When Philadelphia Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz decided to replace manager John Hackworth with then-assistant Jim Curtin two months ago, his rationale was that a change needed to be made for the team to make a run at the playoffs and a U.S. Open Cup title.
You can say that’s worked out nicely so far.
On Saturday, the Union launched themselves into playoff position following a 2-1 win over the Montreal Impact. And on Tuesday, they play in a U.S. Open Cup semifinal game with the chance to host the first championship in club history.
In this week’s Inside Doop, we'll take a look back at Saturday’s win, before looking ahead to Tuesday’s big U.S. Open cup game in Dallas.
Three thoughts about Saturday’s game
1. Curtin has pushed a lot of right buttons since taking over but perhaps the most significant one is finding a way to unleash Sebastien Le Toux. Simply put, the Frenchman has been on fire over the past couple of months, adding two more goals Saturday to his team-leading tally of 10. After the game, he once again credited Curtin for playing him more as a forward and for not leaving any doubts as to his role on the team. More good news for Union fans: Le Toux said the ankle injury he suffered late in stoppage time was not as bad as he immediately feared –- though it remains to be seen how it affects him on the team’s upcoming road trip in Texas.
2. One of the Frenchman’s two goals was set up by Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath, who boomed a goal kick down the middle of the field to a streaking Le Toux early in the first half. That MacMath did this is not surprising; it’s a play the two said they’ve worked on before. The surprising part is that MacMath got the start in net in front of World Cup veteran Rais Mbolhi, who was supposed to take over as the team’s No. 1 ’keeper after getting signed more than a week ago. But afterwards, Curtin revealed that Mbolhi had “business to take care of away from the game,” leaving his starting debut in doubt. MacMath is proving to be a great professional by stringing together a couple of good games as something of a lame duck. It remains to be seen if Mbolhi will also be a good pro for the Union - but it’s probably fair to say his MLS career is not exactly off to an auspicious start.
3. While Mbolhi didn’t start Saturday, another recent signing coming off a World Cup did - and he got the biggest cheers of the night. Afterwards, Carlos Valdes – back from a one-and-a-half-year loan spell in South America – admitted he was “tired” in his first game at PPL Park since 2012. But the Colombian center back fit right in like he had another left, beautifully anchoring the backline to allow Maurice Edu to return to his natural position in the midfield and slowing down another familiar face returning to PPL Park – Montreal Impact striker Jack McInerney, who heard his fair share of boos from the home crowd. With Valdes now in the mix, Curtin should soon get his wish of the team grinding out some shutout wins.
Three questions for the week ahead
1. As weeks go, they don’t get more grueling than this. After flying out to play FC Dallas in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal on Tuesday (9 p.m.), the Union will stay in the brutal Texas heat to face the Houston Dynamo just three days later in a nationally televised Friday night league game (9 p.m., NBC Sports). While winning the Open Cup trophy and making the MSL playoffs are both huge goals, how Curtin handles the lineup and when he gives players rest could determine which of the two the Union are prioritizing.
2. Will Ethan White stay in the starting lineup at center back? On Saturday, Curtin said he’s “very high” on White and he seems to like the White-Valdes tandem at center back. But that leaves the tricky situation of trying to find a place in the midfield for Edu, Vincent Nogueira, Amobi Okugo and Cristian Maidana when he returns from injury. And that’s not even including captain Brian Carroll, Michael Lahoud and others. Working through the midfield logjam could be what makes or breaks Curtin as he continues his audition for the full-time managerial job.
3. Speaking of Maidana, the question remains when he’ll return from his hamstring injury. It’s approaching one full month since the Argentine playmaker last played, and even though the Union haven’t lost in their last five games, they could certainly use him to help control play in the midfield more. Over their last two games, the Union got results despite giving up a good majority of the possession – something that will likely need to change for the team to pick up a pair of wins this week.
Stat of the week
Le Toux’s 10 goals in league play this season have come on only 31 shots and 13 shots on goal. For comparison, the Galaxy’s Robbie Keane has scored 12 goals on 77 shots and 35 shots on goal and Seattle’s Clint Dempsey has scored nine goals on 62 shots and 26 shots on goal.
Quote of the week
“It’s a lucky goalkeeper for me. I like to play against him.” –- Sebastien Le Toux, on Montreal Impact goalie Troy Perkins, who also gave up a hat trick to Le Toux while with D.C. United in 2010
Player of the week
Le Toux gets the nod for his two-goal effort, especially after making something out of nothing and scoring the second with his left foot.