Philadelphia Union Head Coach Jim Curtin spoke to the media on Tuesday ahead of the club’s midweek showdown against Chicago Fire. The Union are coming off a hard fought 0-0 draw with New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena on Saturday night.
Confidence and consistency
A big focus for the Union coach was the confidence of the team after earning points in three consecutive matches. “We had a lot of players step up and play big minutes,” Curtin said. “The group is confident, playing well, and you can feel it in training. The sharpness in training is something that gets me excited as a coach.”
But Curtin shot down the idea that New York’s heat and intensity meant wholesale changes were necessary against Chicago no Wednesday night. “The most important game is Chicago right now,” he stressed. “It’s a conference opponent so we have to really focus on what’s the best lineup to win that game. It’s important that we have legs out there that are ready to run and press. That’s what we do, home and away, and to do that, maybe, there will be a change or two.
“I think you look at the way Haris [Medunjanin], Ale [Bedoya], and Borek [Dockal] are starting to move for each other all over the field, and when one steps up the other kind of drops, their passing has been fluid. I like the idea of keeping that core together.
“But you could see some changes, especially with the front three.”
Curtin was asked about the rise of the club’s younger players, including center back Mark McKenzie, who was named to the MLS Team of the Week. “Usually, when you think of a young center back that comes along, he has an experienced guy next to him that's guiding, teaching, and doing the talking and communicating,” Curtin said of McKenzie.
“These two [McKenzie and fellow homegrown Auston Trusty] are learning together, which is unique. They're helping each other. I think the familiarity they had from the academy days is real, a strong bond. They know each other's tendencies, they know each other's strengths and weaknesses, and credit to Tommy Wilson and our academy for the great work they do there. I think it helps to have Andre [Blake] behind them as well, so it is a team effort. But Mark deserved to be on the team of the week this week.”
Stepping back to the homegrown players more generally, Curtin noted how many have already contributed this season, and that he expects more from them going forward. "I can't stress enough: I'm really proud of the homegrowns this year,” he said. “The minutes that they've played, from Anthony Fontana to Matthew Real, Derrick [Jones] will get his time again, for sure.”
Marcus Epps is another member of the Union’s youth movement that has grabbed his chance over the past few games.
“In recent weeks, you've started to see his qualities in terms of what we saw in preseason, which is a guy who has the ability to take guys on 1v1, he has speed to separate from defenders, he has ability to create chances offensively,” Curtin said. “But I think what' he's improved upon is the defensive side. 98% of the game is played without the ball, so getting him to press and run has been something we've worked hard on, it's something he's worked hard on. I think the time he put in with Bethlehem and Brendan Burke has helped a lot, and now his ability to do it on the field with us, with the first team, is something we're impressed with. Still working on his fitness to be able to do it at that high intensity for 90 minutes.”
Focus on the Fire
The Union head coach described Chicago Fire as a team that is difficult to plan for since their injuries have led to endless rotation throughout the first third of the season.
"Chicago's played 12 games, 12 different lineups,” Curtin said. “Different styles home and away. We are preparing the best we can. Dax [McCarty] is usually their rock in the middle of the field, but he's out.
Curtin singled out three players to watch on the Fire when they roll into Talen Energy Stadium.
“[Striker Nemanja] Nikolic is a guy who does his damage in the box. You have Schweini you have to keep an eye on, not let him start spraying balls. We've talked about whether they play him as a center back, whether they play him at central midfield, you have to prepare as best you can for that," Curtin said. "I mentioned to the group what Alan Gordon brings off the bench. Probably the best guy off the bench our league has ever had in terms of coming into a game, whether it's for 30 minutes or 30 seconds, he tends to score goals in that time.”
The Union and Fire face off at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at Talen Energy Stadium and will be televised on PHL17.