Rais Mbolhi makes debut for Philadelphia Union vs. San Jose Earthquakes
USA Today Sports

Despite a host of international absences, Philadelphia Union's Jim Curtin confident in replacements

Philadelphia Union interim manager Jim Curtin called it “a gift and a curse.”

The gift: Signing World Cup veterans Carlos Valdes and Rais Mbolhi in the summer transfer window to help with the team’s late-season playoff push.

The curse: Dealing with the absences of both players for two games this week due to their international commitments.

Valdes, Philly’s starting center back, will be in Miami for Colombia’s friendly against Brazil on Friday, while Mbolhi will be in goal for Algeria’s friendlies against Ethiopia on Saturday and Mali on Sept. 10.

“There’s always discussions you can not let them go because this is the most important part of our season,” Curtin said. “But at the same time, the ultimate goal for players is to play for their country, so I didn’t think that would be right. People say, ‘Oh, they’re just friendlies.’ But there are no friendlies in soccer. It’s setting them up for their next qualification, the World Cup process, there are new coaches – there are all kinds of different factors that go into it.”

In addition to Valdes and Mbolhi, Michael Lahoud and Zach Pfeffer will also miss the Union’s next two games – a home tilt with Toronto FC on Wednesday (7 pm ET; MLS Live, TSN2 in Canada) followed by a trip to Toronto on Saturday. Lahoud will play a couple of games for Sierra Leone, while Pfeffer has joined the US U-20 national team for a camp in Argentina.

On top of that, Andre Blake and Brian Brown will join Jamaica for a friendly against Canada in Toronto next Tuesday, but they won’t need to miss either Union game.

“We’ll be fine,” Curtin said. “We have depth. That’s why you need to have depth. We’ll juggle some things in the back. Valdes is obviously a great center back for us, but we have guys that can come in and do the job back there.”

Curtin didn’t want to reveal how the lineup might look without Valdes, but the most likely scenario is that Maurice Edu slides back to center back, where he’s played for much of Curtin’s tenure. That would leave Amobi Okugo to possibly play next to Vincent Nogueira in the central midfield behind Cristian Maidana, who’s now “fully ready to go” after a hamstring injury caused him to miss the last five league games.

The one thing Curtin did say for sure is that Zac MacMath would return to net after being benched the last two games, as Blake and then Mbolhi made their respective MLS debuts in his place. Those two games – a 2-0 loss to Houston and a 4-2 win over San Jose – marked the first time that MacMath didn’t start for the Union since early in the 2012 season.

“It will be a playoff-like atmosphere, and Zac will be ready for it,” Curtin said. “He had a very good week in training. He’s been solid through this whole thing and has handled it like a professional. His name is called upon now, and he’ll step up for us.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.

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