PHILADELPHIA (CBS)- MLS is back with the aptly named “MLS Is Back” tournament starting on Wednesday July 8. For Philadelphia Union fans, their journey starts the next day with a morning matchup against Eastern Conference rivals NYCFC.
The New York club is ranked among the top favorites to win the league’s tournament in Orlando, checking in behind only LAFC according to oddsmakers. One of three group stage games for both teams, there is a lot riding on a matchup that will see the two sides take the field competitively for the first time in three months. But, while the result may dictate which of the two teams tops Group A, MLSSoccer.com writer Tom Bogert points out it will be hard to take much in the way of lessons on what to expect from that first matchup.
“There are just so many question marks that I don’t know how much you can really take away from one game for these teams. NYCFC might get a friendly like Philly doing intrasquad friendlies. But, this isn’t a normal circumstance where you have four or five friendlies to ramp up to that first game,” said Bogert. “I’m not sure how much we’ll be able to take away from the first matchup.”
That layoff and how it affects teams is the big question surrounding any sports returning at this point. For Jim Curtin’s squad, they do have somewhat of an advantage in that much of the team is back from last year’s group that finished third in the Eastern Conference. Bogert says that he is particularly impressed by the team’s ability to find hidden gems like left back Kyle Wagner and center forward Kacper Pryzybylko. Combined with the depth that Curtin and sporting director Ernst Tanner have built, Bogert says he’s probably higher than most on the Union’s chances.
“They are very deep, very young and very energetic. They play a high pressing style which, I guess we’ll see how long that will last given their legs, fitness and the Orlando heat. But, I think that with the new temporary five substitution rule, head coach Jim Curtin is smart enough to know that he’s probably going to use all five subs every game just because of the nature of the way that they play,” said Bogert. “And then it’s just the hurdles that every team is facing with fitness. They are bona fide a very good team. If the regular season were the normal 34 games I would have been shocked if they finished anywhere outside of the top four in the East. It’s NYCFC, Philly and then the rest of the four teams in this group.”
Curtin’s steady hand is a real key. Now in his seventh season as manager of the club, he has shown himself to be quite adaptable. While he wants to play the high pressing style, Bogert notes that he’s smart enough to realize it’s likely not possible to do so for a full 90 minutes in this tournament considering both the layoff and Orlando heat.
“They’re going to play high pressing but, I think he is going to make tweaks. Something like first 15 minutes of the game we’re going to play all out. Then the next 10 minutes we’re going to drop in a little deeper and recover a bit,” said Bogert. “I think he is somebody who is adept at changing things and making tweaks, not being too stubborn about the way that they’re playing.”
That ability to change tactics and keep players fresh will be especially key in this scenario. Aside from the first match against NYCFC, the Union see group stage matches against expansion clubs Nashville SC and Inter Miami CF. If they’re able to take those two games, they’re likely to have a clear path through to the knockout stages where anything can happen.
It all kicks off next Thursday, July 9 at 9 am EST on ESPN with the matchup against NYCFC.