Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin knows full well his club’s visit to FC Cincinnati on Saturday night (8 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+) comes laced with danger beneath the surface.
Yes, the Union are unbeaten in their last four games as they battle for a place in the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs. And yes, Cincinnati have won only once in 12 matches at TQL Stadium and can be eliminated from postseason contention with a loss or draw against Philadelphia.
But between Philadelphia’s personnel issues during the international break and the launch of the Chris Albright regime in Southwestern Ohio, Curtin recognizes there are potential landmines in his club's path.
“We have a tough task (against) players that are going to be wanting to win for their home fans,” Curtin said midweek. “That’s always tough in our league on the road, especially now when we’re going in there without six or seven starters. That’s going to be very difficult.”
After seven years as the Union’s technical director, Albright assumed the general manager reigns at Cincinnati earlier this week.
Tyrone Marshall – whose exceptional career as an MLS center back began before and ended after Curtin’s – has taken over as manager of Cincy’s last two games on an interim basis. The club parted ways with Jaap Stam in late September.
“It’s going to be a situation where the guys in Cincinnati are going to be wanting to impress him,” Curtin said. “They have a little, maybe, less pressure now too because playoffs are quite a long shot for them. So they can play a little bit more free. (Whereas) we’re fighting for every point.”
And the Union are without six players currently away on international duty – most notably reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Andre Blake, who's with Jamaica for Concacaf Octagonal games. They'll also miss left back Kai Wagner due to a red card suspension.
PK SAVE: Andre Blake, Philadelphia Union - 76th minute
For a reminder of Blake’s importance, Union fans need only to recall their 3-0 win over Columbus in MLS Week 29, when he saved a 76th-minute penalty kick while Philly led 2-0 and played a man down.
“I don’t want to over-exaggerate or say too much, but that save he makes on the PK, if that goes 2-1 there, it can be a season-changing type of game,” Curtin said. “Big players in the biggest moments need to make plays like that. And Andre was incredible.”
Add the absence of Jose Martinez and Jamiro Monteiro in central midfield, and Curtin said he was still tinkering with whether to play a three-back or four-back system, plus how to fill the holding midfield role in front of those defenders.
“There’s a lot of options at the six,” Curtin said of that holding role. “We’ll try to find the best partnership.”
Since losing in the Concacaf Champions League semifinals to Club America, Philly have gone 3W-0L-1D in league games. They now occupy third place in a jam-packed Eastern Conference playoff race, though are only three points above the red line.