CHESTER, Pa. — Whether it’s bringing on a key substitution late in the match to spark a go-ahead goal or bulking up the backline with speed to counter a fast attack, Philadelphia Union coach Jim Curtin has been a master when it comes to pulling the right levers on his personnel decisions this season.
Take Saturday’s 3-1 victory over DC United in front of the biggest crowd of the season at Talen Energy Stadium.
Following what Curtin called a “flat” performance a week earlier during a 2-0 loss in Houston, he inserted seldom-used Mark McKenzie, Brenden Aaronson and Ilsinho into the starting lineup.
The result? Aaronson had a goal and an assist, Ilsinho added a goal and McKenzie starred on the backline as the trio were arguably the best players on the field.
“We needed an injection. We have a deep roster and I thought guys had been training really well and we rewarded those guys,” Curtin said. “They stepped on the field and for the most part changed the game and played with a real intensity.”
It was Aaronson who showed up in the game’s first five minutes. He created the team’s first scoring chance in the box but overran the ball and turned it over. However, he started the Union’s first goal with a feed to Kai Wager, whose cross was redirected into the net by Kacper Przybylko.
About 10 minutes later, Aaronson straddled the DC backline and finished a through pass into the box from Przybylko to give the Union a 2-0 lead. It was his second goal of the year and the first one at home.
“It was a special moment for me because I sat out a few games, and I deserved to sit out a couple games,” said Aaronson, who was not subbed into the last two games. “I had a poor couple of games and it was awesome for me to come back in with a good mindset and score that goal.”
The biggest surprise was McKenzie’s debut in the starting lineup. He had played just 12 minutes the entire season, in April as a sub against the Los Angeles Galaxy. However, there he was sandwiched between Jack Elliott and Kai Wagner at center back at the first whistle.
“It feels great to be back on the field and run with the guys,” McKenzie said. “I have just been chipping away at it day in and day out. I wanted to make sure that when my name was called I would be ready for the opportunity. I wanted to seize it.”
McKenzie was more than prepared. He served as a wall whenever presented in a one-on-one situation, marked the DC strikers like glue and was instrumental in starting counter attacks.
“I give Mark a lot of credit,” Aaronson said. “He has not played all year and to come in and play like he did was truly incredible. I thought he was the best player on the field tonight. He didn’t let anyone get past him.”
Ilsinho, typically inserted as a sub in the second half, beat two players with his patented fancy footwork and then fired the ball past D.C. goalie Bill Hamid for the team’s third goal in the 36th minute.
Curtin’s balancing act with the lineup will be tested yet again on Saturday against Atlanta, which is tied with the Union atop the Eastern Conference standings. Captain Alejandro Bedoya is suspended after receiving his third yellow card on Saturday, leaving a big hole in the middle of the field.
“He’s gutted that he is going to miss the game, but that is the reality of our league,” Curtin said. “We have a deep roster and I know that whoever we decide to play against Atlanta … will step up and do a good job.”
With the way Curtin’s been handling the ebb and flow of the entire lineup, it’s hard to disagree with him.