The Philadelphia Union know the road to topping Group A at the 2020 MLS is Back Tournament will run through an opponent they’ve struggled with over the past few seasons. It isn’t forcing them to worry at all with this showdown coming at a neutral venue.
Jim Curtin’s side will meet Eastern Conference rivals NYCFC on July 9th in its first match in Orlando, Florida. Both teams are picked as favorites to advance from Group A with a pair of expansion sides (Inter Miami and Nashville SC) and recent strugglers (Chicago Fire and Orlando City) rounding out the six-team group.
It will be the first meeting between the East Coast rivals since an Oct. 6th 2-1 win for NYCFC, but this matchup is very different than before. Both teams will be entering a new environment at Disney World’s Wide World of Sports, four months since their last competitive action.
“NYCFC, for me on paper, are the best team in our conference,” Curtin told reporters on a video conference call on Friday. “They’re very strong in all aspects. We’re breaking down film now, they played really good soccer. I know it’s three or four months ago now, but they have a very good coach, they’re well organized and their talent speaks for themselves.”
“Now we have to begin focusing on them,” Curtin said. “Thursday we played a 75-minute intersquad scrimmage where the intensity was very good. Conditions in Philadelphia were about the same as Orlando with the high temperatures and humidity. A lot of players had good performances.”
NYCFC has owned the rivalry of late with the Union, winning the last four league meetings and outscoring the Union 12-5 over that span. Ronny Deila’s side advanced in the Concacaf Champions League earlier this Spring, but did suffer back-to-back losses in MLS play.
As for the Union, they slumped to an opening day defeat at FC Dallas before rebounding with a 3-3 draw at MLS Cup favorites, LAFC. The club is coming off its first ever playoff victory in 2019, taking a major step in the right direction heading into its 11th competitive year in MLS.
Cory Burke is the only absentee for the Union in Florida as he finishes a loan spell in the Austria Bundesliga, but overall Curtin has plenty of options to choose from for the group opener. It may be in a different scenery, but the Union are ready to go after completing training in Chester and arriving in the MLS bubble.
“They’re a very balanced and dangerous team,” Curtin said. “One thing I’ve noticed, they’re even more aggressive on their counter-pressing with the new coach. Tough opponent and we’ll have our hands full, but our group doesn’t fear anybody and we think we have a good team.”
“The mindset of everyone here has switched, we know it’s for real now. We know we have a competition beginning. We got the good news that all of our players and staff got the green light to start training.”
The Union are one of a handful of teams who had a positive COVID-19 test earlier this year, but since Kacper Przybylko has recovered and expected to play a major role in the tournament. FC Dallas, D.C. United, Colorado Rapids, Atlanta United and Inter Miami round out the clubs who did have positive tests and will have to take precautions with the tournament set to begin in under a week’s time.
Florida has seen a rapid rise in positive cases throughout the summer, putting all 26 MLS clubs at further risk of contracting the virus. The league has put together a strict quarantining plan for players who do test positive, as well as daily testing for every player, coach, and staff member. Curtin admits it’s something new, but feels his team must remain positive together during these hectic times.
“We don’t know what the future holds,” Curtin said. “Everything seems to be changing everyday. We’re going to follow the procedures that the league has put together for us. Nobody really expected 60,000 cases in a day which we saw yesterday. What I do know is when you walk around this bubble, every precaution is being taken.”
“Could we come down here and pick apart every little thing, sure, but it’s going to have negative actions on our play. We’re going to have a strong mentality and try to be together on this. I feel the stronger we are together, the better we can be going forward into this tournament.”
The Union will also face Nashville SC and Inter Miami in group stage play on July 14th and 19th respectively. A win over NYCFC though would put Curtin’s team in good shape heading into a pair of winnable matches, where they would presumably be favorites.