Well, that was quite an eventful week in Texas for the Union.
But they’re probably happy they don’t have to go back there for the rest of the year.
After advancing to the U.S. Open Cup championship game on penalty kicks in Dallas on Tuesday, the Union dropped below the playoff line in the crowded Eastern Conference following a 2-0 league loss in Houston on Friday.
In this week’s Inside Doop, we’ll take a look back at the grueling – and really hot – two-game road swing through Texas while looking ahead to what’s next for the Union as they return to the friendly confines at PPL Park.
Three thoughts about the past week
1. Because they were playing their third game in seven days, Union interim manager Jim Curtin vowed to make some changes for Friday’s nationally televised contest vs. the Dynamo. But no one expected one of those changes to be taking out goalkeeper Zac MacMath, who was coming off perhaps the defining moment of his career when he stopped two penalty kicks in Tuesday’s shootout to lift the Union to their first-ever final. And yet Curtin opted to give Andre Blake his first MLS start – and the rookie responded with a memorable performance of his own, showcasing the athletic ability that made him the top overall pick in the 2014 draft with a handful of diving saves, including a wild one that thwarted a breakaway attempt from Dynamo leading scorer Will Bruin. Throw in recent signing Rais Mbolhi and Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz may have been right when he said his team has “three of the best goalkeepers in Major League Soccer.” Now the only question is what the Union will do with all of them.
2. The Union’s other first-round pick in the 2014 draft, Pedro Ribeiro, also made his MLS debut on Friday – but his was far less eventful. Deployed as a center forward, Ribeiro didn’t have many scoring opportunities, in large part because he didn’t have much support behind him. But the rookie still looked like an MLS player and could prove to be useful this season – though he’d probably be better served in an attacking midfielder role than as a striker.
3. While a few Union players have logged some serious minutes over the past week, no one has played more than Maurice Edu. After putting in a 45-minute shift in the MLS All-Star Game on Aug. 6, the Designated Player played every minute for Philly over the past week, including all 120 minutes in the Open Cup semifinal. And since the start of August, Edu has logged a total of 435 minutes, shuttling between center back and midfield. In one way, that shows how versatile and important he is to Curtin. But, like others on the team, he seemed to predictably run out of gas toward the end of Friday’s game – just one of the factors that contributed to the 2-0 loss.
Three questions for the week ahead
1. Here comes the home stretch. Sunday’s game against the San Jose Earthquakes (8 p.m., Comcast SportsNet) at PPL Park marks the first of eight home games to end the season (seven out of their last 10 league matches, as well as the U.S. Open Cup final against Seattle on Sept. 16). The stretch could not come at a better time for the Union, and it’s one Curtin has been looking toward since taking over as manager. But can a team that has struggled to create a huge home-field edge this season take advantage of it enough to secure a playoff spot? Because of the favorable schedule, the playoffs are certainly right there for the taking – which, in some ways, only adds to the pressure for Curtin as he continues his audition for the full-time job.
2. Will this be the week Rais Mbolhi finally starts in goal? The Algerian World Cup star didn’t travel to Houston because of visa issues, but Curtin said he would join the Union for Tuesday’s practice in Philadelphia. But with MacMath and Blake both coming off such big performances, Curtin might have a decision to make even if Mbolhi practices all week and says he’s ready to go for Sunday’s game.
3. Despite having some time to figure it out, the Union’s logjam in the center of the midfield has yet to be resolved. It seems likely the center back pairing moving forward will be Carlos Valdes and Ethan White, which leaves a plethora of holding midfielders vying for starting spots and Vincent Nogueira being deployed out of position higher in the midfield. Will Nogueira remain in that spot or cede the position to Cristian Maidana, who appears poised to return to the starting lineup Sunday after dealing with a hamstring injury? Will this be the week where Curtin tries to put top players Amobi Okugo, Edu, Nogueira and Maidana together in the midfield, even if some are out of position?
Stat of the week
Both of Curtin’s losses since taking over as manager have been in Texas. Aside from the two league matches played in the Lone Star state, Curtin’s record is 7-0-3.
Quote of the week
“He’s taken his game to a whole other level. He looks like a 25-year-old out there. It would embarrass some other guys but he’s running two more miles than some people – which is unbelievable in the course of a 90-minute game.” – Jim Curtin on Sebastien Le Toux
Player of the week
After a rare absence from the lineup last week, Amobi Okugo was at his best this week, scoring in the Open Cup semifinal against Dallas before putting in a strong 90 minutes against Houston.