like a mistake to rush the still-gimpy Wagner back into action, but Atlas didn’t do enough to punish him in the first half to win the tie. And Olivier Mbaizo probably should have been sent off for a second yellow in the second half, but Curtin got him out of the game just after that bad tackle.

Where now?

The result of all these moves was a historic result: a 3-2 win over a Liga MX side — admittedly one in poor form — for the first time in competition.

The reward? As mentioned, it’s two more games on the increasingly clogged fixture list. The Union received a gift from the MLS schedule makers, as they have a bye on the Saturday between the two CCL legs. So it’s just two more MLS matches (at Chicago and vs. Toronto) before refocusing on Champions League.

It’s not all sunshine, of course. The league form has been poor and the football has been uninspiring. At some point, the Union will need to click in the league.

But the pieces — on the roster, in the dugout, and in the front office — are all there.

The potential of continental glory — and sweet revenge — lies ahead.

Who would have thought it?


  1. He should start the Cincy lineup/formation against Chicago, and substitute heavily after an hour again.

  2. Chris Gibbons says:

    Say what you will about Flach and his offensive contributions, but it was his pass that put the dagger in Atlas this week and the same pass and pierce against Atlanta in the road tie of that CCL fixture during COVID.

    • Flach had a great ~30 minute shift that night. It’s like he accessed his top gear immediately because he knew he didn’t need to save any energy for a second half.
      Could this be the formula going forward? (McGlynn start, Flach in for either him or Bedoya in the second half to preserve leads?)

  3. Good OP-ED. I’m looking forward to the payback opportunity against LAFC. I’m also relishing the opportunity to win our conference’s most valuable trophy and a chance to play in the FIFA Club WC. We’re two Home and Away series from accomplishing that feat, so you gotta go for it.
    . . .
    I’m not a Debbie Downer about the odds. It’s hard for all semifinalists, and our team is capable. Part of winning is confidence, and that’s been flagging so far this year in MLS play. Here’s the chance to get payback against LAFC for starters and also pick up a truly meaningful trophy.
    . . .
    Curtin has shown his talents over time. We are a secondary fan market without deep pocket megacorp, Hollywood star, or Sheik Cashwadi ownership. Unlike LAFC, we build teams rather than buy them.
    . . .
    As Curtin said himself, the one thing he doesn’t have is a championship (2020 Shield is not a champion by US standards). We’ve been the bride’s maid once in the MLS Cup and three times in the USOC. That grates him most of all. That stings for us, so imagine that for him. That also hangs over his prospects for being a coach on the USMNT for the upcoming WC at home.
    . . .
    Glory is on the table here, so I hope our guys jump at the rare opportunity for it.

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