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Unchartered territory for Philadelphia Union increases need for reinforcements

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The Union being in the Concacaf Champions League semifinals is as real as the team’s lack of depth

Carl Gulbish

I never thought I’d type this out, but here we go:

The Philadelphia Union advanced to the Concacaf Champions League semifinals (Yes, the Concacaf Champions League, not the U.S. Open Cup) with a 4-1 aggregate win over Atlanta United on Tuesday. They’ll visit Liga MX powerhouse Club America in the hallowed soccer stadium Estadio Azteca in August.

As surreal as it is, it is true. The Union took care of business on Tuesday night by defending with tenacity despite having several missed opportunities fall by the wayside that would’ve put the tie to bed long before Kacper Pryzbylko’s 88th minute goal. Przybylko became just the second player in the Champions League to score in four straight matches and currently leads the golden boot race in the region’s premier tournament.

The Union will host the second leg of the semifinals in September, a really beneficial prize for their performances through four games that has netted them 3 wins and draw with a plus-8 goal differential. Throughout their first four games, the Union have shown poise and durability by epitomizing what Jim Curtin often references in knockout tournaments: “Survive and Advance.” The “bend don’t break” mentality of this Union squad is strong, in more ways than one.

When I first typed out “durability” in the previous paragraph, I wasn’t sure if it was the right word to describe the Union in that context. When you apply it to the early portion of this season, however, I believe it describes them well, but may become tenuous in the upcoming few games. Due to needing to balance two different competitions, the first month of the Union’s schedule has been condensed to say the least. This is going to dictate the Union’s durability during these games and the impact of their condensed schedule on the roster.

The Union have played 7 games in 29, roughly equaling a game every 4 days. They also have 3 more in the next 10 days, for a grand total of 10 games in 39 days. It’s been a slog, and not without its sluggish players. As the games have worn on, the regular starters have struggled with energy. Soccer is a very active sport, not even your average soccer denier could deny that. Playing at a high level, as the Union are, the number of times they have played in this short time is bound to do produce tired legs.

This is mitigated by rotating the squad for select matches when possible. It doesn’t seem, however, that those select matches have been presented to head coach Jim Curtin. His preferred starting XI this season has played an immense number of minutes through 7 games and his efforts to rotate the squad have been nearly non-existent. To Jim’s credit, he did attempt to do this against NYCFC this past weekend. But in a reverse Harry Dunne from Dumb and Dumber, he totally un-redeemed himself by subbing in Leon Flach, Kacper Przybylko and Kai Wagner in order to rescue a game where they were down and man and a goal.

In 630 minutes the Union have played this season, 4 players have played in every single one: Jamiro Monteiro, Olivier Mbaizo, Jack Elliott, and Andre Blake. Jakob Glesnes was subbed out in the second leg of the Saprissa game for 1 whole minute, so he has 629 minutes played. Alejandro Bedoya joins that quintet in having started all 7 games, but he has missed 32 minutes total. Kai Wagner has 569 minutes under his belt with Kacper Przybylko playing in 540 minutes of game time. I’d wager a guess the only reason Jose Martinez (443 minutes) doesn’t rank as high on that list is because of his recent red card and suspension in CCL.

I can belabor the point further, but I think you catch my drift. To hammer it home, 11 players have started in 5 of the 7 games. Again, those games have been played every 4 days on average. The amount of sub appearances and minutes outside a core group of players (players with 5 or more starts plus Sergio Santos and Cory Burke) is frighteningly low. Curtin has only used 6 players outside of that group for a combined total of 210 minutes. That player in the core group with the lowest minutes is Sergio Santos and he’s played 280 minutes due to an injury at the beginning of the season.

There are a plethora of reasons as to why this has happened. There have been injuries to players like Ilsinho, whose only appearance ended after 11 minutes. In addition, Jack de Vries continues to be in the concussion protocol with Stuart Findlay recently struggling with a quad injury. Cory Burke and the aforementioned Sergio Santos both missed time recovering from injuries.

Another thing compounding the issue of rotation are things like suspensions. Jose Martinez the only culprit of this at the moment, who was suspended in the Champions League due to yellow card accumulation and a red card in the 16th minute against NYCFC on Saturday. He will miss the next game and I would not be surprised if he missed more games in MLS, hurting the Union’s already stretched thin roster. Looking forward, Jamiro Monteiro and Matt Real, will both be suspended for the Champions League semifinal first leg in August.

There has been moments to bring in the homegrown players that are plentiful on the bench, but even Jim Curtin has admitted that the kids aren’t quite ready yet. That is completely different topic altogether, but it is worth wondering, if the kids aren’t ready to play first team minutes consistently, what exactly are they ready for? Maybe that’s an unfair assessment, but I don’t think anyone would fault Curtin for giving them an extended run out for Alejandro Bedoya who at times looks like he is running himself so far into the ground he’s halfway through the Earth’s Mantle.

Despite disagreeing with Curtin’s philosophy many times throughout his tenure, at this point it is hard to blame him. He was open in admitting he doesn’t want to thrust the kids into the spotlight and I get that. For the first time since his arrival, it looks like we’ve got to turn our head onto Ernst Tanner.

Before I say what I am about to say, I want to make this clear: Ernst Tanner has done a terrific job. This is the first time I’ve looked toward his office in the Wharf Building wanting more. Last year, the team was deep and it had the ability to shift and weather a congested schedule. They’ve lost some key players and replaced them with players that are not ready yet for extended minutes.

This is going to become a problem. In the short term, I’ve mentioned the Union play three more times in the next 10 days. Already going through a slog, that could really hamper a team if fatigue starts getting into injury-causing territory. Later in the season, August and September will prove to be hellish months with 8 games in August (including the first leg of the Champions League semifinal) and a scheduled international break possibly being torn up by rescheduling due to the Union’s success. This doesn’t even factor in the brief, but still possible addition to the schedule of the U.S. Open Cup.

Needless to say, things might get choppy later in the season as MLS already deals with a pretty condensed schedule due to the season starting six weeks later than usual.

I’ve managed to go on long enough. We all get the point. This team’s depth isn’t there. It either does not exist or it’s unreliable, but either way it needs to be resolved. The longer the first team continues to play a slog of minutes without respite, the worse performing they will be. Key letdowns in moments have already occurred early this season and maybe tired legs already have had something to do with it. The Union need a few more players that can reliably contribute to a team that is less than a year from hoisting the Supporters’ Shield.

Before the Champions League Semifinals roll around in August, Ernst needs to have some receipts for players that can push this team onward. The results in MLS this season may be forgiven early on as the Union cruise in the Champions League. Will fans be as forgiving if by the time mid-September rolls around and a tired Union team is eliminated from the Champions League while looking in from the outside of the MLS playoffs?

This is unsustainable and I hope Ernst Tanner works his magic to address it.