The Philadelphia Union may have already booked their place in the MLS is Back Tournament knockout stage, but there's still a huge amount riding on their third and final Group A game against the similarly already qualified Orlando City SC, according to Union coach Jim Curtin.
With both Philadelphia and Orlando having taken six points from two games, their third group stage game in other tournaments could be an opportunity to have some pressure off and rotate their lineup. But with regular-season points on the line in the MLS is Back Tournament group stage, Curtin stressed there would be no taking their foot off the gas on Monday (8 pm ET | ESPN, TUDN in US; TSN in Canada).
"Nine points in the league, that's everything," Curtin said in his pre-match press conference Saturday. "The first three games of the competition being worth nine points in our league, there's certainly an element of pride that goes into winning three in a row. There's an element of Orlando's a competitor in the Eastern Conference, so there's still a ton on the table for this match. We want to take all three points for sure. It's unique because we're already through, but at the same time this game has a real meaning and real points are on the line."
Curtin doesn't expect things to be straightforward on Monday. Orlando have been one of the surprise packages of the tournament so far, beating local rivals Inter Miami CF and then upsetting last season's top team in the East, NYCFC. Nani, with a goal and an assist, and Chris Mueller with three goals, have been the standout players for Orlando so far, and Curtin said his team will need to be on their guard.
"They're confident right now," Curtin said. "They're flying. The one thing when you watch the tape, the last two games here in the bubble and obviously we've looked at games from prior, they really have a commitment to getting numbers in the box. Right now, when the ball is going to wide positions, you'll see three to four guys come flying into the screen, which is something that obviously helps scoring goals.
"Mueller is sharp as anybody, he's finishing off all his chances. Nani has a world-class pedigree. The one thing that comes true is when he gets on the ball, he's the guy that's going to set up assists, he's the guy that's going to make goals happen. We have to do a good job on both of those guys."
There has been plenty to savor about the Union in this tournament as well. After knocking off NYCFC in their opener, Philadelphia saw off Inter Miami courtesy of a winner from Kacper Przybylko following a thrilling counter-attack. As well as the team's play on the field, Curtin hailed the team's bond away from the action.
"I've had the sports staff and the technical staff come to me and say that this group, everything on the field aside, this group off the field is the closest one they've ever seen," he said. "That's good to hear as a coach. That means they're good together when it really matters when opening whistle blows and the 90 minutes get started."
After achieving the first playoff win in club history in 2019, Philadelphia are earning plenty of praise as they strive to take another step forward to join MLS's true elite in 2020.
"It's positive to hear these things as the head coach, it's also positive when teams start to talk about us creeping into that upper-echelon of teams," Curtin said. I'm going to be the guy that guards against that and say we're not quite there yet, but you are starting to hear more and more people talk about it, for sure."