As his team prepares to finish off the 2018 regular season at Yankee Stadium against New York City FC, Philadelphia Union head coach addressed the media and said he fully expects these difficult final matches of the year to help his team when the postseason begins.
Post-season comes early
“Like I've mentioned before,” Curtin said, “Playing New York Red Bull and now New York City FC — nothing better to prepare you for the playoffs. It'll be difficult to get points, as we learned on Sunday. They become one-play games and the margins are really tight. But these are the games that tell you the most about your group.”
With a playoff spot locked up the Union are still trying to secure a home match to start the postseason. And even though they couldn’t do it against New York last Sunday after a strange penalty decision went against them, Curtin thinks there were a lot of positives to build on.
“I think, in a way, they passed the test against Red Bull. And now this will be a new challenge for us with a lot on the line. A playoff home game on the line. You can finish anywhere from 3rd to 6th, certainly every team right now is trying to get to their maximum level and we're in the same boat. It'll be a tough task, but I think our guys are playing well, we're confident, and win lose or draw against New York City, we're fully confident that we can turn it around Wednesday or Thursday and get a result and move on in the playoffs.”
Struggling but recovering
NYCFC is not at their peak, and they could finish the season with as few as one win in their final 10 matches. Still, Curtin doesn’t think the Union can afford to take the Bronx-based club lightly.
“They've missed players, they've had injuries, they've had illness, they've had international call-ups, it's tough to get into a rhythm; they had a 23 day break as well, which is unique for any coach to handle,” the Union coach said. “They missed [Maxi] Moralez last game, he'll be back, I'd imagine. [Yangel] Herrera comes back from injury, for me a big piece for them. It didn't come up this year how much they missed him winning balls in the middle part of the field. It also gives [Alex] Ring flexibility to get forward into the attack. We expect those guys to be on the field. They've talked a lot about not being in the best form and finishing the season strong in this game. They have quality all over the field, they're great at home.”
Indeed, NYC is 11-4-1 on the tiny confines of Yankee Stadium, and knowing how to play on their unique pitch is a distinct advantage. “We've lined our practice field to the exact dimensions that Yankee Stadium has and we went through 11v11 today and I'll just say it was crowded,” Curtin admitted. “It does have an influence on the game, how close the lines are. You can't force things up the middle of the field because they intercept you and then they hit you quickly on the break. So we'll try to eliminate the short passes in the center of the field that don't really get you anywhere. And we've had an emphasis on playing balls through the lines that open the game up. That's the best formula for a really crowded and tight field. Restarts is another one. Throw-ins become corner kicks almost, and restarts are critical as well.”
Decision day will be wild
“We'll have the earpieces in and we'll know the result that we need in terms of how it'll affect the seeding and if we'll get a home game,” Curtin explained. The coach suggested this information could impact his substitution pattern, though he returned to a common refrain in the end. “At this stage of the season, you know the guys that got you here, you know the guys that have put a lot into the season and you want to trust them in the biggest moments to come through for you,” Curtin reiterated. “I think we'll have players step up in a big way. The goal is, if everybody's playing well, you don't have to make a lot of changes in the course of the 90 minutes.”
The big theme for this match, from Curtin’s perspective, is to keep the same mindset that got the team to the postseason in the first place.
“They're a team that we're going to respect, but we don't fear,” the Union head coach said. “That's been our mantra of our group. When we roll out on the field, we feel we can play with anybody when we're playing at our best. And that's what it's going to take to get a result in a hostile environment in Yankee Stadium.”
The Union travel to face NYCFC at 4:30PM ET. All MLS games will kick off at the same time as the league wraps up the 2018 season with plenty of playoff positions still on the line.