The spotlight is on the Philadelphia Union and the glare's brightness and intensity is unlike any the club has seen before.
Fresh off winning the Supporters’ Shield — the team’s first-ever major trophy — year-end individual awards have followed with Jim Curtin being named the MLS Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year and Andre Blake capturing the 2020 Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, only the fifth goalkeeper in league history to win the award twice.
And there’s further praise from additional European interest in Kai Wagner and a successful international call-up for Olivier Mbaizo, who started for Cameroon in an African Cup of Nations qualifying win over Mozambique.
And while the focus is appreciated, Curtin doesn’t want any of the added interest to get to his players’ heads ahead of the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs.
“Again, it's been a week where we've had a lot of individual accolades, which we're very proud of at the club for sure. But it's important to keep the guys all focused, humble and hungry,” Curtin said in a video conference call with reporters Tuesday. “And it's really something we've preached all year, that as the team has success and gets points and gets wins and lifts the trophy, the individual accolades will come. That’s something that we've stressed all year. It's come true now. But we still don't want to get caught up reading the headlines, because there's still a lot of work to do. We've set ourselves up and worked so hard to get home field advantage throughout the playoffs.”
Curtin said the intensity is ramping up this week and an intra-squad scrimmage is planned for Wednesday in an attempt to maintain match sharpness.
But preparing for an unknown opponent, and having to scout all three off television since there are COVID-19 related travel restrictions, further complicates things.
“It almost feels like a bye but it's not quite a bye. So again, what will happen is we can play one of three teams — Montreal. New England or Miami — all really tough different opponents that present a lot of different challenges with their groups.
Union celebrate winning Supporters' Shield
“But what does happen now is, whoever we play is going to be coming off of a win, which always builds confidence they will have a little more sharpness and out of that 90 minutes under their belt,” he added. “So it is a tricky situation for us and for Toronto in the Eastern Conference so we're just trying to keep guys as sharp as possible. You're guarding against that letdown.”
Blake said the Union can think of it as a disadvantage, but he prefers to focus on the team’s unblemished home record.
"We’re playing at home and at Subaru Park we don't lose,” he said. “We just have to embrace that and keep the same mentality and go out there and do everything we can to win the game.”
Will Blake be in net, though? The Jamaican international said he’s getting stitches removed from his injured hand today and a meeting with the doctor will help determine his path going forward, which he described as a “day-to-day basis.”
“As we get closer to game day, let’s see if I’m able to get out there and get in at least a couple of training sessions or still have a couple more days,” Blake said. “Let’s see how that goes.”
The playoffs will be another test of the Union’s model, which has blossomed because of patience and belief. Curtin credits his players and the organization’s philosophy of developing its own talent for his Coach of the Year awards and also points to other sports franchises, like the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots in the NFL as other examples of what can be achieved when sticking to a clear philosophy.
“I think it's a lesson for for all of pro sports. I think if you even look across the franchises that tend to stick with a belief system,” Curtin said. "You could even throw in NFL, the Patriots, I know we hate saying that in Philadelphia, the Pittsburgh Steelers where there's not a ton of turnover and change. Everybody in their brain has a vision of what a Pittsburgh Steeler or a New England Patriots team looks like. They have an idea what an Arsenal team looks like under [Arsène] Wenger, there's a vision of it and then those things take time.
“It does take a real belief in what you're doing, it takes time over years to implement a system, and also create an environment where players like I talked about before can can improve and get better. As a coach, you're nothing more than a teacher, your job is to watch players grow and get better in the environment that you create. And then my biggest reward is watching them improve.”