It was an odd question to ask in a media conference call of a coach, but when head coach Jim Curtin was asked Tuesday when the season was starting and he quickly responded with an “18 days” it was obvious the countdown is top of mind for him.
For the first time this preseason, Curtin had a relatively full squad available in training thanks to the arrival of his star midfielder Jamiro Monteiro, who arrived Monday night and had his first training session with his teammates since signing a three-year contract last month.
Starting left back Kai Wagner is still nursing a calf injury that was initially not expected to keep him off the field so long and Andrew Wooten is not quite ready for game action after returning from a quad injury but Curtin should have everyone else available for Wednesday afternoon’s scrimmage against FC Cincinnati in Clearwater.
Not having a full team for preseason isn’t a new phenomenon for the Union, but this year it was January camp for Mark McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson and immigration paperwork that has kept the squad from being together as opposed to waiting for roster openings to be filled.
While it’s possible that there is still a signing or two on the horizon, the roster is at the number Sporting Director Ernst Tanner has cited as an ideal number before (26) so it’s also possible that there won’t be any late additions to the squad as in the past who will have mere days to acclimate before the season opens.
Eighteen days feels short on one hand but also long by comparison to previous seasons for the team to gel prior to away trips to Frisco, Texas and Los Angeles to open the regular season.
Monteiro’s arrival is a really big deal since he will essentially be the face of the franchise this season. As if the team paying a record $2 million transfer fee to get him back wasn’t indication enough, Monteiro is the focal point of the midfield whether he’s playing in the No. 10 role (as his switch from 35 to No. 10 might indicate) or dropping back into more of an 8 role with Brenden Aaronson pushed higher.
With captain Alejandro Bedoya’s position locked down, the No. 6 role remains a battle between newcomers Matej Oravec and Jose Andres Martinez. Curtin said Tuesday it’s too early to say which player has the edge there and he also took time to praise what he’s seen from rookie homegrown Cole Turner. There’s also Anthony Fontana and Jack de Vries fighting for minutes in the midfield with Warren Creavalle, who is back training from a short-term injury, providing veteran cover and leadership.
Curtin had more praise to share on Tuesday for new center back Jakob Glesnes, using the word “wow” to describe his integration into the squad so far. While to some the obvious answer to getting the 25-year-old Norwegian, McKenzie and Jack Elliott all on the field at the same time may be to start out with three in the back, Curtin — who said he’d put his four center backs (Aurelien Collin is the fourth) up against most other teams in the league — acknowledged that a three-man back line might be something they switch to in the latter stages of games to accommodate personnel changes.
On the forwards, Curtin seems pretty smitten right now by the partnership of Kacper Przybylko and Sergio Santos, which he said has been “special” so far in preseason. Wooten has been hurt and Michee Ngalina just saw his first game action of preseason last week so it would seem Santos and Przybylko have the upper hand on being the opening day starters. The goal they combined on in the 1-0 win over the Montreal Impact last week is the something Curtin said he wants to see more of this season, defense turned to offense and his two forwards combining to create the finishing touches.
With Cory Burke on loan in Austria the forward position does feel somewhat vulnerable to injuries (both Kacper and Sergio missed several games with injury last season) in terms of depth. Issa Rayyan and Shanyder Borgelin have helped provide depth from Union II with Wooten out. De Vries could also certainly pair with a Wooten or Przybylko but his primary focus and opportunity to see the field may be as an attacking midfielder or a winger in a 4-2-3-1.
Unsigned academy right back Nathan Harriel and Union II center back Jamoi Topey have also been training with the first team. Harriel recently picked up a quad injury, Curtin noted.
The question of depth goes to the heart of some of the other competitions the team will have this season. Curtin noted on Tuesday that the Union will be the highest-ranked MLS team in the Leagues Cup with Liga MX. The U.S. Open Cup, meanwhile, will kick off for the Union with the fourth round in June. The Open Cup is of particular interest for domestic players since rules limit teams to only five international players on the game day roster. Based on the current make-up of the Union’s roster, that would mean three players have to be left out.