Doug McIntyre’s weekly MLS column, 24 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.
How about those Philadelphia Union? With Wednesday’s 2-0 win over expansion Cincinnati, Jim Curtin’s team is the unlikely leader in the Eastern Conference almost a third of the way through the 2019 season.
Philly actually dropped its first two games this year. But since St. Patrick’s Day, the Union have been the hottest team this side of the surging LA Galaxy. Curtin and Co. have gone 5W-1L-1T in their last seven games, same as Supporters Shield favorite LAFC. And they’ll play four of their next five at home, starting with Saturday’s match against East bottom-feeder New England.
“We had a little bit of a learning curve in the first few games of the year,” Curtin, who implemented a revamped style of play during the preseason, said in an interview with Yahoo Sports earlier this week. “We’ve really fully committed to training with the right intensity and executing all the different roles of the new formation.”
Philadelphia, which has failed to win a playoff game since entering MLS nine years ago, isn’t the only surprise in the East. Montreal’s 3W-1L-2T run has the Impact tied with Philadelphia and D.C. United on points atop the conference. We’ll get the bleu-blanc-noir in a minute. Let’s stick with the Union for now.
1. Is Philly for real? It’s still too early to tell. But consider that 10 games in to the campaign, the club has already traveled to Atlanta United, Sporting Kansas City and Toronto FC. “We’ve gotten a lot of the hard road games on our schedule out-of-the-way early,” Curtin said.
2. His team is getting results with one of the youngest lineups in the league. Veterans Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin have been huge. But with the exception of FC Dallas, no club in MLS has been as committed to actually playing the youngsters it’s developed. The Union have started seven academy graduates, including 18-year-old playmaker Brenden Aaronson, who has been nothing short of a revelation.
“Brenden Aaronson has stepped in as a teenager and dominated games in our league,” said Curtin, who first coached the former Union Juniors player from Medford, New Jersey when he was just 10.
3. The other Homegrowns on the roster are goalkeeper Matt Freese, defenders Mark McKenzie, Matt Real and Auston Trusty, and midfielders Derrick Jones and Anthony Fontana. All but Real, who captained the U.S. under-20 team earlier this year and who remains in contention for a roster spot for this month’s FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland, have seen first-team action this season.
4. “They’re more than capable,” Curtin said of his stable of youngsters. “And sometimes you have to throw them out there and let them learn it and go through it and grow. It takes a little bit of guts. But you’re starting to see more and more teams do it.”
5. It’s long been that way around the world, of course. The once-popular idea that young players can’t be counted on has been thoroughly debunked. “You can’t win anything without kids,” legendary Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson quipped in his 2015 book Leading. That notion has only been reinforced this spring, as Dutch talent mill Ajax stunned Real Madrid and Juventus in the knockout stage of the UEFA Champions League. Ajax is now on the brink of reaching next month’s European final.
6. “It may sound cheesy but we do aspire to be that Ajax-type of club where you develop young players and bring them through and then move them to the highest level for lots of money—we think that can be a sustainable model in our league,” Curtin said. “These kids have to be on the field. The only way they get better is playing 90 minutes against men with real top talent. And our league has real top talent now.”
7. After emerging as the Union’s starting center back pairing last year, Trusty and McKenzie were both summoned by U.S. senior team coach Gregg Berhalter for January camp. McKenzie has been slowed by a series of ailments so far this season, however. He rolled an ankle and suffered a concussion after returning from national team duty. Last month, a day before he was scheduled to make his first start of 2019, McKenzie was rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy.
8. Despite making just one 12-minute cameo off the bench, it appears that McKenzie remains in U.S. U-20 coach Tab Ramos’ World Cup plans. “He’s a big part of Tab’s group,” Curtin said. “I know that.”
9. During the preseason, new Union sporting director Ernst Tanner caused a stir when he suggested that the club might not release McKenzie for the U-20 World Cup. But with Englishman Jack Elliott having played every minute this season alongside Trusty, it seems McKenzie will be made available. “We would most likely release him if he’s called on,” Curtin said.
10. Philly has switched to a 4-4-2 diamond set-up this year. But the bigger change has been the move to a New York Red Bulls-style high press. Tanner, who replaced Earnie Stewart last August when Stewart left to become general manager of the USMNT, was the driving force behind both decisions. Ironically, opponents seem to have figured out how to counteract the 17th overall Red Bulls’ system.
11. “It’s a copycat league. It’s a copycat sport,” Curtin said. “There are certainly ideas that are taken from different clubs. You could go through almost every MLS team and pick out something that they do well. The challenge is to do it better than everybody else.”
12. In a way, Montreal’s start has been more impressive than the Union’s. The Impact have played just two of their first 10 games at home because of Quebec’s extended winter. Other teams have struggled with long road trips to start the season. D.C. played 12 of its first 14 away last year as Audi Field was completed, winning just once. Portland won’t debut at an expanded Providence Park for another month; they began 2019 by going 0W-5L-1T.
13. “When I was with Toronto, we were doing the stadium renovation,” said Impact defender Daniel Lovitz, who played for TFC when they began the 2015 and 2016 seasons with an extended stretch away from BMO Field. “I think a huge project like that brings more attention to that kind of schedule change, because it’s for something. Here, it’s only vaguely understood that it’s a weather issue.”
14. Even more remarkable is the fact that the Impact’s streak has come with its two best and most important players, Ignacio Piatti and Safir Taider, sidelined by injury. Impact boss Remi Garde said Thursday that while Taider could return for Saturday’s match against New York City, Piatti will miss his eighth straight contest.
15. Like many MLS coaches, Garde is dreading the next two months. The U-20 World Cup and especially the CONCACAF Gold Cup will decimate rosters around the circuit. “We could be one of the teams with the most players away,” Garde said. He’s right. Regulars like Lovitz (USA), Omar Browne (Panama), Zachary Brault-Guillard and Samuel Piette (both Canada) could all leave for their respective pre-Gold Cup camps later this month. MLS will go dark for the first week of the regional championship, but key players will inevitably miss league games before and after the break.
16. “What can we do?” Garde said. “It’s a shame that the league is cut by this kind of period. [Scheduling] the fixtures is probably a nightmare for the people in charge of that but for me, it won’t be a nightmare, but I know that it will be a tough time.”
17. That MLS is one of the few leagues in the world that plays through international match windows is just one of the things Garde had to get used to when the former Lyon manager arrived from his native France last year. “They’re much more comfortable this season,” Lovitz said of Garde and his staff. “And their process does work. I think if you look at the back end of last year it was pretty incredible. So to have that sort of validation for them is huge.” The Impact didn’t make the playoffs in 2018 after a slow start, but they lost only three times over the final three months.
18. Lovitz is playing with a noticeable swagger these days. The 27-year-old was a surprise call-up by Berhalter in January and he has taken full advantage of the opportunity, playing in three of the Americans’ four games in 2019. With the U.S. always thin at left back and his main competition in MLS, Cincy’s Greg Garza, injured again, it would be surprising if he doesn’t make the Gold Cup squad.
19. “To get the recognition is great—I never thought that that was going to be possible,” Lovitz said of his fledgling international career. Does he feel he’s done enough to stick around this summer? “I’ll never feel like I’ve done enough,” he laughed. “I’m in contact with the national team and we’re pretty open about what I can do better and I think that’s huge. And with the feedback I get here in Montreal, it’s a great situation for me.”
20. Watching the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final on Wednesday, I couldn’t help marvel at Tigres’ French striker Andre-Pierre Gignac. Monterrey won the title, but Gignac was the most dangerous player on the field after coming on at halftime. He scored a peach of a goal. Had he started, perhaps the outcome would’ve been different. Gignac’s 33 now and wouldn’t come cheap, but man would he be a great addition for any MLS team lacking firepower up front.
21. Anthony Hudson is out as coach in Colorado, with former Rapids striker Conor Casey in on an interim basis. Shortly after the decision was announced, this tweet from my old colleague Marc Connolly made the rounds:
A player who once told myself and JP Dellacamera that he doesn’t watch MLS, while being in the league, or any other soccer for that matter because it doesn’t interest him is now an interim head coach for the Colorado Rapids.
— Marc Connolly (@mconnolly10) May 1, 2019
22. I’ve always been fascinated by this topic. Casey had a distinguished 17-year career as a player in the German Bundesliga, MLS and with the USMNT, so clearly you don’t have to watch soccer to be good at it. Still, I’m struck by athletes who can’t ever get enough of their sport. LeBron James, for example, is a women’s basketball junkie. Thierry Henry won every title imaginable before arriving in MLS in 2010, yet he studied the league like a monk. Guys like Jermaine Jones, Kei Kamara and Michael Bradley, to name a few, are the same.
23. Then there are players like Brek Shea or Eddie Johnson who, like Casey, show zero interest in watching the game on their own time. That’s fine, too. But it’s also fair to wonder if that more-balanced approach to life in any way prevented those two and others like them from making the the most of their considerable abilities.
24. Then there’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The 37-year-old has played for just about every elite club in Europe, but he doesn’t watch much these days. “I have two boys, man, I have to take care of them,” Ibrahimovic told me when I visited with the Galaxy a few weeks back.“I’m not sitting in front of the TV studying the games like before.”