As the group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament begins to wind down, it’s more clear than ever that playing soccer in the Florida heat is taking its toll on the players. Jerseys cling to the skin almost immediately and every player has sweat pouring off of them within five minutes.
Luckily, MLS coaches have the option of making up to five subs during these matches to try to keep players fresh. But Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin doesn’t seem to be interested in taking advantage of these new substitution opportunities.
His subs for the first three matches of the tournament have followed a predictable pattern. First, he makes an Ilsinho sub (either off or on). Next he makes a sub at defensive midfielder. After that there has been some variation, but he has preferred to bring on a fresh defender or make a late tweak to the midfield.
This approach took an interesting turn during the Orlando match because the Union were already down a defensive midfielder due to Jose Martinez’s suspension. So when it came time for Warren Creavalle to be subbed off, Curtin elected to bring on Jakob Glesnes and push Jack Elliot up into the midfield.
The experiment worked well enough, and Elliot does have some impressive dribbling skills for a central defender. But it raises a bigger concern because offseason acquisition Matej Oravec plays as a defensive mid and he has yet to make it onto the pitch for the Union. So a TAM-level player who was considered as a potential starter during the preseason now appears to be down as low as fourth on the depth chart for his position.
After that change in the 73rd minute, Curtin would have been content to make no further changes for the rest of the match. In a postgame interview, he mentioned that the primary reason he subbed on Matt Real late in added time was because Kai Wagner had gotten banged up on a late challenge and Brenden Aaronson was looking a little gassed.
It seems like the added substitutions rule should be making it easier for the Union’s younger players like Anthony Fontana, Jack de Vries, Cole Turner and Michee Ngalina to finally get some minutes. But so far they have only managed to make short cameos in Orlando or none at all.
There’s also the question of what impact the minimal rotation will have on the team’s fitness. Every team is struggling in the Florida heat, and the fatigue is only getting worse as the teams play more. If the Union stick to this strategy of relying on the same 13 or 14 players to get the vast majority of minutes, then it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to make it through the four additional matches they’ll need to win the tournament.
While Curtin’s approach feels limited at this time, it’s hard to argue with the results so far. The Union are unbeaten in the tournament and they advanced to the knockout stages with a match to spare. But the Union won’t be able to stick to the same basic substitution strategy forever.
The five subs rule for the 2020 season is a unique opportunity to get better squad rotation and also get more minutes for some of the Union’s younger players. The Union will need to better adapt to this going forward, especially as the schedule condenses more as the season goes on.