After the Philadelphia Union dropped a 2-1 decision in Week 15 against Toronto FC, head coach Jim Curtin took exception to questions about whether his team can hang with the Eastern Conference’s top sides.
The Union are currently in 4th place in the Supporters’ Shield race (and Eastern conference standings), continuing their linear progression with Curtin at the helm. Their only two losses after the MLS is Back Tournament have come against Toronto and Columbus Crew SC, who are tied atop MLS with a league-high 31 points. Yet some questions were raised.
Both games were on the road, which Curtin believes factors into the results. Philadelphia also drew Orlando City SC 1-1 at the summertime tournament in Florida, making them 0W-2L-1D against East teams above them in the standings.
"At the end of the day, when we lose on the road – I’ll emphasize that again, on the road to Columbus, on the road to Toronto – who are the guys that made the difference?" Curtin said in press conference with reporters ahead of a Week 16 match against Cincinnati. "Look, we’re a team that prides itself in taking away the opponent’s best player and all 11 [Union players] can beat any group of superstars. But on certain nights and sometimes those guys get you. And [Alejandro] Pozuelo got us and [Lucas] Zelarayan got us. This happens during the course of seasons.
"It’s up to our guys to correct the mistakes, roll the sleeves up. But this idea that we can’t play with the top teams is nonsense. I will say that," Curtin continued. "We have a good group that is fearless. But it’s a lesson. When all 11 aren’t on the exact same page, these top players can punish you and that’s what happened in both instances. And that was a little bit of a part of that, for sure."
Extratime: Is Philly at the same level as the East's top teams?
The latest edition of Extratime debated the topic. Co-host David Gass explored the issue, noting that Philly aren't that far off.
“They’ve shown that they can go toe-to-toe with everyone in MLS,” Gass said. “They need to win that big game more consistently, but you don’t look at going in and say, ‘Well, here are the fault lines that they can’t fix.’"
Matt Doyle went a step further, highlighting Brenden Aaronson in the No. 10 spot. He drew comparisons to how Toronto can rely on Alejandro Pozuelo, Columbus have Lucas Zelarayan and Seattle can turn to Nicolas Lodeiro as playmakers who can unlock teams.
However, Doyle isn’t so sure that the 19-year-old Homegrown Player, who’s reportedly being transferred to RB Salzburg in Austria this winter, is the same sort of high-end player. Aaronson is also supported by DP midfielder Jamiro Monteiro and former US men's national team standout Alejandro Bedoya.
“If you’re playing as the No. 10, it has to be on you,” Doyle said. “And I’ll say again, I think this team’s better when Monteiro’s actually playing as the No. 10. I don’t see it from Aaronson at that position, but for as long as he’s going to be at the tip of that diamond, it’s going to be his responsibility to win those moments and elevate the team. And while he’s had some really good moments and is a really good young player, I haven’t seen that from him.”
Whatever the verdict is, Philadelphia will have two more chances to prove their quality ahead of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. They host Toronto Oct. 24 and travel to Columbus Nov. 1, the week before Decision Day presented by AT&T.
Curtin awaits those opportunities and confidently reaffirmed his belief in Philadelphia’s roster.
“We’ll have another opportunity against these good teams and, again, we’ll get this thing turned around,” Curtin said after the loss to Toronto. “We have two good home games now. Five out of our last eight, I believe, are at Subaru Park, which puts us in a good spot. I’m happy with the work this team has done with the resources we have and how hard they work each and every day. We ask them to punch above their weight and they do that. I love this group of guys."