With the squad about to board the bus for the short trip up the New Jersey Turnpike for a rivalry showdown, Philadelphia Union Head Coach Jim Curtin talked about the big match and the elements of the club’s recent success that might not get talked about as his side breaks record after record. These are our Founders Brewing Co. Pressing Points.
Best of Each Side
When the Boys in Blue take to the pitch against the Red Bulls on Saturday night, the margins for error will be tight as both sides play matching styles. Fatigue will also play a factor with the contest coming at the end of a three game stretch in eight days. While some squads would consider drastic rotation, in a rivalry contest featuring two of the best in the East, the Union head man thinks fans will see two full strength teams.
“Both teams have a little fatigue and some bumps and bruises but when you play against a rival, those tend to go away,” Curtin said on Friday afternoon. “Hopefully we have everyone recovered and fresh and ready to go again. We expect another difficult game because it is Red Bull and those are a one-or-two-play game and we’ve been lucky to come out on the right end a lot but we know it will be a tough, tough task. It is up to us to go on the road, match their intensity which is something they are very good at.”
The Union are coming off a 4-1 home win against Atlanta United FC that secured their spot in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs for the fifth-consecutive season, but New York also notched a big result with a 1-0 road win at CF Montreal on Wednesday night. Such important wins could lead other teams to take their foot off the gas, but Curtin knows this particular rivalry is stoked by an intensity that won’t allow for any let downs.
“When we go up against Red Bull, we bring the best out of each other,” Curtin explained. “It might not be the beautiful game in the first 15-20 minutes as we feel each other out, and there will be a lot of stoppages for out of bounds [and] fouls, but we will both go hard because that is something in both of our identities and DNA. The word tired cannot enter our minds when you play Red Bull because if you don’t, at a minimum, match their intensity, you’re in big trouble.”
The win at Montreal set a new club record for road points by the Red Bulls on Wednesday night and the club sports the best away record of any MLS side in 2022. At home though, the results haven’t been at the same level, with a 4-5-5 record pointing to struggles at Red Bull Arena. When asked about the home versus away numbers, the Union head coach dismissed them as a factor: Rivalries, he emphasized, are different.
“They have a really strong and tough mentality and it comes from their coach,” Curtin noted. “When they go on the road, they play the same way, which is brave and in your face and very physical. It is not surprising to see that they’ve had so much success on the road.
“I’m sure we’ll have some fans make the trip up like what we saw in D.C. and I’m sure that they are aware that they need to improve their home record and will give us their very best,” he continued. “At home the pressure is more on them to create and to make the game which we have to utilize in a smart way but the chances will be few and far between, probably like our playoff game against them. The team that makes a play in or around the goal always comes away with the points.
The Union have been impressive away from Subaru Park with a 6-4-4 record and have recently looked for a way to control the pace and shape of matches. Curtin said that while the give-and-take of tempo might work against most teams, it could play right into the Red Bull gameplan.
“So much of what Red Bull does well is pressing off of your mistakes and making you make mistakes. It is a game where we cannot play 3, 4, 5 passes that don’t really get us anywhere because their pressing cues are to prey on them and turn them into attacks. We have improved greatly with the ball but with Red Bull I think you have to be more direct and hit those long diagonals that break their pressure so you won’t see a lot of short passes because that sets up and plays into their game. There will be moments where we ask our guys to speed it up and go in transition but there also have to be moments where we try to slow it down and recover. But that is easier said than done because it will be a chaotic, tough game.”
Terrific Trio Making a Defensive Impact
Much has been written about the Union’s high scoring trio of Julian Carranza, Daniel Gazdag and Mikael Uhre and rightfully so. They lead the league with a combined 41 goals and are the first group of three players in club history to all reach double-digit goals in the same season. While many headlines have focused on goalscoring, Curtin pointed the spotlight at the club’s defensive performances, and how his front three have contributed.
“When everyone thinks of team defense you go Andre Blake, the back four, Jose Martinez, Ale Bedoya and Leon Flach. But really our defending starts with our strikers,” Curtin said. “We demand a lot of work from them and the trick is to convince your attackers to buy in because if they work together as a front three, the easier goals come from that. If we turn the other team over close to the goal, naturally we are one or two passes away rather than a 15 or 16 team build up to create a chance. That front three has a ton of goals and a ton of assists because of their defending.”
Curtin said the team’s recent run of form took some time to materialize as the trio up top needed chemistry and to shake off early injuries. Now everyone is buying in on the defensive side, and it’s helping simplify the attack.
“Our team defending is what got us through the beginning part of the year and now when you get the buy in as they realize that the staff is right, Curtin said. “We are getting easier tap ins for goals because of working so hard defending and counterpressing. I’m defense-first and the goals are a little bit mindblowing with the big score lines, but I’m most proud of the zero you see up on the board and having conceded the fewest goals in the league.”