As the Philadelphia Union returned to individual voluntary workouts for the first time on Monday, coach Jim Curtin admitted the 68-day hiatus from soccer activities had provided more than ample time for reflection.
Earlier in his tenure, that might've been a frightening prospect. With the state of his club now, it was heartening.
"I mean it when I say it, It’s the strongest this organization has felt," Curtin told reporters on Monday of his team's start to 2020. "And to your point, it was the best soccer we’ve been playing as a club. I think there’s been good teams in the past, but I think that we have a good team right now, and one that the fans can really get behind. We’re the most stable I’ve ever felt at the club, and I’m proud of that."
Although the Union head earned only one point from their first two matches, the nature of that point — a dramatic 3-3 draw away to Supporters' Shield holders LAFC — has left Curtin with plenty of confidence regarding how his team will perform on most nights when the season resumes. Philadelphia also had yet to play a home match when the COVID-19 pandemic brought play to a halt.
"I think we had that initial feeling that, 'Alright, we have something special,'" Curtin said. "No matter who is on the field, we’re going to play a certain way and be a pain to play against."
Of course the hiatus has halted some of that momentum. But it's also provided a bonding opportunity, as Curtin has encouraged his charges to look out for each other virtually, paying special attention to more recent arrivals. He particularly referenced Norwegian center back Jakob Glesnes, who scored a phenomenal goal in that draw, just his second MLS match.
"The one thing I kept stressing to them is it goes a long way just reaching out to, especially the guys that are here for the first time," Curtin said. "We have guys that arrived from Norway, and their first experience is to play against LAFC, score an amazing goal and then have a league shut down and you’re in a foreign country with a newborn baby. That is something on the human level that not a lot of people can grasp and know what that feels like.
"So we have nothing but time now. These last 68 days, we’ve had time to be alone and self reflect and different things. But the importance of reaching out to a buddy, even if it’s just a little text message, a Zoom conference like this, you can really make a person’s day and make them feel a little bit more safe and comfortable, and there’s examples of that all over our team. In a way, I think you have to find positives, and I think we are a little bit closer while we’re apart."